All summer long I’ve had a deadline hanging ovet head—I was supposed to write an essay on a single word for an anthology. (Actually, the deadline has passed, and I’ve received a one-week extension!) I’ve been mulling over it for months. I’ve toyed with different favorite words—“loom,” “consider,” “shambles,” “aftermath” (it is partly the narrative of the etymology that interests me, as well as the sounds of the words themselves and their constellations of rhymes.) I’ve now signed on for “sagacious.” Maybe Ange’s senses' (sensational?) post will spur me to finish this damn thing!

I have spent some years translating Lucretius’ De rerum natura, a didactic poem about Epicurean philosophy in 7,400 lines of dactylic hexameter. Epicureanism is a materialist philosophy, all atoms drifting through the void according to the laws of Nature. The basis of knowledge therefore must also be physical—the senses. Pleasure—not overindulgence (which leads to, say, hangovers—bad), but the freedom to enjoy our physical existence without pain—is the ultimate good; fear of death, the root of all evil. The goal is "ataraxia"--unruffledness.
What is weird about it is that it is a Latin poem—even in the first century BC, prose, not verse, was the proper vehicle for philosophy and science, and Greek the proper language. Epicurus disapproved of poetry anyway, which was suspect for purveying all that nonsense about myths and the gods, and making it pretty to boot.
“Latinate” is a pejorative term among English writers, the suggestion being that Latin words are all multisyllabic abstraction, as opposed to good old concrete Anglo-Saxon lumps of monosyllables. There's something to that of course. But Latin itself is a very physical language—a language of things and deeds (not abstraction or philosophy), whose etymologies are firmly rooted in the Italian soil of agriculture and domestic tasks. (A “rival,” for instance, is someone you are bickering with over river water rights.) A Roman author who wanted to write about philosophy needed to either import terms from Greek or coin his own.
Thus it turns out that paradoxically Latin is ideal for getting across the visceral nature of Epicurean philosophy. Lucretius exploits Latin’s latent metaphors constantly (it is a theory of mine that poets are more—not less—literal-minded than other people); he makes its inherent concreteness into an asset rather than a drawback, and stubbornly avoids Greek terms except to convey that something is absurd, abstract, outlandish, or decadent. His genius is for illustrating difficult concepts with everyday, easily “grasped” examples—whether it be describing atoms moving through the void as dust motes dancing in a sun beam, or explaining how a limited range of atoms can form an infinite variety of structures by comparison with the alphabet’s ability to form all the words in the language. These are examples that have traveled well over the millennia and are accessible even to a schoolchild.
Sapientia, the rough Latin equivalent for philosophy and wisdom, comes from “sapio” (like "insipid")—to have a taste or to perceive a taste(“taste”—that word again!) In the latent metaphor of the word, then, knowledge enters the body through the senses, a key Epicurean concept. Lucretius is constantly urging his readers to follow their “sagacious” wits to the truth, like dogs hunting down quarry through the underbrush. “Sagax” means having a keen sense of smell, having a good nose for something, to be able to track something down. It is related to the English, “seek.”
I was startled when I discovered that our ability to
feel emotions evidently evolved from our sense of smell
. What a thought! And yet, for all that smell and the emotions are so closely intertwined, how poor our language is in words describing smells. We have a wealth of words for sounds, for sight, for taste, but about the only olfactory-specific word I can think of seems to be “acrid.” Why is that, I wonder?
It all reminds me that the opposite of the aesthetic is not the ugly, which indeed impinges upon our senses in its own way, but the anesthetic.
Now off to finish my essay…

Originally Published: October 2nd, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. October 2, 2007

    I read Lucretius in college (in translation of course -- I had two years of Greek, but no Latin, to my everlasting regret!) and remember only "the Lucretian swerve." I look forward to revisiting it when your translation comes out. I thought I liked etymologies, but you really have them at your fingertips, you lucky lady.
    I also got "Women's Work" from the library on your recommendation, and it is just astounding. I'm going to get a taste for archeology. Of course, not everyone writes as well as Barber...

  2. October 2, 2007
     Don Share

    Alicia, I can't wait to see your Lucretius. A few years ago I read the version by the fascinating Mrs. Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681), whose Order and Disorder is possibly the first epic written in the English language by a woman - and wonder if you had a look at hers.
    We've been talking about Bunting on a few of these threads, and intriguingly, Basil Bunting's work is also infused by De rerum natura ~ "Attis: or, Something Missing," "Briggflatts," and "Darling of Gods and Men, beneath the gliding stars" particularly!

  3. October 2, 2007
     Bob Clawson

    I recently checked out "ever." The OED said "origin unknown."

  4. October 3, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Thanks for the comments...
    I confess I am not at all well-versed in Basil Bunting, though clearly from these posts I need to be! I must check out the Lucretius passages! Maybe while I am Stateside I can pick some up some of his work.
    Lucy Hutchinson's translation is remarkable in many ways. Well, for one thing, it is probably the very first translation into English of the whole poem (though it was never published--that is until Hugh de Quehen's edition in 1996); she had no previous translations to guide her, and none of the commentaries or editions we have now. Her Latinity must have been superb. Her translation and interpretation of the poem is remarkably accurate, clear (no mean trick) and lively (into rough-shod pre-Augustan heroic couplets). Her reasons for doing it are interesting to--to understand many things she heard talked of at second hand. Specifically, it was the materialist argument against Providence and Predestination--that Lucretian swerve of Free Will--which were at the heart of her Puritanism. It would be like a Christian fundamentalist today determining to read and maybe do a thesis on the works of Charles Darwin (and also, say, Dawkins), so as fully to understand the argument against Intelligent Design (something Lucretius attacks too, by the way). It was dangerous territory in that sense, for Lucretius is a passionate and persuasive adversary. And of course the poem also contains all kinds of graphic sexual passages too--those she obviously read, but omits translating, as such subjects were "more fitting for a midwife" than a gentlewoman.
    Not only was it not the kind of intellectual endeavour expected of women then, it occurs to me that it is really still pretty rare nowadays. It always seems to be male poets tackling translation of the major epics (Homer, Virgil, Dante--though there at least we have Dorothy Sayers). Why is that? I didn't realize or think about that setting out, but it did occur to me halfway through that there weren't a lot of women in this particular field. It was really nice then to think that the first person to english Lucretius was a woman--it felt like a certain companionship. I love the description she gives (from her dedication) of working on the project:
    "for I turned it into English in a roome where my children practizd the severall quallities they were taught with their Tutors, and I numbred the sillables of my translation by the threads of the canvas I wrought in, and sett them downe with a pen and inke that stood by me."
    I love the fact she is doing this in the same room with her children (imagine the distractions), while engaged in domestic tasks--that really rang a bell with me as a poet/mother/scholar who works at home!