To the Shores of Light-Or, My First Latin Lesson

Actually, it’s not my very first lesson, it’s my first since my freshman year at Yale when–after five years of Latin–I hit the wall. Gave up, frustrated by the conflict between my awareness of the dazzling, voluptuously seductive beauty of the elegies of Propertius and Tibullus, my awe at the incomparable works of Catullus, which ranged from obscene and bitter love lyrics to his thrilling epic on the marriage of Peleus and Thetis–and my own clumsy and inept translation skills. The Latin was so intense and lovely but so hard to reach and render. It didn’t come naturally to me, and I resented those for whom it did. So I quit just when I should have pressed ahead, something I’ve always regretted, although I’ve continued to read and reread the Latin poets I left behind, in translation. To me, the Silver Age of Latin literature surpasses any comparable period in English literature, although it evokes (and probably inspired) the era of the Cavalier lyricist poets I love.

And recently, my regret at leaving Latin behind has been exacerbated by my growing fascination with the great poet-philosopher Lucretius, author of De Rerum Natura ( On the Nature of Things ), an amazing visionary epic about the nature of the universe that ranges from the bonds of attraction between infinitesimal atoms to the erotic bonds that bind–and torment–men and women.

I’ve cited Lucretius in recent columns as a reproof to the hubristic pretensions of “inflationary universe” theorists like Alan Guth. Lucretius is perhaps most renowned in philosophic literature for his dictum about creation: ” nullam rem e nilo gigni divinitus umquam ,” or “No power, however divine, can create something from nothing.” Mr. Guth actually claimed he’d refuted Lucretius: He boasted that he’d proved how the entire universe was created from nothing. Only he cheated: Mr. Guth’s “nothing” turns out to be a variety of somethings–”quantum fluctuations” in a “false vacuum,” an extremely small “seed” from which the universe grew–a vindication rather than a repudiation of Lucretius.

Beyond that, though, I sensed in my readings of Lucretius, through the scrim of the translation, the presence of the kind of inspired vision that reaches from the origins to the furthest limits of the universe, that links the hearts of men to the heart of creation, the kind of vision of ultimate mystery one finds in the cabalists, whose metaphors for the opening moments of creation (“the breaking of the vessels” and the like) seem to anticipate the most sophisticated contemporary conceptions of the formation of matter in the moments after the big bang.

I felt I wanted to get closer to Lucretius, to the mind of the man whose words, even in translation, had such remarkable resonance for me. And that the only way to do so would be to go back to the Latin and translate it myself. A task that seemed hopeless–until I saw a tiny ad in the Observer classifieds. Maybe you’ve seen it yourself:

“Hoc Legere Potesne? If you don’t know the answer, then you need a Latin tutor!

“Oxford/Wellesley grad teaches all levels. Very patient & expd. Flex rates (212) 794-7089.”

The person behind the ad turned out to be the extremely bright and (as I was to discover) extremely patient Beatrice Cody. To my delight and good fortune, it happened that she’d specialized in Lucretius (as well as Virgil and Ovid) at Oxford. I told her I wanted to begin by focusing on the first 30 lines of De Rerum Natura , the famous and controversial (well, famous in some circles) invocation to the goddess Venus. An invocation to Venus both as the traditional goddess of love and as a figurative representation of the binding attractive, even erotic force that gives the atomized universe its coherence in Lucretius’ cosmological vision–the ruling principle of being.

The reason the invocation to Venus is controversial among Lucretius scholars and those others of us who care is that Lucretius claims to have written his entire 7,000-line epic poetic vision to disprove the existence of gods and goddesses, to free men from the superstitious awe and worship of the classical deities by giving us a vision of creation in which all the wondrously complex and awe-inspiring phenomena of life can be explained by the combinational coherence, the invisible choreography of atoms. (Yes, Lucretius, following Democritus and other Greeks, had a prescient vision of the atomic structure of the universe.)

But if that’s true, if Lucretius was seeking to discourage superstitious awe of the powers of the gods, what’s he doing opening his poem with a hymn to a goddess? Is he merely poetically personifying an abstract power into an embodied metaphor for the binding force of attraction that creates from atomic chaos coherent matter and beings? Or is he making some kind of exception –out of awe or fear–for the goddess of love, seeing her as a supreme being with real, personified Being? Inquiring minds want to know!

I use the tabloid catch phrase here deliberately because there is a sensational, tabloidlike story (or slander) attached to Lucretius by later tradition that may bear some relation to his attitude toward Venus. If you believe the lore about Lucretius, he died an unusually, ironically Venusian (venereal?) death: His wife poisoned him with an aphrodisiac. The details in the sources are hazy. In one version it is in the throes of the later-fatal toxic love-drug that Lucretius conceived the vision and penned the verses of his Venus-ridden creation epic De Rerum Natura (check out Alfred Tennyson’s long poem about the affair, “Lucretius”). But there are those who say that this whole fatal-aphrodisiac story was invented by early church authorities to discredit Lucretius’ godless vision of creation–the love poisoning as poetic justice for the poet-celebrant of unleashed Venus.

I meant to ask my tutor what contemporary Oxford scholars thought about the scurrilous story. (As it turned out, she said some believe it’s really a story about the orgiastic gourmand Lucullus, falsely ascribed to Lucretius.) But first, before we set about the hard work of translating the opening hymn to Venus, I wanted to get her view on a phrase that appears there and recurs later in Lucretius: “the shores of light,” or, as the Latin has it in line 22, ” dias in luminis oras .”

The shores of light–I love that phrase. Perhaps because I’m rereading it and writing this column on the Bainbridge Island ferry, which plies the shores of light off Seattle, where I’ve washed up at the tail end of the West Coast leg of my book tour. (Have I mentioned that Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil is now available from Random House?)

Shores gleaming with light, the light that glows in the incandescent foam of a shore-breaking wave, the diamonds of refracted sunlight flickering on the peaks of the waves–”shores of light” is a powerfully evocative phrase. I should point out that the literal translation of the Latin phrase is more on the order of “the border regions of light.” The venerable Loeb Classical Library edition Englishes it as “the shining borders of light.” But the learned and judicious commentary my tutor Beatrice brought with her, by P. Michael Brown of the University of Glasgow, suggests that “borders” here means not so much a well-defined bright line, but a region of transition from darkness to light, more metaphorically a transition from uncreation, pre -creation, to creation. Which is why I love “shores of light,” suggested in a new translation of Lucretius by Anthony M. Esolen (Johns Hopkins University Press).

“Shores of light” suggests a dawn region, that moment when the sun’s glowing reflection is seen before the sun itself. “Shores of light” evokes the process of creation, gestation itself, evokes–as my tutor Beatrice helpfully suggested–the mythical birth of the goddess Venus from the foam of the sea.

It is here that Lucretius is at his most hauntingly visionary. You feel the entire epic was inspired by a powerful, personal vision, almost a visitation by Venus on the shores of light. But Lucretius at his most mystical is also somewhat mystifying: He insists that nothing can be created from nothing, and that everything is created from atoms (and returns to atoms when destroyed). But he never explains how atoms were created from nothing. A slight flaw in the logic there, but one that perhaps didn’t seem a problem to Lucretius, possessed as he was by some soul-changing vision of the shores of light foaming into being from the ocean of nothingness.

But to return from the shores of light to my own murky grapplings with the dark difficulties of translating Latin poetry: I did make a couple of illuminating discoveries in my painstaking, tutor-assisted efforts. It wasn’t easy. By the end of nearly two hours devoted to translating a mere 22 lines with her help, I felt smoke coming out of my ears from the burning circuits of a brain trying to come to grips with Latin sentence structure after all these years.

This will sound obvious to Latin scholars but only now dimly dawned on my shores of ignorance: The great Latin poets achieved some of their subtlest and most resonant effects through the pictorial deployment of word array in a sentence. Latin gives poets far more freedom than English to dissolve and divide phrases in a sentence without regard to links of meaning. Word array: The physical juxtaposition of not necessarily related words achieves effects like those of Georges Seurat in juxtaposing points of color.

Take this example from the opening passage of Lucretius’ hymn to Venus. It’s the line that goes: ” tibi suavis daedala tellus/ Summittit flores .”

Transliterating by word order, it would go: “for you delightful inventive earth sends forth flowers.” But the useful complications of Latin case and declension signal that the meaning is: “for you [Venus] the inventive earth sends forth delightful flowers.”

“Inventive earth” sends “delightful flowers,” rather than delightful, inventive earth sends forth flowers. But look at the physical array, the flower arrangement of the line: The phrase for flowers, suavis flores , is divided (parted like petals, Vladimir Nabokov might say) to enclose, embrace the words for inventive earth.

Looked at another way–from within the bouquet of delightful flowers–the globe of the inventive earth is sending forth, gestating, radiating from within (within the heart of the sentence as well) the flowers that crown and cling to its outer surface.

The use of daedala as an adjective seems no accident, either, conjuring up as it does Daedalus, the great artificer of labyrinths who sent forth his own first flower, his son Icarus, from the surface of the earth–the earth to which he tragically fell when the sun melted his wings. Compressed within this word array, then, is the double-edged resonance of creation: nature sending forth joyful flowers; human nature creating a tragic fall.

Such is the multiple resonance of Lucretian creation, generating shifting structures of meaning the way Lucretius’ monistic atoms generate the pluralistic phenomena of the world from differential arrays of monads. The multiple effects Lucretius achieves from the array of words in his sentences are an embodiment of his quantum vision of the atomic structure of language.

It’s worth mentioning that the earth-flowers phrase is followed by one about the power of Venus to make the wild ocean laugh and the stormy heavens grow peaceful. A postcoital vision of the terrors of nature tamed, soothed by the goddess of love.

But it should be pointed out that the goddess Venus in Lucretius is herself two-faced: a soother of creation and a tormentor of men, as Lucretius’ brilliant, lascivious ode to the cruelty of Venus, to the madness she inspires in her prisoners of love, will demonstrate later on in De Rerum Natura . I’ll take that up in my next Latin lesson.