The Criticism of Didactic Poetry: Essays on Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid 9781442673601

Dalzell presents three of the major didactic poems in the classical canon: the De rerum natura of Lucretius, the Georgic

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The Criticism of Didactic Poetry: Essays on Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid

Table of contents :
1. The Criticism of Didactic Poetry
2. The De rerum natura of Lucretius
3. The Philosophical Language of Lucretius
4. The Georgics of Virgil
5. Ovid: The Ars amatoria
Bibliography of Works Cited

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The Criticism of Didactic Poetry: Essays on Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid

Shelley thought all didactic poetry an 'abhorrence/ and most of the Romantics agreed with this judgment. Critics in this century have been less dismissive of the genre, but seem puzzled by it. There has been a tendency to treat a didactic poem as though it were a kind of lyric, in which the focus of interest lies in the emotions and feelings of the writer. But didactic poetry has a purpose, history, and character of its own. This original and important book asks the question, 'What can the practising critic usefully say about a didactic poem?' This is not primarily a book about theory, but a guide to practical criticism combined with a fresh reading of the chosen texts. Through a close analysis of three of the major didactic poems in the classical canon, the De rerum natura of Lucretius, the Georgics of Virgil, and the Ars amatoria of Ovid, Dalzell's aim is to consider these poems as a genre and to ascertain what tools are available to the critic for their understanding. He raises questions about the limits of genre criticism, the relationship of poetry and knowledge, reader-response, and historical reception. Can there be a poetry of statement? Is all genuine poetry necessarily fictive in some sense? To what extent is a serious didactic intent compatible with poetry? The Criticism of Didactic Poetry is primarily of interest to classicists. It will also be of great value to scholars of other literatures who are interested in the history of the genre or in the theoretical debate about whether poetry can encompass knowledge. This book is a significant original contribution to the field, with the potential to influence future scholarly thinking on didactic poetry. ALEXANDER DALZELL is Honorary Fellow and Professor Emeritus of Classics at Trinity College, University of Toronto.


William S. Anderson, Barbarian Play: Plautus' Roman Comedy, 1993 Niall Rudd, The Classical Tradition in Operation, 1994 Alexander Dalzell, The Criticism of Didactic Poetry, 1996 M. Owen Lee, The Olive-Tree Bed and Other Quests, 1997


The Criticism of

Didactic Poetry: Essays on Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid

UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS Toronto Buffalo London University of Toronto Press Incorporated 1996 Toronto Buffalo London Printed in Canada ISBN 0-8020-0822-4

Printed on acid-free paper

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data Dalzell, Alexander The criticism of didactic poetry: Essays on Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid (The Robson classical lectures) Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 0-8020-0822-4 1. Didactic poetry, Latin - History and criticism. 2. Lucretius Carus, Titus. De rerum natura. 3. Virgil. Georgica. 4. Ovid, 43 B.c-17 or 18 A.D. Ars amatoria. I. Title. II. Series PA6055.D34 1997 871'.0109 C96-931556-2

University of Toronto Press acknowledges the financial assistance to its publishing program of the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. This book has been published with the help of a grant from the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada, using funds provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Vxori Dilectissimae

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ix Xi

Introduction 3 1 The Criticism of Didactic Poetry 8 2 The De rerum natuia of Lucretius 35 3 The Philosophical Language of Lucretius 72 4 The Georgics of Virgil 104 5 Ovid: The Ars amatoria 132 NOTES




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This is the third volume of the Robson Classical Lectures to reach publication. The series takes its name from Donald Oakley Robson (1905-76); who graduated in Honours Classics from Victoria College in the University of Toronto in 1928. He went on to earn his MA (1929) and his PhD (1932) from the University of Toronto. After teaching at the University of Western Ontario for seventeen years, he returned to his Alma Mater, and taught Latin there from 1947 until his retirement in 1975. His wife, Rhena Victoria Kendrick (1901-82), also graduated in Honours Classics from Victoria College in 1923, with the Governor General's Gold Medal. They were generous benefactors of their college. In Professor Robson1 s will he made provision that, from time to time, several public lectures should be delivered on a classical theme by a distinguished scholar, and then, after appropriate revision, published. The series as a whole will, we believe, have a wide appeal among those who are interested in ancient Greece and Rome, and in the culture of classical antiquity. We had the good fortune to persuade Alexander Dalzell, Professor Emeritus of Classics at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, to participate in our project. He had been our colleague at Trinity College from 1954 to 1989. In October 1990 he presented three public lectures on didactic poetry. They were greatly appreciated by his audience, which included both specialists and non-specialists; it was clear that they would provide the basis for a sound, scholarly, innova-

x / Foreword

tive book. We now present that book, a distinguished contribution to a distinguished series. Wallace McLeod for the Committee, 1996 MEMBERS OF THE COMMITTEE (1988-96) J.M. Bigwood J.N. Grant, ex officio C.P. Jones, ex officio A.M. Keith W.E. McLeod K.R. Thompson J.S. Traill, Chairman E.I. Robbins, ex officio


I began writing these essays on didactic poetry when I was invited by Victoria College in Toronto to deliver the Robson lectures in October 1990. According to the terms of the lectureship three or four lectures are to be delivered on successive afternoons and this is to be followed by the publication of a volume on the same subject encompassing the lectures and some additional material. Chapters one, two, and four were delivered as the Robson lectures, though they have subsequently been considerably revised and enlarged. Chapters three and five are new material, but they always formed part of my original design. In preparing these essays for publication I have not thought it necessary to disguise their origin as lectures or to smother the personal voice; and although my debt to modern critical theory will be obvious, I have tried, perhaps not always successfully, to avoid the cumbrous jargon which has given to so much contemporary criticism the oracular impressiveness of the opaque. It was perhaps imprudent of me to raise the old question of the classical genres in Victoria College since the college's most distinguished literary critic once warned us that 'Most critical efforts to handle such generic terms as "epic" and "novel" are chiefly interesting as examples of the psychology of rumor' (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism [Princeton 1957] 13). But a Latinist can hardly turn his back on an issue which was of such importance to the ancient writers themselves. I do not think my choice of subject would have displeased Donald Robson, for he

xii / Preface

had a lifelong interest in didactic poetry and particularly in the three poets with whom I am principally concerned. I want to express my gratitude to Victoria College for the invitation to deliver the second series of Robson lectures. In particular I must thank Dr Eva Kushner, the president of the college, and Professor Wallace McLeod for their generous hospitality during the period of the lectureship, which made the occasion particularly pleasant. The Robson lectures commemorate a scholar for whom I had the greatest respect. Dr Robson, who taught Latin at Victoria College for twenty-eight years, was unduly modest and diffident when it came to putting his thoughts on paper, but there was never any doubt about the extent of his scholarship, which he shared generously with his students and with those who cared to seek him out. He was a kindly and hospitable man, intensely loyal to his college and his friends. I am happy to be associated with a lectureship which honours his memory. The subject of these essays has exercised my mind for many years, and over that period I have accumulated more obligations than I can acknowledge here. Not much has been written about the particular theoretical problems of didactic poetry, but there is of course much that is relevant in the vast bibliography on critical theory in general and on the three writers with whom I deal here; only a part of my obligation to this scholarly literature is acknowledged in my bibliography, which is necessarily selective. I have also benefited greatly from discussions with students, colleagues, and friends, who have helped to clarify my ideas on many points. Parts or all of the manuscript were read by Desmond Conacher, Charles Fantazzi, and John Fitch, and I am most grateful to them for their encouragement and criticism. The anonymous readers for the Canadian Federation for the Humanities also made helpful comments. I must record my thanks to the members of the Editorial Department of the University of Toronto Press, in particular to Joan Bulger, and to my copy editor, Margaret Allen. My greatest debt, however, is to my wife, Ann, to whom this small volume is dedicated in affection and gratitude. Douglas Harbour, N.B., 1994

The Criticism of Didactic Poetry: Essays on Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid

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In the declining years of the Roman Republic and in the early years of the Empire, Latin literature produced a small number of didactic poems of considerable merit. This was a remarkable achievement, for didactic poetry is not a genre which can count among its members a large number of successes. Shelley thought all didactic poetry an 'abhorrence/1 and many critics, from Aristotle on, have questioned the poetic validity of the genre. But the Roman achievement makes it unwise to take such a dismissive attitude. This is a kind of poetry which raises difficult problems for the critic. Perhaps for that reason not much has been written about it, although there is now a growing number of excellent studies of individual poems. My interest is to look at these poems as a genre and to inquire what tools are available to the critic for their understanding. It is true that works like the De rerum natura of Lucretius and the Georgics of Virgil are very different in character,nevertheless they exhibit a sufficient number of features in common to make it reasonable to consider them as members of a class. Not everyone would agree that such an approach is likely to be fruitful. Ever since Croce's attack on the utility of classification in literature2 generic criticism has been treated with a certain reserve. Those critics who followed Croce insisted that every poem, and every work of art in general, is a unique creation; to classify a poem is to risk blinding oneself to its essential uniqueness. No great artist, it is argued, obeys all the laws,- hence the more attention one pays to genre, the greater the danger of missing what is most individual, and perhaps most valuable, in a work of art.

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Postmodern criticism has, if anything, been even more sceptical about the value of genres; rational systems of classification are not easily accommodated to the doctrine of the indeterminacy of the text.3 Moreover, the complexity of modern literature and the proliferation of genres complicate the issue. Many modern works seem designed to shatter the very idea of genre, and the relatively simple distinctions of antiquity seem no longer helpful, or even relevant. Classification always seems to imply some sense of a rational order, and it is just this sense of order which is increasingly called into question. The point is illustrated by Jorge Luis Borges's famous parody of taxonomy: 'Animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as though they were mad, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken a flower vase, (n) that from a long way off look like flies/4 Michel Foucault was moved to laughter when he read this passage; more importantly, he was moved to write Les mots et les choses. Borges's parody has come to be regarded as an exemplary postmodern text. Such attacks, coming from different fronts, have left genre theory in a shambles. But this is a case where theory and practice are out of step; for practising critics are reluctant to discard an approach which has proved so useful in the past. Classical scholars in particular maintain their traditional interest in generic affiliations and continue to produce useful studies on the intertextual relationships of Greek and Latin works. Faced with a challenging text, the critic feels the need for some intermediary between the general category of literature (itself a genre) and the individual work. Those who insist on the uniqueness of every piece of literature tend to dismiss the whole idea of genre and to make each work, in Schlegel's phrase, 'a genre by itself ('cine Gattung fur sich').5 But this is to deny one of the most obvious features of literature, that works have affinities with other works. All ancient writers operated within a tradition, a tradition which they recognized themselves and to which they commonly drew attention. The opening lines of Virgil's Aeneid, of the Monobib-

Introduction / 5

los of Propertius, of Tacitus' Geimania, to take just three examples, contain coded references to other writers and other works which are intended in part to define the tradition.6 If books are written out of other books, then the intertextual relationship has to be a central concern of the critic and genre will be a part of that concern. It was a universally accepted principle of ancient criticism that works are to be judged in the class to which they belong.7 The value of generic studies is that they help to focus on the relationship of works to one another. As Frye has put it, The purpose of criticism by genres is not so much to classify as to clarify such traditions and affinities, thereby bringing out a large number of literary relationships that would not be noticed as long as there were no context established for them/8 What brought generic criticism into disrepute was the view that there are fixed laws for each genre and that individual works, to be successful, must be written in conformity with these laws. The whole concept of a law of genre' was anathema to the Romantics,9 and it would be hard to find anyone to defend the idea today. Derrida's influential essay of 1980 was a final blow.10 The loss need hardly trouble classicists, since as Professor Russell has pointed out, this is a doctrine more characteristic of the Renaissance than of classical antiquity.11 The notion that Greek and Roman critics established a body of rules for composition within which the writer was obliged to work is, to say the least, exaggerated. It is true that Roman poets often speak as though there were laws of composition which could not be breached.12 Juvenal writes of the law of genres' (lex operum: 7.102) and Horace of a legitimum ... poema (Epist. 2.2.109), that is, 'a poem written in conformity with the rules.' Quintilian, warning the orator against imitating poets and historians, says that 'for each genre is set forth its own laws' (Inst. 10.2.22). But theory had not hardened into dogma, and Roman writers seem in practice to have felt free to develop the tradition as best suited their purpose. The nearest the ancients came to creating an elaborate prescription for literary art was in rhetoric; and anyone who has ever examined an ancient speech will know how widely practice differed from theory.

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It is the fact that genres change through time that makes it impossible to hold a prescriptive or static theory of genre. There can be no fixed laws of genre, since every new work alters the canon and, in doing so, rewrites the rules. Tn art/ wrote Tzvetan Todorov, 'we are dealing with a language of which every utterance is agrammatical at the moment of its performance.'13 Genres are historical phenomena and are therefore subject to the changing forces of history. It is not possible to define once and for all the true nature of elegy or epic or any other genre; there can be, so to speak, no Platonic idea of a genre, for that would require stability and permanence. But although it is impossible to give a definitive description of a genre, this does not mean that the concept is useless. For at any given moment in history each literary form carries within it certain expectations to which both the writer and the reader must respond. Viewed historically, genre is fluid and impermanent; but the tradition within which any new work is produced is always, at least in theory, established and definable. If genres are to be seen as historical, then there can be no predetermined limit to the number of genres which may exist. The variety of literature itself is the only limiting factor. Nor should we speak of 'natural genres': all are subject to the same empirical laws. The famous triad of epic, tragedy, and lyric owes its traditional pre-eminence, as Genette has shown, to a confusion.14 Genres divide into subgenres,- and others are mixed (the pastoral novel, didactic elegy, and so on). The differentiae of genre need not be exclusively literary; moral, social, and historical considerations may also be significant.15 The function of genre, in this view, is not to establish a theory of literature but to provide the critic with a strategy for dealing with texts. Whether or not a generic distinction is worth pursuing will depend on its capacity to illuminate the works which constitute the class. Such a view of genre criticism abandons the larger claims made for it in Renaissance and neoclassical theory. Its value is primarily heuristic, to establish a context for individual works. Genres are defined by the empirical evidence of related texts. But this is not to say that generic description will simply take the

Introduction / 7

form of a codification of practice. It will often be possible to give an account of a genre at a more abstract level. The form of discourse to which the genre is related must influence what is possible within that genre. Didactic poetry, for example, implies a certain relationship between author and reader, a relationship of teacher and pupil, and the logic of that situation is important in moulding the form. Literary texts do not develop apart from other non-literary forms of discourse. The didactic poet shares with the teacher and the preacher a particular kind of communication,- and what is significant about that relationship is that it is always directed towards an audience. In didactic poetry, of course, the relationship is generally complex and sometimes ambivalent. It seems important, therefore, perhaps more important here than in dealing with any other kind of poetry, for the critic to elucidate the implied relationship between text and reader. I shall have more to say about this later. The essays which follow can be read independently, but they are united by a common awareness of generic affiliations and by a common approach. In the first essay I attempt to summarize what was thought about didactic poetry in antiquity. The second, fourth, and fifth essays deal with three poets who differ considerably from one another in their didacticism. The third essay is more technical, being concerned with the development of a philosophical vocabulary in Latin. Although I am aware of the theoretical problems which this kind of poetry raises, this is not a book about theory. My interest is in practical criticism, in pointing the way towards an understanding of a class of poems which has been comparatively neglected.


The Criticism of Didactic Poetry

Let me begin by defining terms. There is a sense in which every work of literature is didactic. Shaw once claimed that 'all art at the fountainhead is didactic, and that nothing can produce art except the necessity of being didactic/1 Much ancient poetry, like much modern poetry, can properly be called didactic. Pindar, Sophocles, and Horace, Eliot, Auden, and Pound are all in some sense didactic poets. 'I have always believed/ wrote Auden, 'that, among the many functions of the poet, preaching is one/2 Even the Romantics, for whom the word 'didactic7 was often a term of abuse, hoped, as Keats did, to do 'the world some good/3 Wordsworth said of his own poems that their destiny was 'to console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier, to teach the young and gracious of every age to see, to think and feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous/4 Most ancient poets, from Hesiod on, saw literature in this way, and literary theory in antiquity (with some few exceptions) supported the concept of the poet as teacher and moralist. But although this general view of the teaching role of the poet is relevant to my theme, I am concerned with poetry which is didactic in a narrower sense of the term. All of the poems which I propose to consider have this in common, that they provide, or claim to provide, a systematic account of a subject. Todorov suggested that for each type of literary discourse there is a corresponding non-literary relative which resembles it.5 This is true in the most literal sense for the didactic poems with which I am concerned; for almost all of them depend on a prose

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treatise which covered the same ground and served as model for the poet. Only the earlier writers, Hesiod and the Presocratics, had no prose models. Aratus, Nicander, Lucretius, and Virgil all had prose sources which they followed with varying degrees of fidelity. The number, availability, and authority of these sources prove that the normal way of dealing with such subjects was through the medium of prose. To choose poetry was to make a deliberate choice. Pope wrote in the foreword to the Essay on Man: This I might have done in prose; but I chose verse, and even rhyme/6 But the choice can never have been so even-handed as Pope's remarks might suggest; for to choose verse over prose was to alter the whole character of the enterprise. A didactic poem is didactic in a very special way. The very notion of didactic poetry has seemed to some a contradiction in terms. 'Anything/ said Eliot, 'that can be said as well in prose can be said better in prose.'7 Critics like Croce denied that a work could be didactic and poetic at the same time, since the gap between the logical and the poetical cannot be bridged.8 But it was not just Croce and the Romantics who wished to exclude didactic poetry (in the limited sense in which I have defined it) from the canon of literature. The debate has a long history. Aristotle's denial of literary status to Empedocles is, so far as our evidence goes, the first direct reference to didactic poetry as a genre; but it is becoming clear that Aristotle's remarks were part of a much wider and more ancient discussion of the didactic function of literature in general. It may seem surprising that a Greek philosopher should have been the first to challenge the literary status of a philosophical poem, for it was a widely held view in antiquity that the poets were the educators of mankind.9 This doctrine is given dramatic expression in the Frogs of Aristophanes (1055), but it is already present in the Presocratics and is implied by the didactic tone of much earlier writing. The educational system, in which young children began with the study of the poets, underlined this belief in the moral and educative value of literature. Poets were thought to have access to divine inspiration and therefore to possess knowledge beyond that of ordinary men; and although this religious belief in inspiration gradually weakened and was replaced by the more

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secular view that inspiration came from within and not from without - from a man's ingenium, or native talent, rather than from the gods - the notion of the poet's special authority never entirely disappeared. Such a view of the teaching role of the poets not only legitimizes didactic poetry, but makes all poetry didactic. Knowledge and literature are linked indissolubly. 'Knowing/ said Horace, 'is the origin and fountain-head of all good writing' (Ars poetica 309). Such claims for the moral authority of literature may not strike the modern reader as unusual. They have been made by other writers and at other times. But the ancient belief in the knowledge possessed by poets went further; it extended into the area of the practical and the ordinary. Protagoras, in the Platonic dialogue which bears his name (316D), is made to claim that Homer and Hesiod were sophists in disguise. Poets were credited, not just with a general acquaintance with men and morals, but with specialized knowledge on all sorts of subjects. Plato tells us that Homer's admirers regarded him as an authority on all technical matters as well as on morals and religion.10 The opening chapters of Strabo's Geography argue with great force and conviction that Homer was an expert geographer who gave us detailed and accurate information about the Mediterranean world. The rhapsode in Plato's Ion (541) claims to be the best of generals because he has the greatest familiarity with Homer. According to Aristophanes (Frogs 1031-6), one can learn about agriculture from Hesiod, about medicine from Musaeus, and about the arts of war from the epic. One might even appeal to the poets on matters of etiquette. It is from Homer that we learn, according to Xenophon, that the best relish to serve with wine is an onion (Symp. 4.6-7). Such ideas persisted for a long time. This was not simply a primitive view of the role of the poet in society, reflecting a time before the invention of prose when verse preserved the accumulated wisdom of mankind. Even in the age of Cicero, the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus still found it necessary to argue that a poet does not have to be omniscient: 'It is to place too heavy a burden upon the accomplished poet to demand that he concern himself with all customs and be familiar with natural science ... Anyone who asserts that poets should know all about

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geometry and geography and astrology and law and seamanship is dreaming. For if geometry is necessary, should the poet not know everything else apart from the handicrafts?'11 Poets, then, were not just the unacknowledged legislators of the world: they were also authorities on all sorts of practical and technical matters, and their evidence could be cited to settle a dispute on ordinary matters of fact. To these two kinds of knowledge which the poets were thought to possess corresponded two types of didactic poetry. One was philosophic or moral, like the Peri physeos of Empedocles, and the other dealt with a technical subject, a techne, like agriculture in the Worses and Days of Hesiod. Both kinds could rest their claims to legitimacy on the acknowledged teaching role of the poet. The distinction is not, of course, absolute. There is much moralizing in Hesiod as well as advice on farming. But there is a distinction none the less, a distinction between two types of didactic poetry which interpret the poet's role differently and demand a different response. A poem on a technical subject implies that you want to go out and do something: plough a field, or cast a horoscope, or cure snake bites. A philosophical poem argues a case and has, therefore, a good deal in common with other kinds of reflective verse. So long as the educative role of poetry was accepted, there could be no problem about the legitimacy of didactic poetry. But this role was challenged almost from the beginning. The earliest criticism seems to have focused on the moral effects of literature. Xenophanes attacked Homer and Hesiod for having 'attributed to the gods that which is a shame and a reproach among men: theft, adultery, and mutual deception.'12 But the most damaging indictment was that poets could not be depended upon to tell the truth. The charge that poets tell lies was not the invention of Plato. 'Many falsehoods the poets tell,' wrote Solon,13 and the same sentiment is to be found in Pindar [OL 1.28ff; Nem. 7.20ff), though he insists strongly on his own veracity (OL 13.52; Nem. 1.18). In the great hymn to the Muses which opens the Theogony, Hesiod makes the Muses say, 'We know how to tell many lies which are like the truth; but we also know, when we wish, how to speak the truth.' Some older commentators thought

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Hesiod was making a polemical point about the falsehoods of epic and contrasting the unreliability of Homeric epic with the truth of his own didactic poetry. But at this point in the development of hexameter verse it is doubtful if such a generic distinction would have been understood. Moreover, as West has pointed out, 'no Greek ever regarded the Homeric epics as substantially fiction.'14 Whatever Hesiod meant, his remarks cast a shadow of doubt over the general claim that all literature possessed didactic and educative value. It seems that, from the earliest times, two views about the truth of poetry existed side by side. According to one, the commoner view, poets possessed special knowledge and were the educators of mankind; the other questioned this assumption and denied the truth of poetry, or argued, as an anonymous fifth-century sophist put it, that 'poets compose for pleasure, not for truth.'15 In the Hellenistic period the theory that poetry aims at pleasure, not truth, was elevated to the status of a critical principle. It was the view held by Callimachus and Eratosthenes, and although it never became the new orthodoxy, it had important consequences both for the way poetry was written and for the way in which its function was conceived. THIS LONG DEBATE ON TRUTH AND POETRY was bound to raise

questions about the status of didactic poetry. In the opening chapter of the Poetics Aristotle made an attempt, I think the first in the history of criticism, to define the nature of literature. He denied that treatises on medicine and natural philosophy written in verse could be poetry. Metre alone, he argued, is not a sufficient condition for poetry. Homer and Empedocles both use the same metre, but that is all they have in common. The title 'poet' should be reserved for writers like Homer. It ought not to be given to Empedocles, who should rather be classed as a natural philosopher, not as a poet. Such a view of literature, so narrow and unaccommodating, has been described as 'eccentric.'16 When we reflect that Aristotle was writing within a tradition which had produced not only Empedocles and Parmenides, but also Hesiod, his understanding of what constitutes literature seems on the face of it surprisingly restrictive.

The Criticism of Didactic Poetry / 13

Why did Aristotle wish to exclude Empedocles from the canon of poetry? It can hardly be that didactic poetry had ceased to be of much account in his day, since Hesiod was recognized as one of the classics of Greek literature and Aristotle cites him frequently. Nor did he believe that a didactic message had no place in poetry. His famous claim that poetry is more philosophical than history seems to entail the acceptance of some moral and didactic role for literature.17 Moreover, we know that Aristotle admired Empedocles as a writer and cited him more frequently than any other Greek poet except Homer.18 It is true that most of the references are to Empedocles as philosopher, but there is enough evidence to show that his merits as a poet were also recognized and understood. So it is strange to find Aristotle saying in the Poetics that Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common except their metre. We know that in one of Aristotle's early works, now lost, he had described Empedocles as 'Homeric' and praised him for his diction and the employment of various poetic devices, including metaphor.19 There is a further reference to his use of metaphor in the Poetics (1457b), and the surviving fragments of Empedocles' work fully bear out this judgment of his gifts as an imagistic poet. Since Aristotle believed that facility in metaphor is the most important quality in a poet, something, in fact, which cannot be learned, it is clear that Empedocles' exclusion in the Poetics is not a judgment on his style or, in a general sense, on his literary merits. Aristotle's rejection of didactic poetry is the logical consequence of his belief that all true art is 'mimetic.' The term 'mimesis' is never defined by Aristotle and there is no satisfactory English equivalent, but in the Poetics it always implies some notion of 'representation.'20 The world which the poet 'represents,' however, is not that which is recorded by the historian or analysed by the philosopher. It is enough if the poet represents things as they 'seem' or as they 'ought to be.' 'Correctness in poetry,' says Aristotle, 'is not identical with correctness in politics or any other art' (1460b). The poet cannot be tied down to the same standards of representational precision as, for example, the scientist. Mimetic works are, therefore, essentially

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fictional. It is not the poet's business to make affirmative statements, but to represent the world of human action. By these criteria didactic poetry obviously fails to meet the test. In fact, Aristotle's definition of poetry excluded a great deal of what was important in Greek literature. Not only is didactic poetry ruled out, but it is difficult to see how, in such a scheme, we could find a place for elegiac and iambic poetry and non-dramatic forms of lyric. Aristotle's refusal to accept didactic poetry can be understood only if we appreciate what he was trying to do. It is clear that the Poetics is not an isolated work, but is part of a continuing inquiry into the nature and value of poetry. Aristotle's critical position is coloured by the debate about poetic truth and in particular by Plato's rejection of any didactic role for poetry. For Aristotle, as for Plato, only philosophy could guarantee true knowledge, and Aristotle is as scornful as Plato of those who claimed that poets possessed all knowledge. But he wished to salvage something from Plato's broad and general attack. The value of poetry, he held, lay in its power to represent men in action; it was only in this sphere that the poet could claim to have knowledge. Aristotle is particularly suspicious of the first-person voice in poetry. The poet is not an expert and cannot take on the role of philosopher or instructor, but by presenting the world as it is, he can teach us something about human affairs, either as they are or as they ought to be. Homer is praised for understanding the proper function of the poet - to show men in action and to say as little as possible in his own voice (1460a). Such a view ruled out any place for didactic poetry. If Empedocles chose to write philosophy in verse, however impressive his skill as a writer may have been, he must be judged by other criteria. The severity of Aristotle's judgment has often been remarked on. I am inclined to the view that the philosopher may not have intended, and was not perceived to have intended, a frontal attack on all forms of didactic poetry. If one of the principal aims of the Poetics was to show that the fictions of poetry were not simply lies, then the greatest emphasis had to be on mimetic texts. In the opening chapter of the treatise, Aristotle was working towards a definition of imaginative literature, for it was

The Criticism of Didactic Poetry / 15

this sort of writing which was most vulnerable to the charge of falseness. If the object was to show in what sense such works could be said to possess cognitive value, then the argument would have to take a very different form from that which was appropriate to a didactic or philosophic poem; to treat the two types of writing under the same heading would simply lead to confusion. Whether or not the Peri physeos of Empedocles is 'true' is a question for philosophers, not for literary critics. Better, then, as Aristotle said, to consider Empedocles in the class of natural philosophers. Of course Aristotle had his own quarrel with Empedocles, both with his manner and his matter, but that was an issue between philosophers. The distinction which is being made in the first chapter of the Poetics is not so much between the literary and the non-literary as between referential and non-referential forms of discourse. Aristotle's brief remarks about Empedocles raise the question: Can there be a poetry of statement, or is all genuine poetry necessarily in some sense fictive? Mimetic theories of literature have always tended to devalue didactic poetry or to reject it altogether. The poet,' wrote Sidney, '... nothing affirms and therefore never lieth.'21 In Sidney's view the poet does not make true or false statements, but proceeds by examples, by 'feigning notable images' and presenting the reader with persuasive illustrations of virtuous or evil conduct. But a didactic poem necessarily deals in the language of affirmation. Logicians have made a distinction between ordinary statements which may be judged true or false and the statements of literature which are fictions and to which, as a consequence, judgments about their truth or falsehood do not apply. 'In hearing an epic poem,' wrote Frege, 'apart from the euphony of the language we are interested only in the sense of the sentences and the images and feelings thereby aroused. The question of truth would cause us to abandon aesthetic delight for an attitude of scientific investigation. Hence it is a matter of no concern to us whether the name "Odysseus," for instance, has reference, so long as we accept the poem as a work of art.'22 The same point is made epigrammatically in a popular encyclopedia of language: To question a literary text on its "truth" is not appropriate: it amounts to reading the text as

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a non-literary work.'23 But didactic poetry of a certain kind invites just such a questioning. It is difficult to see, for example, how the De rerum natura could be read without constantly asking about the truth of the statements which it contains; and if we should prefer to put such questions aside, Lucretius will obtrude them on our attention by constantly insisting on the truth of the message. Richard Ohmann's attempt to harness speech-act theory to the definition of literature raises some of the same questions.24 His proposition that a literary work is a discourse whose illocutionary force is mimetic amounts to saying that all literature, properly defined, is fictional. For Ohmann, as for Sidney, the poet 'nothing affirms/ But then he adds: This is not to say that works of literature in no way imply the truth of certain propositions: I think it plain, on the contrary, that literature does have cognitive content. But it does not carry that content as an argument does, sentence by sentence, and in fact does not assert its content at all.' I do not see what this last sentence can mean. It seems to imply that if a writer asserts a proposition as a truth, that statement has to be read as in some sense mimetic of a situation and not as an assertion of a truth. Ohmann is forced into the absurd position of holding that when Elizabeth Barrett Browning sent Robert the sonnet 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,' her poem could not be classed as literature because it was 'a standard speech act with the illocutionary force of a declaration of love.' Likewise Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is not literature because it is an account of real events. This radical separation of poetry from truth is one of the legacies of romanticism. It is true that the Romantics were willing to accord the poet some sort of teaching role, but it was a seriously diminished role. The poet's world was that of the imagination, or of reflection, or emotion, not that of systematic thought. To argue a case was to abandon the realm of poetry for that of philosophy or science. Poetry can teach, said De Quincey, but 'only as nature teaches, as forests teach, as the sea teaches, as infancy teaches, namely, by deep impulse, by hieroglyphic suggestion. Their teaching is not direct or explicit, but lurking, implicit, masked in deep incarnations. To teach formally and

The Criticism of Didactic Poetry / 17

professedly, is to abandon the very differential character and principle of poetry ... To address the insulated understanding is to lay aside the Prospero's robe of poetry.'25 It is not difficult to guess what De Quincey's principal target is: he is taking aim at the sort of didactic poetry which was popular in the previous century and which owed its form and shape to classical models. This redefinition of the poet's role by Romantic critics was a defensive move. The rationalism of the Enlightenment and the growing successes of an objectivist science had made the truth claims of poetry seem harder to defend. If science - objective, cold, and rational - was the best means we possessed for understanding the world, then the role of the poet had to be defined in other terms. There were various possibilities: poetry could be relegated to the world of imagination, or emotion, or made its own justification in a doctrine of 'art for art's sake,' or (more ambitiously) given access to a realm of transcendental values which never seemed to intersect with the world of science. None of these positions left much room for didactic poetry. John Fitch has argued most persuasively that this alienation of poetry from systematic knowledge was the result of an objectivist epistemology which is today everywhere under attack.26 Now the old certainties of science no longer look so certain, and the 'objective' world which science was once believed to describe has become a more complex place. If the point of view chosen by the observer alters and redefines the object, then the observations of science are not so radically different from those of the poet. In Fitch's view the death of objectivism leaves the way open for the reuniting of poetry and science. It seems that the exclusion of didactic poetry from the canon of literature has lost whatever theoretical underpinnings it may have had. But if we reject the Romantics' separation of poetry and knowledge, Aristotle's question about the nature of literature still remains. What is it that makes a work 'literary' and marks it off from, say, a scientific article or a newspaper report? The various attempts which have been made since Aristotle to erect a fence around literature have rarely been very persuasive. Whether we define literature as a special kind of discourse, or as the result of an aesthetic intention, or with reference to its fictionality or

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relation to myth, it is always possible to think of examples which one wants to include, but which seem to fall outside the definition. The ontology of literature is too complex and tangled a matter to be treated adequately in a short essay. So let me simply state my belief that the quest is ultimately futile, that while there are some characteristics shared by certain works which we think of as literary and other characteristics which belong to others, there is no set of characteristics which necessarily belongs to all.27 In practice I have always found it more helpful to think of literature more as a special way of reading than as a special way of writing. Literary works represent a form of discourse 'around which/ as Stanley Fish has expressed it, 'we have drawn a frame, a frame that indicates a decision to regard with a particular self-consciousness the resources language has always possessed/28 The work itself may signal the necessity of approaching it in this way - by, for example, information given on the title-page, or by the use of formal devices like metre. But no set of such devices can of themselves constitute a satisfactory description of literature. What does it mean to read a work as literature? One thing which it means is that we pay special attention to what it says and to the language in which it is said. 'The first apple was the best apple' is a statement which might be made by a cook talking to her assistant or by a gardener examining his crop. But when we read these words in Louis MacNeice's poem, we think of first fruits and first love and the Garden of Eden.29 Didactic poetry of the sort which Lucretius wrote, with its emphasis on clarity, may not have the same rich ambiguities and the same resonance, but here too the reader is invited to consider not just the message and the brilliant language of its exposition, but what lies behind the message, the human values and the vision which the poem embodies. The message is part of the claim which the poet makes upon us. Whether the poet insists on the truth of what he says or on its fictional status is a difference of genre, not a criterion of literariness. IT HAS BEEN CLAIMED THAT ALL subsequent discussion of literary theory is a series of footnotes to Aristotle. But whatever the

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philosopher's influence may have been on theory, it cannot be said that his attitude to didactic poetry had much effect in practice. Didactic poems continued to be written without any apparent recognition that this might be an illegitimate enterprise. In fact, shortly after Aristotle's death there was a resurgence of interest in the genre among Alexandrian writers which was to exercise a significant influence on Roman poets of a later age. The title of 'poet' was never in practice denied to Hesiod or Lucretius, or to the Virgil of the Georgics-, and even the lesser practitioners of the genre such as Nicander and Aratus were commonly referred to as poets. Cicero praised Aratus for his poetic gifts and described Empedocles' work as an 'excellent poem' (Acad. pi. 2.74; De or. 1.217). Dionysius of Halicarnassus cited Empedocles as an example of the severe type of epic style (Comp. 22); and Quintilian included him along with Varro and Lucretius among poets who dealt with philosophy in verse (Inst. 1.4.4). The evidence is clear. The didactic poets were accepted into the canon of poetry and their works admired, translated, and imitated. One might imagine that the renewed interest in didactic poetry in the Hellenistic age would have been accompanied by a serious investigation of the status and character of the genre. But although the loss of much Hellenistic and later criticism makes it imprudent to generalize, we can be fairly certain that this was not the case. From time to time one hears faint echoes of Aristotle as, for example, in the moral writings of Plutarch, though the strictures against didactic poetry seem to be made with diminishing conviction.30 Centuries after Aristotle's death Lactantius was still pondering the question whether Empedocles was a poet or a philosopher,31 though by his time the issue must have taken on a distinctly academic character, since it is not very likely that he had ever handled a text of the writer in question. For the most part Aristotle's judgment seems to have been ignored rather than refuted, and it was not until the Renaissance that the debate was seriously joined again. Theory was slow to catch up with practice. It is suggestive that we can find no word in any Latin author before Servius to refer specifically either to a didactic poem or to the didactic genre. In the introduction to his commentary on the Georgics, Servius uses the Greek word

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didascalice, which is also found in the fourth-century grammarian Diomedes.32 It is interesting that, although the word is obviously of Greek origin, the Greek dictionaries do not cite any instance of its use to denote the didactic genre. This is not by itself decisive: critics from Aristotle to Northrop Frye have complained about gaps in our critical vocabulary, and this has not prevented them from dealing with issues which have no name. In this case, however, the omission must be significant. Didactic poetry was not generally listed by the critics as a separate genre. On stylistic grounds it was joined with epic and treated as a subset of hexameter verse. It was not included as a separate item among the five genres listed by Cicero or among the half-dozen mentioned in Horace's Ars poetica.33 Presumably didactic poets were placed in the general class of writers of epic or hexameter verse, as they were by Quintilian, who, in his survey of Greek and Latin authors, listed the didactic poets alongside writers of epic and pastoral. Exceptions to this rule are not numerous. One of the few surviving theoretical works to assign a place to didactic poetry is the so-called Tractatus Coislinianus, which takes its name from the Paris manuscript in which it is contained.34 This is a brief compilation, written in Greek, which is thought to reflect the views of Aristotle on comedy, but which begins with a classification of the genres that is difficult to square with Aristotle. Poetry is divided into two classes, the mimetic and the non-mimetic. The latter is subdivided into two, historical and educational writings; and educational writings are further subdivided into the instructive and the theoretical, both of which terms must surely refer to types of didactic poetry.35 Diomedes the grammarian also recognized the existence of didactic poems. Plato had identified three modes of writing, according to whether the poet speaks in his own voice, or speaks through his characters, or combines both of these strategies (Resp. 392D). For Plato the classic example of a poet speaking in his own voice is the dithyramb. It is perhaps significant of a change in the status of didactic poetry that, when the same classification is made by Diomedes, the dithyramb is no longer chosen as an example of the poet's voice, and Empedocles and Lucretius are cited instead.36

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It is interesting to observe how didactic poetry fares in one of the most elaborate classifications of literature which have come down to us from antiquity. The grammarian Proems, whose ideas are preserved in Photius' Bibliotheca,37 begins with the usual division of literature into mimetic and narrative. Narrative is then divided on metrical grounds into epic, iambic, elegiac, and lyric, and lyric is subdivided into almost thirty genres, arranged in four classes: poems addressed to gods, those addressed to men, those addressed to both, and poems related to circumstances. Under this latter category, which contains some strange entries, Proclus places gnomic and georgic verse. This looks like a rather desperate effort to find a space for didactic poetry, but 'gnomic' and 'georgic' are hardly sufficient to cover the field. Moreover, earlier in the discussion, Proclus had placed Hesiod under the heading of epic. None of these disappointing essays in literary classification suggests that much thought was given to the criticism of didactic poetry. We have no evidence of any serious attempt to define the genre or give a description of its characteristic features. For that we must turn to the poets themselves. HOW, THEN, DID THE POETS WHO wrote didactic poems think of their work? It does not follow that, because theory was so slow to define the status of didactic poetry, poets did not recognize that they were working in a genre which had a tradition of its own. There were literary codes which marked the distinctness of the genre. The most obvious of these was to appeal to the authority of Hesiod, the protos heuretes of the genre. Aratus is praised by Callimachus for following the theme and manner of Hesiod (Epigr. 29.1). Virgil describes the Georgics as 'Ascraean song' (2.176) and his words are later echoed by Columella (10.436). Nicander appeals to the testimony of 'Ascraean Hesiod' near the beginning of his poem on poisonous snakes. It was a common practice among Latin poets to indicate their literary affiliations at the beginning of their work with a graceful nod to their predecessors.38 Manilius opened the Astronomica with a translation of the first line of Hesiod's Theogony. These references suggest an apostolic succession of didactic poets who are aware of their common generic links and who see themselves as

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carrying on a tradition which goes back to Hesiod. It would not be true, therefore, to say that classical literature did not acknowledge the existence of didactic poetry as a separate genre. Hesiod was not just the father of didactic poetry; the power of his personality, the extent of his learning, and his concern with the role and status of the poet gave to his work a special authority. It is significant that Aristotle, in his refusal to class Empedocles as a poet, passed over Hesiod without a mention, though it would have taken some special pleading to show that the Theogony and the Works and Days were concerned with the mimesis of men in action. But Hesiod was a case apart. Plutarch, who followed Aristotle in excluding Empedocles and with him Parmenides, Nicander, and Aratus, wrote a four-volume commentary on Hesiod and clearly seems to have assigned him a place in the literary firmament close to Homer.39 The strongly moralistic and religious elements in Hesiod probably saved him from the sort of criticism which was directed against more systematic and scientific writers. Later didactic was in fact very different from Hesiod. It is hard to see what Callimachus meant by saying that Aratus followed the 'song and manner of Hesiod.' The two poets differ both in the structure of their work and in their manner of writing. But, as Alister Cox has pointed out, it was certain incidental features of Hesiod's work which were to mould the tradition of didactic poetry; the association with epic language, the sense of 'missionary urgency/ and the informality of structure.40 Most didactic poets could claim some sense of kinship with this idiosyncratic writer. One of the features of didactic poetry which owed its origin to Hesiod was the use of the excursus or digression. I shall use the term 'digression/ though it is hardly apt, since it suggests something which is grafted on to the work without really belonging to it; but the best writers were able to integrate these set pieces into the general economy of their poems. The function of these digressions was obviously to vary the tone and give the poet an opportunity to escape for a moment the logic of his didactic exposition. What is interesting here is not just that the poets respected the convention, but that to a considerable extent they adopted the same themes even when the subject of their poems

The Criticism of Didactic Poetry / 23

was totally different. Hesiod, Virgil, and Aratus all use the theme of theodicy; the birth of civilization is treated by Hesiod in both the Theogony and the Works and Days, as well as by Lucretius and Manilius; and plagues are described in Lucretius, Virgil, and Manilius. One could cite many other examples where two or more poets diverge into the same poetic channels. And it was not just the classical poets who recycled this material. The same subjects turn up again and again in the didactic poetry of the Renaissance and the eighteenth century. Virgil's Laudes Italiae gave rise to a whole spate of patriotic writing: Rene Rapin modelled his praise of France on it, Fracastoro his eulogy of Italy, and John Dyer in the Fleece gave it a new twist by singing of: The increasing walls of busy Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham.

Thomson's Seasons provides a veritable check-list of the classical excursus.41 He has several of the themes which we have already mentioned: theodicy, praise of one's country, the birth of civilization, along with the theme of the Sacred Marriage of Earth and Heaven, which he modelled on Lucretius and Virgil, and a long digression on the merits of country life, for which he is indebted to Virgil in the Georgics. Digressions of this sort are natural enough in a long poem, but the similarity of themes emphasizes the continuity of the tradition and is one of the features which define the genre. These common elements, which are the legacy of Hesiod - the metre, the missionary zeal, the association with epic, the formal digressions - are sufficient to show that, despite the apparent absence of serious critical discussion, didactic poetry was recognized in antiquity as a genre separate from epic, though making use of many of the same features. Let me say in passing that, although I have stressed the role of Hesiod as father of the genre, I am not siding with those who hold that imitatio is more important for ancient texts than genre. Professor Rosenmeyer has argued that literary genres are a 'mirage,' that 'instead of genre criticism the ancients practised model criticism,' that is to say, they thought that works of literature should be grouped not by

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some abstract concept of genre but by reference to certain 'model texts/42 Model texts certainly exist, but they do not remove the necessity of defining genre. The Iliad and the Odyssey are model texts for the Aeneid, but so is the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. In other words, Virgil looks back not to a single author, but to a whole tradition of heroic poetry which had developed over centuries and is best described as 'generic.' Moreover, there are different kinds of exemplary text. Model texts are not always models of the same thing. No text in antiquity, with the exception of the epics of Homer, exercised a more profound influence on subsequent literature than the Aetia of Callimachus. But Callimachus' influence was only partly generic. What the Romans saw in the Aetia was above all a new literary creed, a new manner of writing. Confusion over this was the cause of Leo's mistake about the origin of Roman elegy.43 Because Propertius acknowledged his indebtedness to Callimachus, Leo thought that both authors must have worked in the same genre, and since he could find little or nothing in Hellenistic literature which resembled Propertius or Tibullus, a Hellenistic personal love elegy had to be invented to fill the gap. Whether or not such a genre existed is still a matter of debate, but it is certain that the evidence of Propertius contributes nothing to its resolution. Consider on the other hand the case of Theocritus. The pastoral poetry of Theocritus is also a 'model text',- but in this case the simplest and most economical way of describing the legacy of Theocritus is to say that his work established a genre. Virgil recognized this fact when, in the first line of the fourth Eclogue, he invoked the 'Sicilian Muses': Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus.

There is more here than a graceful compliment to the protos heuretes of pastoral poetry. The line implies the existence of a literary genre with its own traditions and limitations. To put it simply, some model texts establish a genre, some do other things. The concept of genre is still necessary: it is implied by the way in which the poets describe their work. The influence of model texts determines in large measure the formal features of a genre, its metre, characteristic style, and so

The Criticism of Didactic Poetry / 25

forth. But as I suggested in my introduction, a genre cannot be described entirely in terms of its historical legacy: the character of a didactic poem is also moulded by the logic of the relationship of teacher and pupil. I want to mention two aspects of this relationship, one concerning the role of the teacher and the other the role of the pupil. Anyone who aspires to teach must first establish his authority. This seems to be the purpose of the impressive opening scene of the Theogony. Hesiod encounters the Muses under the holy hill of Helicon, and they give him a laurel branch and inspire him with the gift of divine song so that he can tell the future and the past. There is a similar appeal to the authority of higher powers in Parmenides and Empedocles. 'I go among you/ says Empedocles, 'as an immortal god, no longer a mortal man, honoured by all, crowned with fillets and flowing garlands' (fr. 112). As one might expect, Lucretius has a more secular version of the claim to authority. The opening prologue has both a prayer to Venus and an encomium of Epicurus. Venus takes on the role of the Muse and Lucretius asks her for grace of speech. The encomium of Epicurus serves a different purpose: it is from Epicurus that the poet will derive his understanding of nature, and the saving value of that message must be made clear at the beginning. The Hesiodic theme of divine initiation became a convention of didactic poetry, so much so that Ovid pokes fun at it in the preface to the Ars amatoria. With a malicious echo of Hesiod, he tells us he will speak the truth, a truth which he has gained from experience and not from the intervention of the gods. In one way or another the didactic poet, as teacher, makes his claim upon the reader's attention by stressing his own special gifts and proclaiming the importance, and reliability, of his message. Didactic poetry always implies the existence of a student, someone interested in the subject being taught. Most universities, I have discovered, have an instructive myth about a dedicated professor who turned up as usual for his early morning lecture and, not noticing that no one was present, held forth for an hour to an empty classroom. The story is usually told as an example of the true didactic spirit, but the truth is that, if no one is listening, no one is teaching. Didactic poetry always assumes that someone is listening. This is not poetry to be overheard: it

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demands the reader's direct involvement. Didactic poetry, like lyric poetry, is first-person poetry in the sense that the poet speaks with his own voice,- but the listener is expected to identify not with the speaker, but with the person addressed. The ancient commentators recognized the significance in didactic poetry of the addressee. Servius wrote in the preface to his commentary on the Georgics: 'a didactic poem must be addressed to someone; for instruction implies someone in the role of teacher and someone in the role of student. Thus Virgil addresses his poem to Maecenas, as Hesiod addresses Perses and Lucretius Memmius.' It is not important that the historical relationship implied in the text should correspond to reality. Perses in the Works and Days is a more fully drawn character than one usually meets as the addressee of a didactic poem, though there are reasons for being sceptical about the biographical reality behind the portrait.44 No doubt Hesiod had a brother and his name may have been Perses, but the contradictions and inconsistencies in the story suggest that the Perses of the poem is at least in part a figure of convention. The reality is not important. What is important is that a didactic poem preserve the illusion of teaching. Usually the addressee is mentioned by name, as he is in Hesiod, Parmenides, Empedocles, Nicander, Lucretius, and Virgil. Occasionally he is not, as in Aratus and Manilius, but his presence is always felt. Servius' point about the addressee underlines the importance of posing the question, For what audience is the poem intended? The answer is not always easy to find. Whom, for example, did Aratus have in mind as the recipient of his Phaenomena! No one is named in the poem, but an anonymous addressee is constantly being urged to take notice and pay attention. The demanding imperatives create a monotonous pattern in the poem, especially in its final section, but it is never made quite clear for whom all this instruction is intended. Farmers and sailors are the two groups who would benefit most from the information which the poem provides, and their needs are kept constantly before us. But the poem is not addressed to them. All we know about the addressee is that he might undertake a voyage and that he is expected to be familiar with the astronomical details of the

The Criticism of Didactic Poetry / 27

Metonic cycle. Clearly it would be absurd to believe that the poem was really intended for the enlightenment of husbandmen and sailors. The large part which they play in the poem is more likely a conscious attempt to establish a link with Hesiod, who dealt both with farming and with seafaring. On the other hand, Aratus' commitment to the intricacies of his subject has its limits. When it comes to discussing the working of the planets, he says, 'My courage fails' (460) and passes on to more practical matters. The implied reader of the poem, therefore, is neither a scholar with a scientific interest in astronomy nor a farmer in need of advice about the weather. The poem presupposes one kind of reader and is addressed to another. This situation is typical of didactic poetry in general. The didactic poet speaks over the head of the formal addressee to a wider audience, whose identity has to be reconstructed from the text of the poem. As we have seen, there has been a long debate on the question: 'Is didactic poetry really poetry?' One might well ask the complementary question: To what extent is didactic poetry really didactic?' Is it not rather an elaborate deception in which the writer pretends to give instruction, but really has some other purpose in mind for which the ostensible subject is only an excuse? This is not a question that could reasonably be asked about the earliest examples of the genre. Hesiod and Empedocles had something original to say and chose to say it in verse. It is not true, although it is sometimes stated as a fact, that the earliest philosophical writers could not have written in prose.45 The majority of the Presocratics did in fact write in prose, although their prose often had a distinctly poetic colouring. One can suggest various reasons why philosophers like Parmenides and Empedocles turned to verse. Poetry had an oracular impressiveness and the glamour of a long tradition. And poetry could open doors: we are told that a rhapsode recited the Purifications of Empedocles at Olympia, a useful way of making one's ideas known.46 But whatever the reasons may have been for the choice, Parmenides had no need to fear that his ideas would be dismissed because they were couched in verse. Didactic poetry was still a functional literary form with a tradition that was understood and accepted. But when the genre was revived in the Hellenistic

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period, the situation had changed. It was now possible to achieve in prose a clarity and precision which poetry could hardly hope to match. The demand for technical precision made prose the inevitable choice for every kind of intellectual statement. The use of poetry could be defended only if it brought to the subject something which prose could not. For those who simply wanted information, there was always a better authority in prose to whom they could turn. In what sense, then, is the poetry of the Hellenistic age really didactic? Aratus and Nicander, its two most representative figures, suggest slightly different answers to this question. There is an illuminating story told about these two poets at the court of Antigonus Gonatas, king of Macedonia.47 Aratus, the story goes, knew about medicine, but was required by the king to write about astronomy,- Nicander understood astronomy and was required to write about medicine. The story is pure myth since the two men are not likely to have been contemporaries and it is in the highest degree improbable that they ever appeared together at the Macedonian court. But it reveals something about the contemporary attitude to didactic poetry. Cicero had obviously heard the story, though in a somewhat different form (De or. 1.69). In his version we have the same charge that Aratus knew nothing about astronomy, but this time Nicander is said to have written on agriculture although no one knew less about the subject than he did. Seneca made a similar point about the Georgics, that Virgil's purpose was not accuracy of information, but the pleasure of the reader (Ep. 86.15). There is a general pattern to these stories: a didactic poet is not expected to be master of his discipline. The demands of the poem take precedence over the accuracy of the text. But I am not inclined to conclude from this that the didactic poets of the Hellenistic age were simply metaphrasts for whom the subject of their poetry was a matter of indifference. As a treatise on astronomy, Aratus' Phaenomena has its faults. For one thing the work on which it is based was already out of date. Nevertheless, the poem achieved a considerable reputation, not just for its Hesiodic language and smooth versification, but also for what it had to say. It is one of the few classical works to be

The Criticism of Didactic Poetry / 29

cited in the New Testament.48 And despite its limitations as a technical treatise, it gained some standing as a guide to astronomy. At least twenty-seven commentaries were produced to explain and correct it. Hipparchus, the most eminent of Alexandrian astronomers, thought it worth his while to write a commentary on it in three books, ironically the only work of his to survive. The poem continued to serve a pedagogical function for centuries to come. The case of Nicander is slightly different. Those modern readers who have taken the trouble to plough through his Theriaca and Alexipharmaca have generally come away from the experience without any warm feeling of regard for the author. I have sometimes thought that Nicander's chief accomplishment is to inspire wit in others. Here, for example, is Robin Lane Fox in the Oxford History of the Classical World:49 'Nicander wrote a poem on Antidotes to the Bites of Wild Creatures which is as deadly as the hazard he professed to cure/ Wilhelm Kroll, not normally a humorist, summed up the poet's merits this way: 'Nicander's main contribution was to turn his clear prose original into verse and by larding it with glosses make it completely incomprehensible to the profanum uulgus (and not just to the profanum uulgus}.'50 Even his modern editors can find little good to say of him. Commenting on his obscurity, Gow says his 'style would be a godsend to any oracle.'51 And in case we should imagine that the poet makes up for the 'repulsiveness' of his style by the authority of his exposition, Gow writes, 'Whereas the uninitiated reader may learn a good deal of astronomy from Aratus, the victim of snake-bites or poison who turned to Nicander for first aid would be in a sorry plight.' Nicander's stock, however, was not always so low. Virgil and Lucan paid him the compliment of imitation, Plutarch wrote a commentary on him,52 and Milton thought him valuable reading for schoolboys.53 Nicander's success, such as it was, seems to have been principally as a writer. He holds the position in Greek literature which Richard Stanyhurst occupies in English, an author to be read more by linguists in search of philological oddities than appreciated for what he has to say. The recipes which he offers for the treatment of snake bites are too imprecise to be of much use to medical science.

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Schneider, Nicander's nineteenth-century editor, tried to show that Nicander's works were not much read in antiquity even by those who were interested in the same subject.54 This may be to put the case too strongly, but it is clear that Nicander never achieved the status of an expert as Aratus did and that he survived more as a literary curiosity than as an authority in his field. Nevertheless, however unsuccessful he may have been as an expositor, it is impossible to separate the poem from its didactic purpose. This is information poetry with an almost unrelieved concentration on the matter in hand. It implies an audience with an interest in the subject itself, not just a curious reader anxious to discover if poetry can be conjured out of such unpromising material and watching, with the attitude of a man at a circus, to see if the performer will be swallowed by the tiger. The didactic poet who is most articulate about his function is Manilius, the author of the Astronomica, a work in five books on the science of astrology. There can be no doubt that Manilius expected the reader to pay attention to what he had to say, not just to the manner in which he said it. Housman spoke admiringly of his 'eminent aptitude for doing sums in verse,'55 and it is perfectly clear from the lengthy prologues which are attached to each book that Manilius rejoiced in the very intractability of his subject. At the beginning of Book 5 he tells us with evident pride that others would have stopped at this point, but he is ready to continue on a tour of the extrazodiacal constellations. What motivated him to work in such an obscure corner of the literary vineyard was the need to be original: he wanted (in his own words) to push back the frontiers of the Muses (3.3). Manilius wrote with great rhetorical force and elegance, but the triumph of style over content was never complete. Goethe thought that nothing could redeem so barren a subject.56 The poet himself seemed aware of the limitations of his appeal. In a striking but melancholy image, he likened himself to a 'charioteer driving round and round a deserted track, meeting no one' (2.138-43). 'I shall sing,' he says, 'for the stars to hear.' And for centuries he did indeed sing for the stars to hear: for in the whole subsequent history of Latin literature no one even mentioned his name.

The Criticism of Didactic Poetry / 31

All of these poets, then, have some degree of commitment to the subject of their poems, although the strength of that commitment varies. It might be possible to regard Nicander simply as a court poet who had no real didactic purpose and whose only motivation was what Yeats called 'the fascination of what's difficult'; such an attitude would accord well with the Alexandrian interest in the bizarre and unfamiliar. But the relentless didacticism of his poetry argues against such a simple verdict. Certainly the attraction of novelty and the challenge of an intractable subject must be part of the motivation for many didactic poets. But this is not enough to explain Aratus, nor will it do justice to Manilius. Both show a genuine interest in the didactic material of their poems and bolster their claim to be taken seriously by placing the technical instruction within a framework of Stoic philosophy. There is no avoiding here the didactic purpose. And yet the very attempt to explain the minutiae of a complex system in rolling hexameters inevitably generates a feeling of dislocation. The reader is never quite sure how to respond. This is poetry which draws attention to its didactic role, while admitting that that role is no longer essential. The ambiguity which we earlier saw in the ancient attitude to the teaching function of the poet has its analogue in the different concepts of the didactic genre itself. The variety of possible didactic styles and intentions has suggested to several critics the need for a taxonomy of didactic poetry. Classification in literary studies is not an activity which deserves to be promoted for its own sake. So whatever classification we arrive at should point to significant differences in the poems and provide a basis for critical assessment. Most attempts at classification in the past have been based on subject matter, but the results have not been very persuasive. If the Georgics of Nicander had survived, we should not expect to find that it fitted comfortably into the same literary category as the Georgics of Virgil. Addison, in the preface which he wrote for Dryden's translation of Virgil's Georgics, suggested a three-fold division, based on whether the poems dealt with moral duties, philosophical speculation, or practical rules. But these categories do not exclude one another. Hesiod combines moralizing with practical

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advice: Aratus' poem has both philosophical speculation and hints for forecasting the weather. Addison's scheme breaks down because the poets won't stick to the rules. Content is clearly not a satisfactory basis on which to differentiate the various kinds of didactic poetry. One of the most interesting attempts to avoid this difficulty was made by Bernd Effe in a monograph published at Munich in 1977.57 He based his classification on the distinction between matter and theme. By matter ('der Stoff) he means the basic material of the poem out of which it is fashioned; it is the ostensible subject, what the author puts on the title page. By theme ('das Thema') Effe means the real subject of the poem, which may or may not be identical with its ostensible subject. With the help of this distinction, Effe defines three types of didactic poetry: first the 'ideal type/ in which there is a complete coincidence of matter and theme; a second or 'formal type/ in which again matter and theme coincide, but the commitment to the subject is so weak that both matter and theme are pushed into the background by the formal interests of the author; and a third type which he calls 'transparent/ in which matter and theme, though related to one another, are not identical. In this third case the main interest of the author is in the theme, and the ostensible subject, though not without importance, is subordinate to it. The ideal type is exemplified by Lucretius and Manilius, the formal by Nicander, and the transparent by Aratus and Virgil. This is a great improvement on systems of classification which depend on subject matter alone, since it focuses critical attention on the strategies which are open to the didactic poet and which separate one kind of didactic poem from another. But the categories, though conceptually neat, are not easy to work with in practice. How do we determine, for example, with regard to the 'formal' type, whether a writer is genuinely interested in his subject or not? For all we know, Aratus may have been bored with astronomy and Nicander may have been fascinated by poisonous snakes. The fact that the poets chose to write a long poem on their chosen subject is prima facie evidence for some level of interest in it. Again, the distinction which Effe wishes to make between the real and the ostensible subject of a poem is difficult to define. Would readers

The Criticism of Didactic Poetry / 33

of Virgil be able to agree on the 'real subject' of the Georgicsl And what is the real subject of Aratus' Phaenomenal. Is it, as Effe maintains, the Stoic concept of destiny, or is this merely a part of his astronomical teaching? If the concept of divine destiny is what the poem is ultimately about, all one can say is that Aratus has not tried very hard to keep this theme before the reader's mind. Complexity and variety of subject matter are typical of didactic poetry from Hesiod on. The Stoic framework gives to Aratus' science a deeper significance, but it cannot be shown to have pushed the astronomy into second place. I have been arguing the simple tautological thesis that all didactic poems are didactic and that criticism must first come to terms with the didactic message. If we want to develop a taxonomy of didactic poetry, that is to say, if we want to be able to understand what kind of didactic poem we are dealing with, there are two fundamental questions which have to be asked: first, What is the attitude of the author to the reader as it is implied by the text? and secondly, What is the attitude, manifested in the poem itself, which the author adopts towards his didactic message? I have already discussed the first of these. It is a question which may be asked of any poem, but it is particularly important in dealing with the didactic genre because a didactic poem, to a greater extent than other kinds of poetry, focuses attention on the audience, and the real reader is rarely the same as the reader defined in the text. With regard to the second question, I want to stress the qualification 'in the poem itself,' for there is no point in guessing what the author's real attitude to his subject was. What is important is the attitude taken in the poem. Whatever Nicander may have thought of the topics he chose to discuss, I can detect in his work no hint of irony or humour or condescension. His two extant poems have the appearance of genuine didactic treatises, though the lack of detail means that the didactic purpose is not very ambitious. Virgil had deep roots in the Italian countryside,- so it is not unreasonable to suppose that he was interested in everything that went on in an Italian farm. But if we want to understand the Georgics, we must first examine the peculiar mixture of respect and condescension which the poet adopts towards the subject matter of his poem.

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In the essays which follow I shall deal with three didactic poems which are very different from one another. I do not offer these studies, however, as exemplars of three distinct types of didactic poetry. Didactic poetry cannot easily be fitted into three identifiably separate classes, as Addison supposed. But I want to suggest that we can best define the nature of these poems if we consider how they respond to the two questions I have posed. In the De rerum natuia, for example, there is never any doubt about the poet's commitment to his subject or about his belief in the dignity and importance of his philosophy. At the other end of the spectrum are works like Ovid's Ait of Love which belong to the subgenre of the mock didactic. Here the poet's attitude to his subject is deliberately frivolous and parodic. There is always a danger in didactic poetry that it will slide into self-parody, and if it manages to avoid that fate, that someone else may appear to mock its earnestness. Erasmus Darwin's once popular poem on the Loves of the Plants soon called forth The Loves of the Triangles, in which three feminine curves, the parabola, the hyperbola, and the ellipse, make love to a masculine rectangle.58 Nothing has survived of the didactic poems which Ovid in the Tristia thought a suitable diversion for the smokey month of December; but it is improbable that works which set out to explain the rules for feasting or how to exercise with the hoop or paint the face were treated with high seriousness. Between these two extremes of serious dedication and parodic wit there is room for a great variety of approaches according to the manner which the poet chooses to adopt towards his subject and the way in which he addresses his audience. These, of course, are not the only questions which we may wish to ask about a didactic poem. We will also want to know, for example, about its language, and structure, and imagery, about its relation to other poems in the tradition, and about the conceptual framework which supports the preceptive material. But, as in every kind of pedagogy, the central issue concerns the complex and subtle relationship of teacher, student, and subject.


The De rerum natura of Lucretius

Magnis doceo de rebus De rerum natura 4.6

In 1755 the Berlin Academy of Sciences announced as the subject of a competition an essay on the philosophical position of Alexander Pope as expressed in the statement 'All is good.' The contestants were required first to expound the meaning of this phrase, secondly to compare it with the system of Leibnitz, and finally to give reasons for accepting or rejecting Pope's position. The young Lessing thought the topic ridiculous and, with the assistance of his friend Moses Mendelssohn, published an ironic response under the title 'Pope ein Metaphysiker.'1 He argued that not only was Pope no metaphysician, but the methods of the philosopher and of the poet are so incompatible that no work which gave a satisfactory account of a philosophical system could succeed as a poem. For Lessing a poem was 'a complete sensuous discourse.' It could not, therefore, take the form of a dissertation. Its object was not to convince, but to make an immediate impression, and the poet must therefore be free to use whatever ideas came to hand. 'He speaks with the Epicureans when he wishes to exalt pleasure, and with the Stoa when he wants to praise virtue.' Such freedom could not be permitted the philosopher. The philosopher must define his terms, he must use words consistently and unambiguously, and he must avoid metaphor.

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The poet recognizes none of these limitations. A poet, as a poet, cannot have a system. At this point in Lessing's argument the question is raised whether this view is not contradicted by the experience of literature itself. Was not Lucretius both poet and philosopher? The objection is quickly disposed of. Lucretius was not a poet, but a versifier. The logical nature of his argument denies him the title of poet. It is possible to express a philosophical system in verse, but the result will not be a poem. Pope escaped this dilemma because he was no philosopher. The deficiencies of his argument are enough to prove that. His method was eclectic: he wanted to cull from different sources 'the sensuously beautiful elements in all systems.' Lessing concluded: 'The philosopher who climbs up Parnassus and the poet who descends into the valleys of serious and tranquil wisdom meet halfway where they, so to speak, exchange clothes and return. Each takes back with him the form of the other, but only the form. The poet becomes a philosophical poet and the other a poetical sage. But a philosophical poet is no philosopher, and a poetical sage is no poet.'2 It is not surprising that Lessing chose Lucretius as the type of the didactic poet in the strict sense of the term. Lucretius has always been the test case for theories of didactic poetry. No one who has seriously come to grips with the poem can deny its power as a piece of writing, and yet it is unashamedly didactic. Lucretius adheres to the logic of his subject with untiring zeal. Igitur's and ergo's punctuate the text. Even the great set pieces are keyed into the argument of the poem. Such a work challenges our view of poetry itself. We expect from poetry that its language should be rich, ambiguous, and evocative; Lucretius on the contrary seems to have believed that poetry could achieve the clarity and precision which we normally associate with prose. That a literary work might be susceptible to a plurality of interpretations, or that the text might consume itself, or that the reader might write his own text are ideas which, had they occurred to Lucretius, would have horrified him. In his concept of poetry the message was central and the poet's job was to present that message clearly and accurately. The structure of his discourse is patterned, therefore, on the needs of the argument. His sentences

The De rerum natura of Lucretius / 37

are articulated to bring out the current of his thought. Everything is tailored to fit the message. This insistence on clarity raises a problem at the outset. Clarity is more commonly regarded as belonging to the excellence of prose than of poetry. But clarity is essential to the articulation of a philosophical argument/ whether in prose or in verse, and Epicurus himself underlined the necessity of a plain and direct mode of expression.3 Coleridge is sometimes credited with the sentiment that 'poetry gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood.' It is unlikely that Coleridge meant anything of the kind/4 but the phrase/ in the form in which it is commonly cited/ sums up one view of poetry/ where ambiguity and imprecision stimulate the imagination and add a sort of incantatory magic. Such a view was not unknown in antiquity/ but it is one which no serious didactic poet could espouse, and Lucretius made it abundantly clear that clarity of expression was the quality which he prized most. Three times in Book 1 he reverted to the topic. In the important programmatic passage near the end of the book, he based his claim to fame on two things: first, on the importance of his subject and secondly/ on the clarity which he was able to bring to an obscure philosophy: primum quod magnis doceo de rebus et artis religionum animum nodis exsoluere pergo, deinde quod obscura de re tarn lucida pango carmina ...


(First because I teach an important lesson and seek to free the mind from the tight bonds of superstition, and secondly because my song casts a bright light on a dark subject.)

In the preface we have the same image of poetry 'shedding light on the dark discoveries of the Greeks' (136-7); and in the middle of the book there is a bitter attack on Heraclitus for the meretricious obscurity of his language (638-44). The importance which Lucretius attached to clarity had its origin in both literary and philosophical considerations. We know that Epicurus was hostile to literature and regarded the language

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of poetry as incompatible with the search for truth.5 A highly rhetorical poem, therefore, on a philosophical subject needed some defence. Lucretius never tackled the philosophical issue head on, but his frequent references to clarity may be his way of staking out a claim for poetry, even if the role of the poet must always be subordinate to that of the philosopher. But the emphasis on clarity may also say something about Lucretius' literary affiliations. It has been suggested that, by insisting on clarity, Lucretius was aligning himself with the Callimachean ideal of a 'slender style.'6 Whether this is true or not, it is clear that the poet had chosen sides in the ancient debate about poetic style. Aristotle's remarks on style in the Poetics are interesting in this connection.7 The language of poetry, he argued, differs from that of prose in admitting a more daring use of figures and greater distortions of normal usage, but these poetic embellishments must never be allowed to interfere with clarity. Clarity is the overriding principle of style, both for prose and for verse. Aristotle could be severe on those who breached this principle. In a passage from the Rhetoric (3.5.4 = 1407a) which is out of step with his other references to Empedocles as a writer, he cited Empedocles as an example of those who have nothing to say and conceal the poverty of their thought in ambiguous language. This is reminiscent of Lucretius' attack on Heraclitus, where once again we encounter the criticism that, in this kind of vague and overblown writing, sense is sacrificed to purely verbal effect. In both Aristotle and Lucretius the point is made that obscure and pretentious writing can deceive the uneducated into believing that something important is being said. As Goethe put it: 'When ideas fail, words come in handy.'8 Moral necessity, therefore, as well as literary preference require that this sort of writing be avoided. There is another point to be made. Lucretius' insistence on clarity implies a certain view of the function of language. In the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias argued that Helen should be forgiven her conduct because she was the victim of the persuasive power of speech which acted upon her like a drug.9 This instrumental view of language is characteristic of Greek antiquity. The rhetorical tradition in which Lucretius was formed was predi-

The De rerum natuia of Lucretius / 39

cated on the belief that language is a skill which can be taught and which has the power to influence and modify behaviour. By contrast, modern critical practice is less concerned with moral effect than with the interpretation of meaning; and interpretation becomes the central critical consideration because meaning is perceived to be complex, oblique, double-edged. For Lucretius the meaning of the De remm natura was Epicurus' meaning, and the poet's duty was to express that meaning as clearly as possible. The problem was not to elaborate a structure of words for its own sake, but to direct the thoughts of the reader along a certain channel. In the prologue to Book 1 of the poem, the poet prays to Venus for grace of language, but it is clear that this is not merely an aesthetic concern for beauty of effect. The honey on the lip of the cup is there for a purpose, and that purpose is to change the reader's view of the world. Clarity is an essential part of the psychagogic function of the poem. In promoting this view of poetry, Lucretius was perhaps swimming against the contemporary tide, and he was certainly out of step with Epicurean teaching. In the old debate about the pleasure and the utility of poetry, the contemporary Epicurean Philodemus had come down firmly on the side of pleasure.10 But Lucretius aligned himself with the older tradition of didactic poetry in which pleasure is the servant of moral value. His ostensible purpose, therefore, dictated a certain kind of poetry, which was intellectual, rhetorical, and precise, and whose purpose was to move the reader by the compelling nature of its argument. To achieve this end, clarity was the first requirement. In aiming for clarity, there was always the risk of a rapid descent into prose. Eliot thought that 'the original form of a philosophy cannot be poetic.'11 Lucretius tried to keep to the original form of his philosophy and at the same time to transmute it into poetry. A didactic poem of this uncompromising sort raises some interesting problems for the critic. In this essay I want to discuss some of these and to review some of the approaches which have been taken to the poem. Poetry and philosophy, says Plato in the Republic (607b), have a very old quarrel. It is a quarrel which is by no means settled. In recent years the relationship between philosophy and poetry

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has attracted the attention both of philosophers and of critics. The critic needs to know how to deal with a philosophical argument when it is embedded in a poem. Modern philosophers approach the issue from the other end. If philosophy is itself, as Derrida claims, a literary genre, then it too must be subject to the conditions of writing. Plato, in banishing the poets, wished to exalt philosophy as the discourse of truth. Now literature is having its revenge and seems to be creeping back, here and there, into the domain of philosophy itself. The objection which Lessing raised to accepting Lucretius into the canon of poetry could not have been raised, at least in that form, by critics of an earlier age. We have already seen that Aristotle, like Plato, was concerned with the truth of poetry. The problem which Lessing poses is of a different order. Truth in the philosopher's sense is not, in this view, the poet's main business: his job is not to convince, but to make 'a lively impression'; and the deductive methods of the philosopher are inimical to poetry. Yet ideas cannot be excluded from poetry, and our critical theory must be able to give some account of what happens when a poet chooses a philosophic theme. Susanne Langer, in her book Feeling and Form, attempted to define the role of philosophy in poetry. She wrote: ... all poetry is a creation of illusory events, even when it looks like a statement of opinions, philosophical or political or aesthetic. The occurrence of a thought is an event in a thinker's personal history, and has as distinct a qualitative character as an adventure, a sight, or a human contact; it is not a proposition, but the entertainment of one, which necessarily involves vital tensions, feelings, the imminence of other thoughts, and the echoes of past thinking. Poetic reflections, therefore, are not essentially trains of logical reasoning, though they may incorporate fragments, at least, of discursive argument. Essentially they create the semblance of reasoning; of the seriousness, strain and progress, the sense of growing knowledge, growing clearness, conviction and acceptance - the whole experience of philosophical thinking.12

Mrs Langer was not writing specifically of didactic poetry in the narrow sense of the term, but her analysis would apply to

The De remm natura of Lucretius / 41

any poem which deals with, or incorporates, a philosophic theme. What she does in this passage is to shift the emphasis from the philosophy itself to the experience of entertaining that philosophy. A philosophical poem is not about the ideas which it contains, but about the whole process of clarification, acceptance, and conviction which goes on in the poet's mind in the course of arriving at his philosophy. This is a common approach to the criticism of philosophic poetry. But it will not work for Lucretius; for in the De remm natura there is, I would contend, no sense of strain or striving, no sense of a man groping after the truth. Instead the poet presents us at the very beginning of the poem with his testimony to the certainty of Epicurean doctrine. His is the voice of authority, convinced of the value of what he has to say. One Victorian man of letters put it this way: 'Lucretius ... is a materialist, pure and simple, solemn and staunch; as bigoted in his creed and as certain of his gospel as the veriest divine that ever thumped a cushion; as anxious to proselytise as any other more popular Apostle, with all the zeal of a missionary, and all the pomposity of a Bishop.'13 Mrs Langer's way of looking at philosophic poetry turns our attention away from the message to the messenger. This is a distinctly modern way of stating the issue. At the back of the critic's mind is the belief that all genuine poetry is lyrical, that, as John Stuart Mill put it, the essence of poetry is the 'delineation of the deeper and more secret workings of human emotion.'14 It must follow from such a view that whatever is genuinely poetical in a didactic poem must somehow be related, not to the ideas themselves, but to the impression which they made upon the author or to the emotions which he wishes to stir in us. The ancient tradition was different. If we take seriously the poet's role as teacher, we must attach more significance to what is said and how it is said and less to the feelings of the man who is saying it. This is where, in my opinion, much criticism of Lucretius has ended in a blind alley. Too much attention has been given to delineating the personality of the poet. As we have seen, it requires some special pleading to see Lucretius as a man riven by doubts about the truth of his philosophy. There is a superb confidence

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in him. Lucretius stands squarely in the vatic tradition of didactic poetry. In antiquity the voice of the didactic poet was the voice of authority. Both Parmenides and Empedocles used this same dogmatic tone of voice, abusing their opponents and even scolding their readers if they showed signs of hesitation or scepticism. 'You must bar your thought from searching in this way/ says Parmenides, 'and not allow habit, born of much experience, to force you along this road and permit your blind eye and echoing ear and tongue to guide you; and you must judge by means of reason the much contested proof which is expounded by me' (fr. 7). Lucretius follows in this tradition of dogmatic statement. There is no hesitation or self-doubt in his philosophy. Now I am aware that some have reached a different conclusion: they feel that Lucretius protests too much, that the very solidity of his convictions betrays an inner ambivalence. This, however, is to cobble together an argument out of the nonexistence of the evidence. The classic essay in this genre is Patin's 'L'Antilucrece chez Lucrece.'15 This was an attempt to deconstruct the poem (before the idea of deconstruction had been thought of) by endeavouring to show that Lucretius' private attitude towards the traditional religion was in conflict with his materialist creed. The idea was not new: Lactantius has a hint of it (Div. inst. 7.12), but Patin worked it out with great rhetorical skill. His essay has been enormously influential, for although his main thesis is not now generally accepted, it colours a good deal of modern criticism. Bailey found evidence in Lucretius' treatment of the Magna Mater in Book 2 for believing that 'there was in the bottom of his heart a lingering affection for the old religion',-16 and more recently Papanghelis comments on Lucretius' 'knack for dwelling lovingly on what he professes to dislike or not care about.'17 The Antilucrece idea has had a long run. Regenbogen gave it new life by finding in Lucretius a bleak pessimism at odds with the doctrine of his school.18 Croce was making the same point when he located the energy of the poem in the divided personality of its author. Ts Lucretius,' he asked, '... didactic, that is, a prose writer in the solemn form of the verse?' And he replied:

The De leium natura of Lucretius / 43 There is didacticism in him, undoubtedly, but there is something more and of greater importance - the passional element, and, more precisely, the passional-religious element, and along with this a sorrowful and perhaps desperately amorous, disenchanted, bitter, yet compassionate soul, which seeks appeasement in a faith, in a doctrine of redemption, and in a redeemer, in this case Epicurus, who is for him what Christ is for Christians. Lucretius' description, for instance, of the insatiability of love is not simply that of a psychologist and naturalist, but the description of one who suffers or has suffered from that passion. And in the description there is the poet, at times permeated by that pathos, at other times dominating it.19

This is an extreme example of the attempt to treat the De rerum natura as some kind of lyric poem, expressing, however obliquely, the inner feelings and contradictions of the author. For Croce, as for Patin, the key to the poem as a poem is to be sought in the personality of the author. I do not deny that, when one reads the poem, one is struck by the feeling that a very strong personality lies behind the text; but it is impossible to disentangle what belongs to the writer and what springs from the philosophy or from the literary conditions under which the poem was written. It is useless to ask, for example, as so many critics have done, whether Lucretius was an optimist or a pessimist, for there are elements of both optimism and pessimism in the system which he is expounding, and there is no way of knowing what belongs to the philosophy and what to the mind of the poet. In any case it is the wrong question to ask. Criticism of a philosophic poem has to pay more attention to the philosophy and less to the philosopher. The trouble with the approaches we have been discussing is that they devalue the content of the poem and divert the critic's attention into other and less relevant channels. Any attempt to approach the poem through the author must inevitably founder on the lack of reliable biographical evidence.20 We know almost nothing about Lucretius. We cannot say where he lived, to what order of society he belonged, whether he worked alone or sought the support of a community of Epicurean

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friends. Diskin Clay has described him as 'one of the loneliest figures in Roman literature/21 but this romantic description says more about our lack of evidence than about Lucretius' lack of friends. And if the external record is scanty, there is little more we can learn from the poem itself. Its tone is throughout impersonal. We should not be deceived by the frequent appearance of the first person singular; this is almost always used in connection with verbs of teaching or explaining or suggesting; that is to say the poet's voice is essentially pedagogical rather than confessional. There are no personal reminiscences, such as Virgil's touching recollection of the old gardener of Tarentum. Such reserve is not a necessary requirement of didactic poetry. Hesiod is frankly autobiographical, and Empedocles' remarkable talent for self-advertisement shows through from time to time in his verse. The impersonal manner was, therefore, Lucretius' deliberate choice. It is a strategy whereby Epicurus and the philosophy of Epicurus can be placed at the centre of the poem. It seems to me, then, even more futile than usual to approach this poem through the personality of its author or to inquire about the emotions which the subject generated in his mind. It will be more helpful, I think, to remind ourselves that the Latin verb docere, 'to teach,' takes two accusatives, an accusative of the person and an accusative of the thing taught. We shall understand more about the poem if we ask first not what was the author like, but what kind of student does the poem imply; and secondly how can the subject be conceived in such a way that it can be read as poetry? - or to put it more simply, what is the relationship between the language of the poem and its philosophy? Let me take the first question first and begin by asking a related question: to whom would such a work have appealed? I have been arguing that Lucretius presents himself as a disciple of Epicurus with a message that demands to be taken seriously; but when we inquire about the reception which the poem received, a very different picture begins to emerge. For it appears that its influence was almost wholly literary. We cannot say how widely it was read, but we do know that it had a striking effect on other Roman poets. Among the Augustans, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid all testify to the impression which it made upon them. In the

The De leium natura of Lucretius / 45

centuries after his death, when Lucretius is mentioned by name, it is always as a poet and never as a philosopher. Only when we come to Lactantius is the De remm natura read primarily as a philosophical text. The one possible exception is Cicero, and scholars have examined Cicero's philosophical works closely for traces of Lucretian influence on the development of a philosophical vocabulary and on the treatment of Epicurean themes. I can only say that those who have tried to demonstrate Cicero's indebtedness have not persuaded me that the evidence bears out their conclusions. Neither the poem nor the poet is ever mentioned in Cicero's philosophical works, not even in those contexts where a reference might be expected. Some have even talked of a conspiracy of silence. But it is not necessary to believe in a conspiracy to explain Cicero's silence: what the absence of Lucretius' name seems to mean is that the De remm natura was not regarded as a primary philosophical text.22 It may be noted in passing that this view of the poem helps to solve a problem to which I alluded earlier,- why Lucretius, an orthodox Epicurean, felt it proper to write a philosophical poem when the school to which he owed allegiance was notoriously sceptical about the utility of poetry. A distinction can be made here between the task of the philosopher and the task of the poet. The Epicurean philosopher Philodemus has an interesting comment on the problem of the usefulness of poetry. He opposes any notion of poetic utility, but argues that if a poet knew something which was useful, he would not possess that knowledge as a poet (On Music 4, col. 26; cf On Poets col. 29). What Lucretius knew, he knew as a student of Epicurus. What he wrote, he wrote as a poet. He himself never claims to be a philosopher. When he composed his poem, he was not 'doing philosophy.' The philosophy he sets forth belonged to someone else. He must have felt, therefore, that the rules which applied to the philosopher did not apply to him. The truth of Epicureanism rested on the solid foundations laid down by the master. Lucretius was his prophet; his task was to set out that philosophy in as clear and lucid a manner as possible and to make it attractive to the reader. For Lucretius the philosophic content of his poem was a given. In this respect the De rerum natura differs

46 / The Criticism of Didactic Poetry

both from the Peri physeos of Empedocles and from Pope's Essay on Man. The former is the work of an original thinker, the latter of an eclectic/ neither of whom, for different reasons, felt the need to begin with an acknowledgment of sources. But Lucretius is describing another man's philosophy, albeit a philosophy which he has made his own. From the outset he makes clear his relationship to Epicurus, and by insisting on his role as disciple, he changes the dynamic of the poem. It has been maintained that all literature is indirect discourse, that its meaning is not This is so,' but The narrator says this is so.'23 The De rerum natura is indirect discourse in a very special sense, for what we are ostensibly given is a presentation of another man's ideas, a meditation on the 'golden words' of Epicurus. The poem makes no claim to philosophical originality. It need not, therefore, submit to the rules and restrictions of philosophy. No doubt from a strictly orthodox point of view Lucretius was still vulnerable, but if he was aware of criticism, he did not feel called upon to offer a defence. In the important programmatic passage towards the end of Book 1 (921-50), Lucretius says that the ideas of Epicurus are too bitter for those who have not tasted them and that the 'common people' shrink from them (retroque uulgus abhorret ab hac); hence the need for the sweet-honeyed song of the Muses. From this some have concluded that Lucretius intended his poem for ordinary citizens.24 Wiseman has even suggested that Lucretius was himself 'a man in the crowd,' one who had to work for his living;25 and another scholar has tried to show that the poem was intended primarily for the men of the municipia.26 The appeal which Lucretius has always had for Marxist critics may in part rest on this picture of an ordinary man who stood up against the forces of privilege and reaction and addressed his message to ordinary men.27 But this is a most improbable thesis. The De rerum natura is a sophisticated and difficult poem.28 Neither in its literary form nor in its philosophical reference is it a work for the uninstructed. It makes serious demands upon the reader: to appreciate it fully, one must recognize the rich literary and philosophical background to which it makes reference. Modern scholars are probably right to see the influence on Lucretius of

The De rerum natura of Lucretius / 47

contemporary literary movements. That influence does not manifest itself, however, in imitation of the smart elegance of the New Poets. Lucretius developed a powerful and impressive style of his own. Traditional elements from Ennius and the other writers of Roman epic are an important part of that style, but the older picture of a clumsy stylist and archaizing conservative will not do. What makes Lucretius modern is the allusive manner of making a point and the original way of playing with conventional motifs. It is the conscious and sophisticated literary artifice which links him with his contemporaries and their Hellenistic models. In the preface to Book 1, Lucretius tells us that writing the poem kept him awake through the tranquil nights: sed tua me uirtus tamen et sperata uoluptas suauis amicitiae quemuis efferre laborem suadet et inducit noctes uigilare serenas quaerentem dictis quibus ...


(But your [i.e., Memmius'] virtue and the hoped-for pleasure of your sweet friendship inspire me to endure any hardship and keep me awake through the quiet nights, as I seek to find the words ...)

I think we should see in this not just a testimony to the painstaking care with which the work was fashioned, but a deliberate allusion to the complimentary epigram of Callimachus on Aratus' Phaenomena (Epigr. 2,9). It concludes: Xaipeie A,E7rcod prioiet;, 'Apt|io\> cruvtovoq aypuTwiri. (I greet the subtle utterances, and earnest vigils of Aratus.)

At least on one level, Lucretius saw himself as the successor to the didactic poets of the Hellenistic age. The correctness of this view is confirmed by the distinctly Greek colouring which Lucretius has given to the poem. Al-

48 / The Criticism of Didactic Poetry

though he took pride in being the first to translate the ideas of Epicurus into Latin verse, translation did not involve giving the work a Roman setting. I have no doubt that Lucretius wrote for his contemporaries, but the subject of his poem is the 'dark discoveries of the Greeks/ the discoveries of a Grains homo, a 'man of Greece/ No Italian place is mentioned in the poem except Lake Avernus at Cumae, and the work ends with a harrowing account of the plague at Athens. There are, to be sure, fairly frequent references to Roman concepts and Roman practices, but often these are combined with elements that are purely Greek. Epicurus appears at the beginning of the poem as both Greek philosopher and Roman triumphator. The death of the Greek maiden, Iphigenia, is described in the manner of a Roman sacrifice, and the attendant imagery is that of a Roman marriage. The horrors of the underworld in Book 3 are interpreted allegorically to refer to some very Roman forms of punishment.29 In all these cases the primary reference is Greek and the ancillary image Roman. This piquant mixture of Greek and Roman elements, so typical of Latin literature in general, presupposes a reader with more than a perfunctory knowledge of Greek literature. The poem is addressed after all to Memmius, who, according to Cicero, was accomplished in Greek letters and contemptuous of Roman (Brutus 70.247). Clearly Lucretius has not made any special effort to trick out Greek philosophy in Roman dress. To appreciate the truth of this, one has only to compare the De rerum natura with the Roman philosophy of Cicero or even with the Astronomica of the plodding Manilius. The intractable theme of this latter work offered little scope for embellishment, but Manilius did his best to add a Roman touch wherever he could, even to the point of organizing the heavens after the pattern of the Roman republic, with some stars in the role of senators and others designated as knights, and the Milky Way taking the part of the populus Romanus (5.734-45). Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this preference for Greek over Roman examples is to be seen in Lucretius' treatment of religion. The religious theme is central to the poem, and if one holds the view that Lucretius' principal aim in writing it was to combat the influence of contemporary religion, one would expect

The De rerum natura of Lucretius / 49

the main target to be Roman. But, despite passing references to the parentatio (3.51) and to Etruscan prophecies (6.381), this is not what one finds. To take one example, the practice of divination was of considerable contemporary interest, with significant political and philosophical overtones,30 but although it is germane to Lucretius' subject, he has very little to say about it.31 The contrast with Cicero is striking. Mary Beard has an interesting discussion of Cicero's role in the development of philosophy at Rome.32 His achievement, she maintains, was not simply, or mainly, to make Greek ideas available to a Roman audience, but for the first time to treat Roman issues in philosophic terms. This is particularly evident in the religious works, where Roman practices are scrutinized in the light of Greek philosophy. Romans of an earlier generation who had concerned themselves with philosophy had not tried anything so ambitious. They were content by and large to explain what the Greeks actually said. Lucretius belongs to this older tradition. His aim is not to adapt, but to give as clear an account as he can of a system which won his assent and captured his imagination. There is remarkably little in the poem which speaks directly to the particular social and political problems of the Roman state.33 The disproportionate emphasis which Lucretius placed on the religious practices and concepts of the Greeks has puzzled critics. Two explanations have been offered: first, that the Roman reader was expected to infer Roman experience from Greek,34 and secondly, that Lucretius was writing in the tradition of Hellenistic didactic poetry, which was more receptive to the myth of Iphigenia than to a specific account of Italian religious practice.35 These explanations are not mutually exclusive and both may be true. What is important for the present argument is that both imply a reader of considerable sophistication. The first presupposes someone who was prepared to make the effort of cultural transposition,- and the second implies an attitude to literature which has been moulded by Greek, and especially by Hellenistic, tradition. This tells us something about the audience for whom the poem was intended. All the evidence we have discussed so far suggests that the De remm natura was written for a sophisticated readership with a

50 / The Criticism of Didactic Poetry familiar acquaintance with Greek culture, and that the poem made its greatest impact on the world of letters. But there are some ambiguities in the text itself which have to be considered. A century ago Ivo Bruns36 noted a contradiction between the naive beginner who stands in need of the honey on the lip of the cup and the more philosophically experienced reader who is capable of working out the implications of basic doctrine for himself. Critics with a historical bias have pointed to a different kind of contradiction. Wiseman, for example, felt the poem was aimed at two different classes of person, first the ordinary man in the street who needs to be rescued from the terrors of superstition, and secondly the upwardly mobile reader who would benefit most from Lucretius' earnest sermon on the dangers of ambition. To this problem, posed in historical terms, Wiseman offered a historical answer: 'that Lucretius started life as a comparatively humble citizen and then, when already launched on his great Epicurean evangel, successfully applied to Memmius for the benefits of his friendship and wrote much of his work in the comfort of Memmius' household.'37 Others have tried to explain the apparent contradiction in the poem by a biographical reconstruction, supposing that Lucretius began work as a didactic poet in the Hellenistic manner, but was then so overwhelmed by the Epicurean message that he embarked upon his evangelical crusade with all the zeal of a convert, eager to spread the good news to all who would listen.38 If this were true, Lucretius would not be the only preacher to become his own first convert. But there is no reason to believe that it is true, and such biographical fantasies do not carry us very far. It is more helpful, I think, to consider the influence of the didactic tradition. A didactic poem always implies two kinds of reader: the immediate pupil to whom the poem is addressed and the true reader to whom this sophisticated kind of poetry will appeal. Lucretius can hardly have expected his poem to be read by the kind of person who stood most in need of freedom from religious terror. There has been too much emphasis on Lucretius' missionary role. I do not doubt the poet's sincerity, but to see him as a preacher who happened to be a poet is to reverse the natural order of things. We must remember that in a didactic poem the choice of pupil

The De rerum natura of Lucretius / 51

is always part of the strategy of the text. We can learn much about a didactic work from the sort of person to whom it is dedicated. The letters of Epicurus are addressed to his friends and disciples; so it is natural that they exhibit a tone of easy familiarity and shared experience. Empedocles' Peri physeos is addressed to his pupil, Pausanias, who by virtue of his status as student can be expected to take the message of the poem seriously. But Lucretius dedicated his work to Memmius, and nothing that we know about Memmius gives us reason to believe that he would have been a sympathetic or enthusiastic student. Hence we must expect a difference of tone. The De rerum natura is a poem characterized by the rhetoric of persuasion. The reader implied by the text is not himself an Epicurean; rather he is portrayed as a beginner, progressing gradually one step at a time (pedetemptim progredientis, 5.533), fearful of falling into impiety, liable to backslide, inclined to argue and express doubt, yet intelligent enough to apply general principles, once understood, to problems which lie outside the poem. There is no need to take any of this literally or to suppose that Lucretius had high hopes that Memmius might be converted to join the brotherhood. In a didactic poem the poet must position himself with respect to his subject and to his reader, and his choice will determine the tone of the work. The character of Memmius in the De rerum natura is part of the fiction of the poem. We come now to the second of my two questions - concerning the relationship between the philosophy of the poem and its poetry. I want to argue that in a successful philosophical poem structure and language must be intimately related to thought. What in my view makes the De rerum natura a success is the fact that the philosophy of the poem informs and determines its poetic treatment. In attempting to put Epicurean physics into verse, Lucretius had several problems to solve. The first was to achieve unity in a large and complex body of material. Unity had not always been a requirement of didactic poetry. There are parts of Hesiod that have the appearance of random accretions. But such a model for the structure of a poem was no longer acceptable. The principle that a work of art should have a definite structure was, so far as I know, first enunciated by Plato in the

52 / The Criticism of Didactic Poetry

Phaedrus (264c), where Socrates argues that a speech should resemble a living creature, not having its head or feet missing. On the surface the problem of organization in a didactic poem seems easy to resolve: one simply follows the principal divisions of the subject, and that by and large is what Aratus does in the Phaenomena. Elder Olsen makes the point that mimetic poetry is ordered as to plot and didactic poetry is ordered as to doctrine.39 This is true enough in theory, but the reality is not so simple. We cannot be certain what Lucretius' sources were,- but it is becoming increasingly evident that whatever his model may have been, he did not follow it blindly. There are passages in the De rerum natura which are fairly close translations of surviving Epicurean texts, but no Epicurean source known to us preserves a version of the physics in the order in which Lucretius presents it. Epicurus wrote three works which might have served as models for Lucretius. The longest and most important of these was the Peri physeos in thirty-seven books. The other two, which covered some of the same ground but in briefer form, were the Letter to Herodotus (also known as the Little Epitome] and a larger summary called the Greater Epitome. The latter work is now lost, but the Letter has been preserved by Diogenes Laertius, and a sufficient number of fragments of the Peri physeos have survived to give at least some idea of its general structure. If we examine these two works, it becomes immediately clear that Lucretius did not follow the order of presentation of either of them. The De rerum natura is closer to the Letter than to the Peri physeos, but neither offers an exact model. In the Letter, for example, the discussion of sensation is placed between a paragraph on the infinite number of worlds and a longer account of the properties and parts of the atom. The first book of the Peri physeos introduces the doctrine of the atom and the void, and this is followed immediately in Book 2 by the theory of images. In neither case is the order of presentation parallel to that of the De rerum natura, which postpones the serious discussion of sensation until Book 4. To take another example, the important distinction between properties and accidents is not made in the Letter until after the account of the physical nature of the soul. In Lucretius it comes early in Book 1 (lines 449-58). Even in places where the

The De rerum natura of Lucretius / 53

model seems to be followed fairly closely/ there are differences in detail. Solmsen has pointed out that, while the opening presentation in Book 1 of the fundamental doctrines of Epicurean physics reproduces the general pattern of argument of the Letter to Herodotus, there is a significant omission in Lucretius of any general account of 'bodies.'40 Instead we are given a splendidly vivid passage which, according to Solmsen, is intended to break down the reader's resistance to the unfamiliar notion of invisible atoms and to give the poet the opportunity to display 'the ample resources of his poetic diction and imagination.' If this is true, then even in an important passage which sets out the basic doctrines of the system, we are aware of the poet's organizing and revising hand. At a more general level, Lucretius' tendency to draw out the moral consequences of his doctrine makes his account radically different from anything we have in Epicurus. There are striking examples in Books 3 and 4 where moralizing sermons interrupt the sequence of technical exposition. It is always possible to argue that the plan which Lucretius

followed already existed in the greater

Epicurean text, now lost. But the Greater Epitome must surely have borne some relationship to the Peri physeos, and it would be surprising if it anticipated the balanced structure of Lucretius' poem - the capacity to organize material in a coherent fashion was not, it seems, one of Epicurus' strong points.41 As for the possibility of a later source, Lucretius' persistent claim to be following in his master's footsteps and the closeness of many of his arguments to the surviving Greek texts suggest that the principal source was Epicurus himself. It seems impossible, therefore, to avoid the conclusion that the structure of the De rerum natura is Lucretius' own. In fact, he implies as much near the beginning of Book 2, when he introduces a new theory with the words: nunc locus est, ut opinor, in his illud quoque rebus confirmare tibi, nullam rem posse sua ui corpoream sursum ferri sursumque meare.


(Now, I think, is the proper place to prove that no body can move upwards or raise itself by its own force.);

54 / The Criticism of Didactic Poetry

and again in Book 5, when he begins a discussion of the mortality of the earth with the phrase: ... nunc hue rationis detulit ordo ut mihi mortali consistere corpore mundum natiuumque simul ratio reddunda sit esse

; (5.64-6)

(... the order of my plan has now brought me to the point where I must explain that the earth had a beginning and will have an end).

It may well be true that Lucretius' most significant contribution to the understanding of Epicurean philosophy lay in the structure which he imparted to the system. Everything suggests that he gave the matter considerable thought. The best solution to the textual crux in the prologue to Book 4 is still that of Mewaldt, who explained the double syllabus in that book by the hypothesis that Book 4 originally stood immediately after Book 2 and was later moved to its present position.42 This means that, even in the process of writing the poem, Lucretius was still struggling with problems of organization. The present order has a logical and satisfying structure. Books 1 and 2 lay the foundation by outlining basic doctrine, Books 3 and 4 deal with the soul and the senses, and Books 5 and 6 with the origin and nature of the world. One moves, therefore, from general principles, to man, to the universe. The famous passage on the fear of death, which inspired Dryden to a noble translation, now stands at the centre of the poem. This is the emotional apex of the work. It would be hard to believe that Lucretius did not intend it to be so. But this is only one aspect of the problem. However the various themes of the poem were ordered or combined, there would always have been a problem of establishing unity. The concluding paragraphs of the Letter to Herodotus offered Lucretius the prospect of a solution. Epicurus ends his letter by stressing the importance of philosophy in ridding mankind of those irrational fears which arise from the religion of the heavens and from belief in the eternal punishment of the soul. These are the themes of the De rerum natura, though Lucretius reverses

The De rerum natura of Lucretius / 55

the order, dealing, after the explanation of basic doctrine, first with the nature of the soul, and then with the material basis of the universe. It is the anti-religious framework which gives the work its unity. The relevance of this attack on religious obscurantism in the sceptical atmosphere of the first century has always been difficult to accept. This is especially so if, as I have argued, the poem was intended for a literate audience of considerable philosophical and cultural sophistication. The issue was first raised by Cicero, who thought the Epicureans were flogging a dead horse.43 Certainly some explanation for Lucretius' obsession with religion is necessary. Some have put it down to a neurotic state of anxiety; others see it as a genuine and idealistic attempt to free ordinary men from the terrors of superstition. But we should at least take into consideration the possibility of a structural explanation. The anti-theological bias was characteristic of Epicurean teaching. It is possible that Lucretius saw in it the theme which would give unity to his work. It is indeed hard to imagine what the De rerum natura would be like if stripped of its anti-theological framework. Lucretius saw that philosophy and poetry could be joined together. A characteristic Epicurean doctrine, somewhat shop-worn it is true, could provide the poem with a unity of tone and structure. The second problem which Lucretius had to face was to find an appropriate rhetoric for the poem. By addressing his message to the kind of reader I have been describing, he already had determined the tone and nature of the poem. Lucretius' implied reader is someone who has to be persuaded and counselled against aligning himself with any of the false prophets, popular or philosophical, whose ideas are countered in the poem. Much of the Epicurean corpus seems to have been polemical in tone. Lucretius, by giving space to opposing views, captures something of the polemical spirit of his model. The two most common forms of proof in the poem are the argument from analogy and the reductio ad absurdum.44 Both of these are grist to the poet's mill, but the second in particular contributes to the dialectical tone of the work. A didactic poem is by definition a monologic form. The didactic poet, like the lyric poet, speaks in his own voice. We may recall that, when Aristotle denied Empedocles the status of poet,

56 / The Criticism of Didactic Poetry

it was the lack of dramatic action in his work which disqualified it as poetry. But, as Jan Mukarovsky has shown,45 not all monologic forms are the same; there is often an implied dialogue within the structure of the monologue. It would be an oversimplification to see the De rerum natura as a monologue - the teacher telling the pupil what to think. Everywhere one feels the presence of other characters: the master Epicurus, the disciple Lucretius, the questioning reader, and above all the largely anonymous representatives of the philosophical opposition. It is the manipulation of this impressive cast of characters which gives the poem much of its dramatic punch and accounts for the element of satire. Here too we should not forget the role of tradition. From Hesiod on, didactic poetry had been a mixed genre, incorporating within itself elements which belong properly to epic and to satire. Some of the famous set pieces in the De rerum natura are among the most brilliant examples of satire in the Latin language. The De rerum natura is not a poem of description, but a poem of argument. What Lucretius needed was a method of arguing in verse. The approach of the early Greek cosmologists was essentially dogmatic: they preferred assertion to argument.46 But with Parmenides we have a philosopher who both wrote in verse and was capable of a tight philosophical argument. Empedocles, especially in the Katharmoi, is inclined to the hierophantic statement, but he too showed how it was possible to conduct an argument in verse - and with a greater feeling for the values of poetry than Parmenides possessed. The De rerum natura is from start to finish a long and passionate argument, carefully organized and pursued relentlessly. The reader is allowed no escape from the remorseless logic of the text. The poet's own image for the process is of a dog tracking an animal to its lair. As Cyril Bailey put it: The reader ... is continuously aware of a powerful intelligence that delights, and communicates its pleasure, in its own logical processes ... he chose a form of expression that would carry the tone of high seriousness and its emotional overcharge, and, at the same time, express with clarity the measured excitement of his argument/47

The De rerum natura of Lucretius / 57

Yet, some would argue, the intellectual excitement to which Bailey points is essentially the excitement of prose. To this we can only reply that argument is not in itself necessarily incompatible with poetry. Many fine poems, even lyric poems, are cast in the form of argument. Some of Catullus' best lyrics are structured in this way; and Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress is a long argument pursued with all the skill of a practised attorney. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the tighter an argument is and the more it focuses the reader's attention on the logic of the proposition, the less likely it is to succeed as poetry. Bolingbroke warned Pope of this and cited Lucretius as an example to be avoided: Should the poet make syllogisms in verse, or pursue a long process of reasoning in the didactic style, he would be sure to tire his reader on the whole, like Lucretius, tho he reasoned better than the roman, and put into some parts of his work the same poetical fire. He may write, as you have begun to do, on philosophical subjects, but he must write in his own character. He must contract, he may shadow, he has a right to omit whatever will not be cast in the poetic mold, and when he cannot instruct, he may hope to please. But the philosopher has no such privileges.48

We cannot suppose that Lucretius would have taken kindly to this advice. The philosophical half-measures which Bolingbroke recommended would have seemed to him a betrayal of his mission,- for although he was ready to reorganize and rethink Epicurus' argument, he was not prepared to throw overboard the heavier parts of the cargo. In fact his success as a didactic poet can best be judged in those passages where he has to deal with a complex technical argument. Take, for example, the proof of the infinity of the universe in Book 1, lines 958 following. The original form of the argument is preserved in the Letter to Herodotus and in a version by Cicero. Cicero was impressed by the cogency of Epicurus' logic and cited it as evidence that the Epicureans were not the logical dullards which the Stoics liked to make them out to be (Div. 2.103). Lucretius begins with his own version of Epicurus:

58 / The Criticism of Didactic Poetry omne quod est igitur nulla regione uiarum finitumst; namque extremum debebat habere. extremum porro nullius posse uidetur esse, nisi ultra sit quo finiat; ut uideatur quo non longius haec sensus natura sequatur. nunc extra summam quoniam nil esse fatendum, non habet extremum, caret ergo fine modoque. (1.958-64) (The universe, therefore, is not limited in any direction. For, if it were, it would have to have an outer limit. And nothing can have an outer limit unless there is something beyond it to mark the boundary, so that a point is reached beyond which our senses can follow the object no further. Now since we must confess that there is nothing beyond the sum of things, it cannot have an outer limit and has therefore no end or boundary.)

This lacks the intellectual elegance of Epicurus' formulation, but it is clear and effective writing. As a statement of a central doctrine it is admirable; and if one of the uses of poetry is to give clear and precise expression to an important message, then this is poetry. But Lucretius is not content with a simple formulation, however melodiously expressed. It is in what follows that we see the shaping hand of the poet. First, he draws the reader directly into the argument: 'nor does it matter in what region of the world you stand; for whatever position one takes up, the universe is still infinite in all directions' (1.965-7). There is no parallel for this in Epicurus, and the addition is almost certainly Lucretius' own, for it is characteristic of him to bring the argument down from the abstract to the personal.49 There follows at this point the famous illustration of the spear, which is again likely to be Lucretius' invention, though a somewhat similar argument is to be found in Archytas. If the world is finite, than what happens when a spear is hurled from its edge? Either it flies beyond the limit or is stopped in its flight; in either case there must be something outside the limit. Once again the reader is buttonholed and forced to respond to the argument: 'You must give in and accept one or other of these alternatives, but both cut off

The De lerum natura of Lucretius / 59

your escape and force you to concede ...' (1.974-6). The passage ends with a brilliant pun: effugiumque fugae prolatet copia semper


(and the ample room for the spear's flight will put off your escape).50

This is more than effective rhetoric, for behind the illustration of the spear Bignone recognized the image of the Roman fetial priest hurling his spear across the boundary as a signal of war, and this interpretation is supported by the military use of the verb procurrat (1.969), a technical term for the run which precedes the throwing of a spear. An abstract argument has been touched by the imagination and turned into poetry. Lucretius had one advantage in formulating the argument of his poem. Epicureanism stressed the central importance of the evidence of the senses. The unseen can be known only through analogy with the seen. So illustration from the visible world is not just a poetic embellishment, but part of the fabric of the philosophical argument. It is surprising that Epicurus himself made only infrequent use of illustration to establish his fundamental principles. His arguments as a rule are highly abstract in nature. To cite just one example, his proof of the existence of void takes the form of a hypothetical syllogism (Diogenes Laertius 10.40): Void exists, because If there were no void, there could be no motion. But motion exists, therefore void exists.

It is interesting to observe how Lucretius deals with this (1.32957). First he enunciates the proposition and informs us, characteristically, how important the doctrine is for understanding the whole philosophy. Then he gives us a somewhat looser version of Epicurus' syllogism. At this point he bursts out into a series of images to illustrate the porosity of things: water trickling into

60 / The Criticism of Didactic Poetry

rocky caves, food passing through the bodies of animals, trees growing and giving their fruit in due season, sounds passing through a wall, and cold working its way to the bone. The passage is interesting because the same argument is repeated near the end of the poem (6.942-58), this time with a new series of images: water dripping from the roof of a cave, sweat oozing from the body, cold and heat passing through gold and silver vessels, and finally disease and storm entering our world from outside. None of these things would be possible, Lucretius argues, if void did not exist. The argument is perfectly Epicurean, but it is translated into a crescendo of images, and the final image in the passage in Book 6 not only illustrates the principle in question, but anticipates the discussion of the nature of epidemics with which the poem concludes. The De rerum natura is a poem which is essentially ratiocinative, and many of the arguments which Lucretius uses appeal primarily to the intellect. But he never gets very far before he bursts forth into a series of pictures which not only illustrate the point at issue, but kindle the imagination. Skill in the use of metaphor was, according to Aristotle, the mark of the true poet (Poetics 1459a). The richness of Lucretius' imagery is testimony to his desire to be seen as a poet, not as a philosopher. The contrast with the severely abstract language of Epicurus is striking. The language of philosophy, according to the principles laid down in the Epicurean Canon, should depart as little as possible from normal and ordinary usage. There are occasional hints in the poem of this more orthodox position.51 In Book 3 (130-5), for example, those who hold that the soul is a harmony (harmonia] are chastised for using the word in a transferred sense. In Book 1 (641-4), Heraclitus is condemned for his uerba inuersa, an attack perhaps on allegory or, more probably, on the use of tropes in general. And at the end of the famous allegory of the Magna Mater (2.655-60) a certain uneasiness is expressed about the uses of metonymy. But a poet could not afford to maintain such severity in his attitude towards language, and Lucretius made no effort to write in the cramped manner of his philosophical master. Lucretius' imagery is one of the most impressive features of his work, and it has naturally attracted a good deal of critical

The De rerum natuia of Lucretius / 61

attention. What must strike the ordinary reader is the sheer profusion of images in the poem. Most come from nature, although, like Empedocles, Lucretius draws many of his most effective images from crafts and techniques. The vividness and accuracy of the technical references to medicine and to the building trades led Wiseman to conjecture that Lucretius may have worked at some time in his career both as a carpenter and a pharmacist.52 But there are other vivid images in the poem images from law, politics, war, public events, chariot-racing, and the theatre. In fact, the range of Lucretius' pictorial imagination is extraordinary. There is nothing quite like it in any other Latin poet. In the discussion of perception in the opening pages of Book 4 the existence of the 'idols' is proved by reference to wood smoke, heat from a fire, the coat of a cicada, the cauls of calves, skin sloughed off from a snake, and the reflected colour of theatre awnings. The account which follows of the origin and function of the 'idols' is illustrated by a further series of lively pictures: of cloud formations, sunrise, starlight reflected in water, cliffs eaten by the surge of the sea, the aroma of wormwood, the salt tang of the sea, the rush of the wind, stubbing one's toe against a stone, reversing mirrors, a plaster mask dashed against a pillar, the yellowing effect of jaundice which 'paints the vision,' a square tower in the distance which appears to be round as though 'turned on a lathe,' and shadows moving in the sunlight (which is itself compared to wool fed into a flame). This gallery of images comes from a passage of not much over three hundred lines. It is in no way exceptional, being mainly a highly technical account of the physics of perception. It is followed by a brilliant series of descriptions of optical illusions. Moreover, besides these formal comparisons and illustrations, the language of the basic scientific argument is vividly metaphorical. The 'idols' fly, and walk, and swim, and leap back, and return; sunlight waters the heavens, and one beam of light is goaded by another; air brushes through the eye and purges it of darkness; the marble stage flutters with colour. And interwoven with all this brilliance and colour, there runs a darker thread: the 'faces of black fear' (173), the 'night of clouds' (172) 'the black air of darkness' (338), the 'caverns of the sky' (171), and the strange and threatening visions

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of monsters and giants which form spontaneously in the clouds (134-42). All of these images are there for a purpose. Lucretius shows a remarkable talent for finding an apt image to illuminate even the most technical parts of his argument. Very little in the poem is purely decorative. There is an uncharacteristic example in Book 5, where Lucretius illustrates the regularity of the heavens with a pictorial representation of the regular succession of the seasons. it Ver et Venus et Veneris praenuntius ante pennatus graditur, Zephyri uestigia propter Flora quibus mater praespargens ante uiai cuncta coloribus egregiis et odoribus opplet. inde loci sequitur Calor aridus et comes una puluerulenta Ceres etesia flabra aquilonum. inde Autumnus adit, graditur simul Euhius Euan. inde aliae tempestates uentique secuntur, altitonans Volturnus et Auster fulmine pollens. tandem Bruma niues adfert pigrumque rigorem reddit. Hiemps sequitur crepitans hanc dentibus algu. (5.737-47) (Spring and Venus go their way, and the winged harbinger of Venus steps on before,- and close on Zephyr's footprints mother Flora straws all the way before them and covers it over with the choicest colours and odours. Next in order follows parching heat, and in its company dusty Ceres, and the etesian blasts of the north winds. Next autumn advances and Euhius Euan steps on together. Then other seasons and winds follow, loud-roaring Volturnus and the southwind stored with lightning. At last midwinter brings with it snows and gives back benumbing cold; after it follows winter with teeth chattering with cold.)53

This is pretty writing and it supports well enough the argument that in nature things happen in due succession. But it smacks too much of the purple patch, and the use of myth purely as ornament is rare in the poem. The intrusive presence of Cupid, 'the winged harbinger of Venus/ so troubled Lachmann that he emended him out of the text. Lucretius generally avoids the

The De rerum natura of Lucretius / 63

picturesque. As Santayana has said,54 he is 'not particularly a poet of landscape. He runs deeper than that; he is a poet of the source of landscape, a poet of matter.' Many of his images bubble up out of the philosophy itself. The poem is about natma, 'coming to birth,' and the ultimate constituents of matter are atoms, which Epicurus called 'seeds.' The imagery of birth and the agricultural metaphor of seeds are fundamental to the poem. There is a similar transfer of images in the treatment of epistemological doctrine in the poem. Epicurus had called his method of scientific inquiry 'the canon.' Lucretius expands the implied image of 'the rule' into a splendid passage about the disastrous consequences of laying out a building with faulty rules and levels and squares. The foundations of a building, and of a philosophy, must be secure (4.513-21). And again, if we consider Lucretius' ethical teaching, the recurrent image in the poem of calm and storm was perhaps suggested by the Epicurean concept of ccTccpa£{a. Comparisons of this sort are not simply ornament; for there is a structural relationship between the imagery of the poem and its thought.55 Many of Lucretius' most effective images are adapted from the philosophical tradition. The Presocratic philosophers were not generally so severe in their use of language as Epicurus. Lucretius borrowed freely whatever suited his purpose. The delightful image of the motes in the sunbeam is found in Democritus (Aristotle, De anima 404a 1-6); the worn ring first appears in Melissus of Samos (Diels-Kranz 1. 274, B 8.3); and the comparison of the atoms to the letters of the alphabet, which is used six times in the poem, seems to go back to the early atomists (cf Aristotle, Metaph. 985b 15-19 and Gen. con. 315b 9-15). Lucretius took over the standard illustrations from the textbooks of philosophy and gave them a new life and a sensuous existence in his poem. Once again poetry and philosophy work hand in hand. I have been stressing the functional nature of Lucretius' imagery. But it might be argued that the more precise and intellectual an image is, the less effectively will it work as poetry.56 When a scientist illustrates the structure of the atom with a pretty picture of rods and coloured balls, he is not functioning as a poet. Modern views on this subject differ widely from those current in antiquity. Ancient theorists tended to

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stress the functional aspects of imagery. Aristotle, Philodemus, and the author of the Ad Herennium all record the same belief, that one of the principal uses of comparison is to achieve clarity.57 Admittedly, their comments are concerned mainly with prose, but it is evident that verse was thought to function in the same way; that is to say, comparisons in general and metaphor in particular are useful to the poet for clarifying an argument. It follows from this that if an image is to succeed in fulfilling this function, the point of comparison must be obvious; anything farfetched or obscure would defeat the purpose. As Aristotle put it, 'metaphors, like epithets, must be fitting' (Rhetoric 3.2. 1405a), and by 'fitting' he must have meant 'appropriate in meaning to the thing compared.' There is little room in such a theory for Eliot's 'patient etherized upon a table' or for his Mr Apollinax who 'laughed like an irresponsible foetus.' Modern critics have more to say about metaphor than about simile and are less concerned with the semantic appropriateness of a comparison than with its emotional impact and imaginative boldness. The following is a typical contemporary formulation of how an image ought to function: Their point [i.e., the point of metaphors] is to restructure the reader's feelings by opening, between commonplace words, channels of analogy through which feelings attached to one set of words and what they mean may flow and embrace other words, and what they mean.'58 Judged by this standard, an illustration whose purpose is primarily to clarify a text may seem unexciting and even prosaic. This was the point made by Bruno Snell about the imagery of Empedocles.59 He noted that many of Empedocles' similes, like those of Homer, begin with the formula 'just as a man who ...' and that both poets use images from skills and crafts. But here for Snell the similarity ended, since, with very few exceptions, Homer's similes are introduced to illuminate a human action, while in Empedocles the comparison is not with a human action, but with a physical property. Thus the principle under discussion and the action with which it is compared are examined precisely for what they have in common, and the result, in SnelPs view, is essentially prosaic. This criticism may not be entirely fair to Empedocles, whose similes have a remarkable life and vitality. But Snell is right to point to a danger

The De reium natuia of Lucretius / 65

which faces all didactic poets. An apt illustration is not necessarily a good image. But, as will be clear from the examples already cited, Lucretius' imagery goes far beyond the somewhat mechanical resemblances which Snell complained of in the writings of Empedocles. In fact, formal similes in the Homeric manner are relatively infrequent in the De rerum natura. Metaphor is commoner than simile/both are sometimes combined in the same passage.60 But the majority of Lucretius' comparisons are not similes in the strict sense. He prefers a series of pictures somewhat loosely tied to the argument. They rarely constitute by themselves a logical proof of the point at issue. They have a different function. Scientific truth is difficult to grasp. Some of the concepts cannot be understood without an effort of the imagination. Lucretius' images provide that imaginative support to help the reader grasp the point. In a typical pattern each illustration in a series approaches more closely to the doctrine which it illustrates until the final image is not just an illustration of the process, but an example of it. This piling up of images and comparisons, often elaborated beyond the immediate needs of the argument, is not simply a matter of poetic decoration. It has a larger purpose than mere embellishment. For it is by this means that Lucretius reveals the unity of his picture of the world. If the sun and the moon can be compared with a fire in the distance, or if the rising of the primeval ether has its parallel in the phenomenon of the morning mist, it is because all obey the same laws. Lucretius' universe is a rational place and is guided everywhere by the same forces. It is not just a poet's fancy which compares the great structures of the world with things that are ordinary and familiar. All are part of the same dance of atoms in the infinite void. The functional nature of Lucretius' art is evident also in his language. The poem abounds in wordplay of every kind. Normally what happens in wordplay is that similar sounds which are not related in sense are juxtaposed, creating a certain feeling of freedom or incongruity. Freud thought of wit as a playful escape from the inhibiting constraints of reason,61 and there are examples of wordplay in the poem which satisfy this definition. But often Lucretian word-play has a different effect. His puns

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frequently underscore relationships of sense. Assonance and alliteration in phrases like 'Ennius ... perenni/ and 'numen mentis momenque/ and 'callida Musa Calliope' are not just attractive to the ear, but also accentuate meaning. This has led some critics to advance the improbable theory of an atomological view of language in the poem and to hold that Lucretius believed that there is a semantic relationship between words with the same or similar letters, just as there is a physical relationship between objects composed of the same or similar atomic shapes. Thus fire [ignis] comes from wood (lignum}, and the two Latin words have half their letters in common. But the theory is unnecessary and, in its view of the nature of language, unEpicurean.62 It does point, however, to the important fact that wordplay in Lucretius, far from suggesting an escape from logic, frequently underpins the argument. The logic of the content controls the wit of the poem. Something similar might be claimed about rhythm. In Lucretius the structure of the verse supports and punctuates the argument. The units of discourse tend to coincide with the end of the line or with the caesura. This careful articulation of the argument is an important aid to clarity. One does not get the impression that an argument, originally conceived in prose, has been draped over the rhythms of the hexameter. One feels, rather, that the poet has found a way of expressing himself naturally within the constraints of his metre. There were obvious dangers in this way of writing. To allow the thought of the poem and its rhythms to correspond too neatly would have produced a painfully monotonous effect. Yeats wanted his contemporaries 'to cast out of serious poetry those energetic rhythms, as of a man running, which are the invention of the will with its eyes always on something to be done or undone,' and to substitute 'wavering, meditative, organic rhythms, which are the embodiment of the imagination.'63 There is nothing 'wavering' about Lucretian verse. The tone is everywhere precise and positive. Yet a clear and assertive manner of writing that hammered home the message of the work would not have served Lucretius' purpose either. A didactic poet must make compromises. What Lucretius needed was a verse line that was regular enough so as not to

The De rerum natura of Lucretius / 67

interfere with the flow of the argument and yet lively enough to hold the reader's interest. He achieved this in large measure by the varied effects of his metrics and by the judicious use of enjambement. Buchner pointed out that enjambement was slightly more frequent in the carefully worked prologues than in the argumentative parts of the poem,64 and this is exactly what one would expect, given the need for a clear articulation of the argument. But there is nothing mechanical about Lucretius7 practice. By Buchner's own criteria it is possible to show that, for example, the famous passage on the fear of death has fewer enjambed lines than the average for the book. The old theory of 'two styles' in Lucretius, one for the purple patches and another for the argument, does not work. If one examines a long stretch of argument in the poem, it will become clear that the frequency of enjambement varies greatly from paragraph to paragraph. The dominant characteristics of Lucretian verse are variety and energy. Those who have charted the development of hexameter verse in Latin have generally placed Lucretius among the conservatives, who, as Duckworth puts it, followed 'the easier road towards greater repetition and monotony.'65 It is true that, compared with Cicero, Lucretius represents a reaction towards the manner of the earlier poets, especially in the treatment of the rhythmic patterns at the end of the line and in the frequency of fourth-foot homodyne.66 But monotonous his verse is not. Duckworth's ample statistics are almost wholly concerned with the quantitative patterns of the first four feet, and he makes only passing reference to word accent or to the varied rhythms at the end of the line. The consequence of such an analysis is to treat a verse like ungula quo tulerit gressum promissa canum uis


as though it belonged in the same class as cogit, eoque modo seruantur saecla ferarum


though the rhythmical effect is quite different. Again, if we consider a line like:

68 / The Criticism of Didactic Poetry pocula crebra, unguenta, coronae, serta parantur


the quantitative pattern is perfectly common, but the trochaic caesura and the total coincidence of accent and ictus in all six feet make the rhythm striking and unusual. Or listen to the extraordinary effect of a line like: fana lacus lucos aras simulacraque diuum.


Here again there is nothing startling about the quantitative pattern, but the alliterative jingle lacus/lucos and the succession of four dissyllables in a row create a unique musical effect which is an appropriate accompaniment to the ironic tone of the argument. While it is true that there are more homodyned fourth feet in Lucretius than in Virgil and that this tends towards a monotonous regularity at the end of the line, yet if we examine the whole line and take into account the fact that 6 per cent of Lucretius' verses have a clash of accent and ictus in the last two feet, the charge of monotony is hard to sustain. It is wrong to think of the Lucretian hexameter as ponderous and antique.67 Clearly, it is not enough to limit one's analysis to the interweaving patterns of dactyls and spondees in the first four feet. The special character of the Lucretian hexameter depends upon a combination of factors which include, in addition to the quantitative patterns, the sounds of the language, the position of the caesura, and the placing of the word accent. When all of these are taken into account, it is possible to show, what one's ear knew all along, that the Lucretian hexameter is varied to an extraordinary degree. The dignified music of Lucretius' conservative metrics suits the seriousness of the message, and the lively and varied rhythms keep the reader engaged and alert. The whole sound of the verse, with its alliteration, assonance, and repetition, underscores the claim that something important is being said calling for appropriate emphasis. These are the 'energetic rhythms, as of a man running,' which Yeats found uncongenial. But the poetry of argument requires a different sound from that which is appropriate to romantic lyric. Even in such a technical matter as metre, considerations of genre affect the poet's choice.

The De rerum natura of Lucretius / 69

I have been suggesting that this is not a poem about a man having thoughts, but a poem made out of the thoughts themselves. But this would not by itself be sufficient to explain the effect which it has. It has often been asked why Lucretius chose to write about Epicurean physics rather than about the other two elements of the system, the ethics and the theory of knowledge. After all, the physics was the least original part of Epicurus' philosophy, while the study of ethics had a broad Roman appeal, and contemporary philosophy was dominated by the problem of knowledge. No doubt part of the answer lies in Lucretius' admiration for Empedocles and his desire to emulate the older form of didactic poetry. But I am convinced that there is more to it than that. The physical system of Epicurus provided a vision of the majesty of the world which appealed at the same time to the imagination and the intellect. Metrodorus of Lampsacus, Epicurus' closest friend and disciple, recognized this quality in the master's philosophy. 'Remember ...'he wrote, 'that, although you have been born a mortal and have but a limited span of life, you have ascended, in your soul, to eternity and have seen the infinitude of the world and looked upon those things "that will be and that were before."'68 Eliot thought Lucretius did not succeed as a poet because his philosophy was 'not rich enough in variety of feeling/ and was therefore 'incapable of complete expansion into pure vision.'69 The implications of this view for the nature of poetry brought forth a sharp rebuke from Edmund Wilson, who thought that Eliot allowed too narrow a role for thought in poetry.70 I should want to argue, in opposition to Eliot, that Lucretius is pre-eminently a poet with a vision. In a stimulating essay on the nature of poetry, Thomas McFarland defines the essence of poetry as generated by the simultaneous awareness of our existence in past, present, and future.71 This awareness is an important element in Lucretius' vision. His poem is dominated by a sense of past and future. The reader stands at a point in time and sees the whole universe unfold between the poles of birth and decay. Everything in our world is seen as transient, caught for a moment between creation and dissolution. When Ovid read the De rerum natura, what he remembered most vividly was not the great set pieces on love or

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mortality, but the sombre picture of our world's ultimate destruction.72 This awareness of past and future gives to poetry its deep human interest and its power to move us. We alone in the universe have this capacity to live not only in the present, but simultaneously in both past and future. What poetry does is to make us aware of our existential destiny. The Muses are indeed, as Hesiod said, the daughters of Memory, and a poet is not just a maker, but also a uates, a prophet. Poetry reaches into the past and into the future and illuminates the present. No poem from classical antiquity is so filled with this sense of being and becoming. It is the philosophical poem par excellence. IF WE NOW TRY TO PLACE the De rerum natura within the scheme which was developed at the end of the previous essay, it is clear that the poem must be included in the class of didactic works which take their didactic message seriously. But there is a danger that we may define its didactic role too narrowly. This is not Greek philosophy for the Greekless reader. The loss of the greater part of Epicurus' writings has given the De rerum natura a prominence in the history of ancient philosophy which it was never designed to have. As we have seen, it was only in late antiquity that it was read primarily as a philosophic text. The contemporary interest in transferring Greek philosophical ideas into Latin was not simply a matter of spreading the good news. It is true that Cicero often speaks as though his treatises were intended first and foremost to bring the treasures of Greek philosophy to those who knew no Greek. But this was not the only reason why Latin writers turned to Greek philosophy. Cicero himself, in the De finibus (1.4), has a different defence of his philosophical writings. He argues that, just as one reads the Roman dramatists for pleasure even though the Greek originals on which the Latin plays are based were still available, so the Roman reader will take pleasure in reading philosophy in Latin even when the same ideas are available in Greek; even Greek-speaking readers will find such works enjoyable (Academica 1.6). For this kind offind such works enjoyable (Academica 1.6). For this kind of audience, style is all-important. Slovenly writers like Amafinius do not meet the need because the clumsiness of their style permits no pleasure in the text. Lucretius too stresses the need for

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grace of style. The poem must first of all succeed as a poem. I do not deny the sincerity of Lucretius' devotion to Epicurean ideas, nor am I deaf to the evangelical note which is sounded throughout the poem. But neither should we neglect the evidence of the poem's reception nor fail to take account of the sort of reader that is implied in the text. The prior purpose of an Epicurean poem must surely be to give pleasure rather than to convert the unregenerate. Quintilian argues (Inst. 1.44) that the student of literature must study philosophy in order to understand the poets, and he singles out for special mention Empedocles, Varro, and Lucretius. That is to say, one does not study Lucretius in order to understand Epicurus: one studies Epicurus in order to understand Lucretius. This is perhaps to put the point too strongly, to separate the utile and the dulce more widely than most ancient theorists would have allowed. But it is an illuminating comment none the less; for it shows that, even in the first century of our era, the De rerum natura was not a self-explanatory text. The didacticism of the poem, therefore, must come from its literary tradition rather than from any intention on Lucretius' part to fill a gap in the education of his fellow citizens. What the poem demonstrates is that the Epicurean vision was large enough to engage the mind and imagination of a poet.


The Philosophical Language of Lucretius

It is a commonplace of modern criticism that form and content are indissoluble. Something like this view seems to have been anticipated by the Epicureans themselves, for the philosopher Philodemus, a contemporary of Lucretius, made a very similar point and seems to have understood better than most ancient critics the importance of form in literature.1 But Lucretius, if we may judge by what he says, or implies, in the poem itself, took an older view of the matter. His famous image of poetry as honey on the lip of the cup presupposes a very primitive doctrine of form and content: for it implies that style is something which is poured over the message of the poem to make it acceptable to unwilling or recalcitrant ears. sed ueluti pueris absinthia taetra medentes cum dare conantur, prius oras pocula circum contingunt mellis dulci flauoque liquore, lit puerorum aetas improuida ludificetur labrorum terms, interea perpotet amarum absinthi laticem deceptaque non capiatur, sed potius tali facto recreata ualescat, sic ego mine ... uolui tibi suauiloquenti carmine Pierio rationem exponere nostram et quasi musaeo dulci contingere melle; si tibi forte animum tali ratione tenere uersibus in nostris possem, dum perspicis omnem naturam rerum, qua constet compta figura.


The Philosophical Language of Lucretius / 73 (But just as doctors, when they want to administer foul-tasting wormwood to children, first smear the lip of the cup with sweet, yellow honey, to fool the young unsuspecting children as far as the lips at least, so that, before they know what they are doing, they drink down the bitter draft of wormwood, cheated, but not mistreated, and are thus revived and made well, so now I ... have chosen to set forth my philosophy in sweet Pierian song, touching all with the sweet honey of the Muses,- to see if perhaps in this manner I may be able to hold your attention upon my verses, until you see the whole nature of things, its shape and form.)

I have described the view implied here as 'primitive/ but in fact it underlies many more modern theories of literature. For if we hold that literature consists of a message plus something which gives it the status of literature, 'what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed/ we are indicating our allegiance to the same theory. Lucretius' image and the whole ancient tradition that literature combines 'the useful with the sweet' are based on this same dichotomy of form and content. What is interesting about Lucretius is that his practice was superior to his theory; for he understood as well as any didactic poet in antiquity how to match form and content. This problem of finding a suitable style in which to say what needs to be said exists for all poets and indeed for all writers, but it is especially acute for didactic poets because of the nature of their subject matter. In particular, the technical aspects of a scientific subject create special difficulties. Here the problem of matching form and content is not easy to resolve. The didactic poet must try to find an appropriate vocabulary which will both do justice to the argument and at the same time fit into the general style of the poem. In this essay I want to concentrate on the problem of translating philosophical terms into Latin. I propose to consider where Lucretius stood in the development of a philosophical language in Rome, how he translated Greek technical terms into Latin, what contribution, if any, he made to the vocabulary of Epicurean philosophy in the Latin language, and what were the constraints which determined the way in which he tried to find an answer to these questions.

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Perhaps we should begin by asking: How serious was the linguistic problem for Lucretius? Or to put the question in a different way: How far did Epicurus' philosophy depend on the acceptance of a wide range of technical terms? Epicurus sometimes speaks as though ordinary language was the proper medium for philosophy. 'Our usage/ he writes, 'does not depart from ordinary language, nor do we alter names in the case of things evident [to the senses]' (Arrighetti 31.14.8-12: p. 306). The same point (about the use of ordinary language) is made by Diogenes Laertius (10.13), though he also records the adverse judgment of Aristophanes the grammarian, that Epicurus' Greek is 'too idiosyncratic.' Not only does Diogenes commend Epicurus for his use of ordinary language, but he praises him for the clarity of his style and remarks that Epicurus prized this quality above everything else. Clarity, unfortunately, is not a readily recognizable feature of Epicurus' Greek as it confronts the reader today. Had Epicurus written in the language of ordinary speech and striven for clarity beyond all else, the problems for Lucretius would have been considerably eased. A technical language requires precision and definition. When we say that such and such a word is a technical term, we mean that it has been assigned a special use, and we have a right to expect that, whenever a given concept is invoked, it will be referred to by the term assigned to it and by no other. A precise and consistent terminology is generally held to be essential to scientific discourse. Richard McKeon underlines the importance which Aristotle attached to definition: 'For Aristotle the definition of terms and the establishment of principles are the beginnings of the scientific enterprise. Words may have many meanings, and Aristotle frequently enumerates divergent senses of a given word. But in science they must be terms and must therefore be univocal.'2 Epicurus' attitude to these issues was somewhat different. In antiquity the charge was often made against the Epicureans that they were not interested in logic and rejected definition.3 But this is only partly true. The hesitation on the part of the Epicureans to begin an inquiry with a definition arises from their method of argument. It was a cardinal principle of their philosophy that all knowledge is ultimately based on empi-

The Philosophical Language of Lucretius / 75

rical evidence. One must begin, therefore, not with a definition, but with the evidence of the senses. Our knowledge of the gods, for example, depends not on any manipulation of words, but on the direct perception of their nature, upon the 'preconception' of their being, which is universal. But this did not prevent Epicurus from providing, by way of clarification, statements which have all the appearance of a definition. In Cicero's De finibus (1.42; 2.5) Torquatus, the Epicurean spokesman, defines the 'end' as 'that to which all right actions are referred while it is not itself referred to anything,' and Cicero taunts him with blundering imprudently into a definition against the principles of his school. But Epicurus would have argued that such statements were not, strictly speaking, definitions, but 'sketches' or 'outline descriptions' of a concept. Their purpose was not to define the nature of the concept, but to call to mind what we already know about it. There is plenty of evidence to show that Epicurus was deeply interested in the problem of the proper language for philosophy. He understood 'the difficulty of saying each thing rightly' (Arrighetti 31.12.22-4, p. 304) and was well aware of the philosophical confusion which can arise through the use of ambivalent terms. We know that he wrote a book On Ambiguity, though it is now lost. In the Peri physeos there is an intriguing sentence which seems to claim that 'every human error has no other form than that which occurs in the case of preconceptions and senseimpressions owing to the multiple usage of words.'4 Clearly Epicurus recognized that one cannot dispense altogether with a technical vocabulary. In his brief account of the origin of language in the Letter to Herodotus (75-6) he describes two distinct ways in which language develops. In the debate about the natural or rational origin of language he took a middle position. Language arises naturally, but then is refined and developed by reason: 'men who shared knowledge introduced things not previously seen and assigned names to them.' This last point is of particular relevance to the question of a technical language. Epicurus may have in mind the choice of new words to refer to new inventions in general, but he must surely also be thinking of the deliberate creation of a philosophical terminology.5 Such terminology, however, is not primary. Investigation must begin with the observa-

76 / The Criticism of Didactic Poetry

tion of physical reality, and it is only from this that philosophical concepts can be developed. As Elizabeth Asmis has said, 'Epicurus clearly held ... that technical language, like technical concepts, belongs to the outcome of an investigation and not to its beginning/6 It would be misleading, therefore, to say that Epicurus rejected definition in every possible sense of the term or that he believed that philosophy could be carried on without its own special vocabulary. If one looks at almost any page of Epicurus, one is immediately struck by the dry and technical nature of the language. Verbal nouns in -oiq abound - words like croyKpiaix;, dvTi|iapT\>pr|ai