It includes the translation from Bergson’s introduction to a French ed. of De rerum natura, by Lucretius published in 1884 under the title: Extraits de Lucre'ce.
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About the Author
In 1927 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “in recognition of his rich and vitalizing ideas and the brilliant skill with which they have been presented”. In 1930, he received France’s highest honor: the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.
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The Philosophy of Poetry
The Genius of Lucretius
By Henri Bergson
Philosophical LibraryCopyright © 1959 Philosophical Library, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Text of De Rerum Natura
Lucretius' poem is in all probability a complete work. The poet lists at the beginning of the first book (I, 127) the main subjects to be dealt with: the nature of the soul, the origin of the beliefs in spirits, celestial phenomena, first principles of natural phenomena, the natural production of things, etc., and each of these subjects is actually developed in the poem as it has come down to us. Besides that, Lucretius states formally at the beginning of his sixth book that this book is to be the last.
Yet it is obvious that Lucretius did not give his poem the finishing touches. Only the first book has the arguments methodically arranged. Since the poet refers repeatedly to the great importance which he attaches to a systematic arrangement of different parts and to the methodical grouping of proofs, it would seem that if he had had sufficient time at his disposal, he would have transposed whole paragraphs, intercalated transitions, and eliminated repetitions.
The poem was not published until after the poet's death. According to St. Jerome, Cicero was the one who edited it. It must be noted, however, that there is nothing in Cicero's writings to confirm St. Jerome's statement; in his correspondence he is silent on this point, and it is common knowledge that he was not accustomed to keep silent about his accomplishments. It is possible, as some hold, that St. Jerome was alluding, not to Cicero the orator, but to his brother Quintus. Still, St. Jerome used the name Cicero only to designate the orator. We must conclude that Lucretius' editor is unknown, and that even though the editor may have been Cicero, as tradition has it, nothing confirms this assumption.
It is hard to determine whether Lucretius' poem was fully appreciated at the outset. Cicero treated it with indifference. But we do know for a fact that the great writers of the Augustan age knew De Rerum Natura and constantly imitated Lucretius without naming him. Virgil was probably afraid that he would displease Augustus if he uttered the name of the old poet; only once did he risk a timid allusion:
Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
Atque metus omnes et inexorabile fatum
Subjecit pedibus, strepitumque Acheruntis avari!
Against that, a collection of all the expressions and hemistitches which Virgil borrowed from Lucretius would fill a volume. Whenever an idea previously expressed by Lucretius entered his mind, Virgil almost invariably used the same words. Alluding to those involved in civil wars:
... Gaudent in tristi funere fratris (III, 72),
Virgil could not keep from writing:
... Gaudent perfusi sanquine fratrum (Georgics, II, 510).
The words of Lucretius:
Primum Aurora novo cum spargit lumine terras ... (II, 144)
were repeated by Virgil:
Et jam prima novo spargebat lumine terras ... Aurora ... (Aeneid IX, 459).
Not only are there many imitations of Lucretius in Virgil's works; there are also passages suggested by Lucretius. Virgil would not have written:
... pueroque puer dilectus Iulo (Aeneid V, 269)
if Lucretius had not said:
Cum pueri circum puerum pernice chorea ... (II, 635).
More striking still is the manner in which Virgil repeatedly imitated Lucretius unsuspectingly. In one passage Lucretius states that the trees deck themselves out with branches because of rain:
... Ramique virescunt
Arboribus; crescunt ipsae, fetuque gravantur (I, 253.)
Virgil, who had Gallus express a different idea, placed the word arboribus at the beginning of a line. Immediately the word crescunt came to mind, though he was perhaps unaware of the reason, and the rest of the line followed the pattern set by Lucretius:
Arboribus; crescent illae, crescetis amores (Eclogues X, 51).
Many of his lines reproduce the rhythm and movement of lines from De Rerum Natura, yet fail to include the same words. Such imitations, unconscious perhaps, show how assiduously Virgil studied Lucretius and how completely he assimilated his poem. The ancients were aware of this. Aulu-Gelle stated: "We know for a fact that Virgil reproduced not only a host of expressions but almost whole passages written by Lucretius."
The writings of Ovid contain an equal number of imitations. But Ovid at least had the courage to state his opinion openly: "The sublime verses of Lucretius will live on until the end of the world." He borrowed many ideas from Lucretius but usually expressed them less forcibly. The beautiful lines from Lucretius:
Despicere unde queas alios, passimque videre Errare, atque viam palantes quaerere vitae ... (II, 9)
were adapted by Ovid:
Palantesque homines passim ac rationis egentes Despectare procul ... (Metamorphoses XV, 150).
He even imitated the same passage from Lucretius three or four times (I, 311); the movement and rhythm of the line:
Silva domus fuerat, cibus herba, cubilia frondes (Art of Love II, 475)
clearly echoes Lucretius' lines:
Terra cibum pueris, vestem vapor, herba cublie Praebebat ... (V, 813).
Moreover, a thorough study of Virgil's and Ovid's imitations would bring to light an extraordinary fact. Virgil and Ovid often—generally, in fact—borrow the same expressions and copy the same passages from Lucretius. There is only one explanation, I believe, for these coincidences. During the Augustan age Lucretius' poem must have been studied to such an extent—it must have become such a "classic"—that a number of its expressions had become proverbial. When Latin poetry was stressed in our schools, certain final lines from Virgil, for instance, appeared frequently in students' papers; too well known to allow plagiarism, they were nevertheless adaptable enough to tempt students to inject them into their papers. That is how certain expressions from De Rerum Natura had probably come to be looked upon as public property. Consider only the obvious examples. Lucretius depicts youth:
Turn demum puero illi aevo florente juventas Occipit, et molli vestit lanugine malas (V, 885).
Henceforth, the last words of the second line, lanugine malas, were to find a place in many descriptions of youth. Ovid repeated the words three times. Immediately there comes to mind Virgil's line:
... flaventem prima lanugine malas (Aeneid X, 324).
In speaking of a mother's grief, Lucretius says:
Aeternumque daret matri sub pectore volnus (II, 638).
Three of Virgil's lines and one of Ovid's have the same ending. Lucretius ends his eulogy of Empedocles in this way:
Ut vix humana videatur stripe creatus (I, 733).
Virgil and Ovid both repeated the last two words. In a remarkable passage of Book III (893), Lucretius says:
Nec dulces occurent oscula nati Praeripere....
One line from Virgil's Georgics (II, 523) ends the same way:
... Dulces pendent circum oscula nati....
And Ovid wrote dedit oscula nato, dedit oscula natae, etc. The examples could be multiplied.
Horace imitated Lucretius less frequently. Epicurean in a wholly different sense, he was simply unable to appreciate the virile simplicity of the old poet. But even Horace chanced to reproduce locutions which had in all probability become proverbial. In Book I of his Satires, for example, the allusion is supposedly known to the reader:
... Namque deos didici securum agere aevum (5, 101),
for Lucretius had actually written:
Nam bene qui didicere deos securum agere aevum (VI, 58).
The foregoing citations, which could be multiplied indefinitely, suggest the preponderant influence which Lucretius had on classical literature. It is clear to any student of Latin poetry of the Augustan age that he was quoted by every writer. But by the end of the brilliant reign of Augustus, Lucretius' reputation had already begun to suffer. Overemphasis on form and detail made its appearance in literature. Lucretius was no longer read, for his poem is too unpretentious, too comprehensive. It was relegated to a place among routine treatises on physics. Vitruvius mentioned Lucretius in his writings but seemed to look upon him as little more than a physicist. A few years later Velleius Paterculus linked his name with Varron's. The same comparison was drawn by Quintilian who, in a different passage, called Lucretius difficilis. But in all probability Quintilian, to judge by his vague expressions, had not read De Rerum Natura but was merely expressing the commonly-held opinion of his time when he called Lucretius difficult. This is not in the least surprising. During periods of decadence literature and science follow uncharted paths; whatever expresses a profound thought is labeled obscure and clumsy. Furthermore, Lucretius expected to be misjudged:
... Quoniam haec ratio plerumque videtur Tristior esse quibus non est tractata.
It is possible that Stace had a better understanding and appreciation of Lucretius, but he used expressions which are decidedly vague. Lucretius' only readers at the end of the first century A.D. were a few persistent but not very enlightened admirers of classical literature. "Some people," said Aper disdainfully, "prefer Lucilius to Horace and Lucretius to Virgil." From that time on, Lucretius was almost entirely neglected. In the great battle waged between Christianity and waning paganism, Christians and pagans agreed on leaving him aside; pagans could not cite as one of their authorities the poet who had spoken out so violently against their gods; Christians vaguely sensed that there was something offensive to Christianity itself in his arguments, for he had excluded the supernatural from the universe and had denied divine intervention in human affairs.
For these reasons Lucretius' poem, which had been widely read and admired during the reign of Augustus, gradually fell into oblivion. And since De Rerum Natura was not designed for use in schools, the number of manuscripts in existence after the Augustan age was small. At the end of the eighth century, there was in all probability but one extant manuscript; it was written in capital letters, and the words were run together. That manuscript, which was much closer to the original version than any we have today, was lost, but not before three copies, dating from the ninth century, had been made. Of the three copies, one has probably been preserved until the present; it is one of two manuscripts in the library of Leyden (Leidensis I or Oblongus), the best of the extant manuscripts. A second copy was the source of the second manuscript preserved in the same library. Finally, a third copy was found in Germany by Pogge and returned to Italy; though lost subsequently, it was the source of the Italian manuscripts (Italici); eight of these are in the Laurentian library in Florence, six are in the Vatican, and one is at Cambridge. Thus most of the different manscripts date from the Renaissance; the two Leyden manuscripts and the lost manuscript copied in the Italici go back to the Middle Ages.
The three older manuscripts were not studied until the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages no one knew anything about Lucretius. De Rerum Natura is not mentioned in Italian literature of the Middle Ages.
In France, Honoré d'Autun included a citation from Lucretius in a twelfth-century work, but he had borrowed it from his fifth-century predecessor, Priscian.
The Renaissance rescued Lucretius from oblivion. Around 1417 Pogge, traveling in Germany, discovered a manuscript of De Rerum Natura in a monastery and brought it back to Italy. Landin congratulated him for bringing Lucretius back to his homeland.
Lucretius actually had been brought back to the Romans, but in what condition! The copyists of the Middle Ages, who understood very little of Epicurus' philosophy, had completely distorted his thought; and the first edition of the text of the poem, that of Fernandus de Brescia (1473), was almost unintelligible. In 1500 there appeared an Aldine edition with a commentary by Avancius of Verona. In 1512 Justine issued a new edition incorporating the notes left by Marullus, the famous scholar, poet and soldier.
But it was not until the appearance of Lambin's edition (1564) that Lucretius' work was understood and appreciated to any great extent. Imbued with a deep respect for Lucretius, Lambin set out to restore the text distorted by the copyists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. His corrections, some eight hundred if we take his word for it, are excellent in view of the fact that he worked during a period when textual criticism was still an art rather than a science, and his explanatory commentary is still today our basic work on the interpretation of Lucretius.
Unfortunately, Lucretius was wholly neglected during the century that followed, either because scholars were discouraged by Lambin's masterly work or because they found the atomic theory unpalatable—or perhaps for both reasons. He did of course find a disciple in Gassendi and perhaps an admirer in Molière, who is said to have undertaken the translation of De Rerum Natura. Lambin's work is superior by far to the works of Bentley and Creech (1695).
The eighteenth century applauded Lucretius' materialism, yet perhaps without understanding the nobility and beauty of his poetry. When Cardinal Polignac attempted to refute atheism in Latin verse, he saw fit to give his poem the imposing title of Anti-Lucretius. Only one eighteenth-century edition of Lucretius is worth citing, and that is the Wakefield edition (1796).
The nineteenth century inherited the task of restoring Lucretius' text insofar as possible and of encouraging men once again to look upon the author with the admiration and esteem that had been denied him since the closing years of the Augustan age. There were two reasons for the revival of interest in Lucretius. First, attention was drawn to the man who originally had an insight into modern scientific hypotheses; people later discovered that he was a great poet. Second, Lucretius' text was restored by one of the most remarkable scholars of our century, Lachmann. For five years (1835-1840) this philologist, well versed in Latin poetry, devoted himself to the study of Lucretius; he corrected the traditional text systematically; he proved that all our manuscripts derive from a single archetype; thanks to his astounding brilliance, he was able to deduce logically the contents of the original manuscript. His corrections are sometimes rash; often they show a lack of good taste; but he opened a new vista in the criticism of Lucretius and at the same time laid the foundation for the study of Old Latin. Bernays (1852) carried on Lachmann's work. Finally, in 1864, Munro published his outstanding edition of Lucretius' poem; his work, though not so daring as Lachmann's, also contains a wealth of original ideas.
Excerpted from The Philosophy of Poetry by Henri Bergson. Copyright © 1959 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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Table of Contents
The Text of De Rerum Natura,
The Poetry of Lucretius,
The Physics of Lucretius,
The Originality of Lucretius as a Philosopher and Poet,