Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Daedala Rerum

In the Roman literary canon, Lucretius stands in a category by himself; a brilliant poet who wrote in the hexameter verse, but instead of devoting himself to tales of gods, heroes and wars, committed the Epicurean theory of physics to poetry. A dry topic? Well, there are certainly parts of the De Rerum Natura that are dry and technical, but much of it is beautiful and deeply moving.

Perhaps I am particularly attracted to Lucretius as a poet because Epicureanism is the strain of ancient philosophy that appeals to me by far the most. Epicurus's teachings, for me, constitute the first halting step on the long road from religious bigotry to enlightened secular humanism. And the best argument for Epicureanism is surely the congeniality of its followers compared with devotees of the other philosophical schools: would you rather have dinner with Horace, Virgil and Lucian, or Cicero, Lucan and Seneca? With the latter three you would probably have a severe headache by the end of the evening; with the former three, at least you would be able to wait until the next morning for it. But I digress.

It is in Book 5 of Lucretius's masterwork that one of the most famous passages appears, the lengthy demolition of the idea that the world was created for mankind's benefit. Not only is this an immeasurably important argument, but Lucretius delivers it with great poetic skill, pathos and humour. Never is this more evident in the section dealing with the travails of a newborn baby, a topic of particular relevance for yours truly in recent months!

The text:

tum porro puer, ut saevis proiectus ab undis
navita, nudus humi iacet infans indigus omni
vitali auxilio, cum primum in luminis oras
nixibus ex alvo matris natura profudit,
vagituque locum lugubri complet, ut aequumst
cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum.
at variae crescunt pecudes armenta feraeque
nec crepitacillis opus est nec cuiquam adhibendast
almae nutricis blanda atque infracta loquela
nec varias quaerunt vestes pro tempore caeli,
denique non armis opus est, non moenibus altis,
qui sua tutentur, quando omnibus omnia large
tellus ipsa parit naturaque daedala rerum.

"And then again, a child, like a sailor tossed about by savage waves, lies naked on the ground, unable to speak, and without all the aid it needs for life, as soon as nature has forced it out onto the shores of light from its mother's womb, with intense pain. And it fills up the place with mournful crying...which is fair enough, since it still has to pass through so many troubles in its life. Yet the various flocks and herds and wild beasts grow up, and they have no need of rattles, nor does the cute and broken cooing of a friendly nurse have to be employed, nor do they look for different clothes to match the season. And, finally, they don't need weapons, nor high walls to look after everything they own, since the earth itself produces everything for all in abundance, along with nature, the inventor of the world."

(Lucretius, De Rerum Natura V, 222-234)

The subtleties:

Lines 222-223: the simile of a sailor (the word "navita" being nicely enjambed here) is in some ways trite, but as an image of pure helplessness at the hands of nature it fits admirably. The learned Michael Gilleland, a fan of asyndetic privative adjectives, quotes this passage as an example, and the coincidence of accent and ictus on "infans indigus" brings home the idea of the baby having no help very forcefully.
224: the lovely expression "luminis oras" not only indirectly continues the simile of the sailor, but creates an interesting image, due to the double meaning of ora: the light of day is like a new and frightening country for the baby.
225: "nixibus" is emphatically placed, and although it is the suffering of the baby that is the focus here, Lucretius does not forget the suffering of the mother. The idea of helplessness which pervades this passage is underscored by the fact that nature, rather than the mother, is represented as the one "making it all happen".
226: the assonance of the "u" sound, so often indicative of gloom, is striking here; the onomatopoeic word "vagitu", in emphatic position, would strike the listener almost as the baby uttering its first sound; nature brings it out, and then...waaaaah!!
227: heavily spondaic, suitable for the subject matter. An interesting sidelight is the repetition of the "tantum...malorum" pattern from probably Lucretius's most famous line of all.
229: "crepitacillis" is typical Lucretius, including a touching everyday detail to make his argument approachable and universal. The absurdist image of wild animals with a baby's rattle provokes a smile. (I might add that my own daughter requires rather more than just a rattle to keep herself amused...)
230: there are several nice details in this line, including the assonance of the "a" sound to imitate the baby-talk used by the nurse, but the well-chosen adjective-noun pair "infracta loquela" is particularly effective. The "talk" - it is not real speech - is "broken up". The implications are obvious.
232: some anaphora (of "non") and asyndeton to hammer home the point that wild animals need none of the protection that human babies do. The juxtaposition of "omnibus omnia" in the following line, with a coincidence of accent and ictus again, reinforces the idea of nature's munificence.
234: a wonderful, untranslatable finish. "daedala", with its implications of a brilliant artificer (the word is derived from, or at least etymologically connected to, the legendary Daedalus), is the adjective applied to "natura", and the sense is twofold: nature is not only a creator, but is clever about it. One of Lucretius's most endearing qualities is his genuine love and admiration for nature, and it is never better exemplified than here.

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