When I was a student, I used to go at the end of the school year to the Yale Coop to see what I could find to read over the summer. I had very little pocket money, but the bookstore would routinely sell its unwanted titles for ridiculously small sums. They would be jumbled together in bins through which I would rummage, with nothing much in mind, waiting for something to catch my eye. On one of my forays, I was struck by an extremely odd paperback cover, a detail from a painting by the surrealist Max Ernst. Under a crescent moon, high above the earth, two pairs of legs — the bodies were missing — were engaged in what appeared to be an act of celestial coition. The book — a prose translation of Lucretius' two-thousand-year-old poem On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura) — was marked down to ten cents, and I bought it, I confess, as much for the cover as for the classical account of the material universe.
Ancient physics is not a particularly promising subject for vacation reading, but sometime over the summer I idly picked up the book and began to read. I immediately encountered ample justification for the erotic cover. Lucretius begins with an ardent hymn to Venus, the goddess of love, whose coming in the spring has scattered the clouds, flooded the sky with light, and filled the entire world with frenzied sexual desire:
First, goddess, the birds of the air, pierced to the heart with your powerful shafts, signal your entry. Next wild creatures and cattle bound over rich pastures and swim rushing rivers: so surely are they all captivated by your charm, and eagerly follow your lead. Then you inject seductive love into the heart of every creature that lives in the seas and mountains and river torrents and bird-haunted thickets, implanting in it the passionate urge to reproduce its kind.
Startled by the intensity of this opening, I continued on, past a vision of Mars asleep on Venus' lap — "vanquished by the never-healing wound of love, throwing back his handsome neck and gazing up at you"; a prayer for peace; a tribute to the wisdom of the philosopher Epicurus; and a resolute condemnation of superstitious fears. When I reached the beginning of a lengthy exposition of philosophical first principles, I fully expected to lose interest: no one had assigned the book to me, my only object was pleasure, and I had already gotten far more than my ten cents' worth. But to my surprise, I continued to find the book thrilling.
It was not Lucretius' exquisite language to which I was responding. Later I worked through De rerum natura in its original Latin hexameters, and I came to understand something of its rich verbal texture, its subtle rhythms, and the cunning precision and poignancy of its imagery. But my first encounter was in Martin Ferguson Smith's workmanlike English prose — clear and unfussy, but hardly remarkable. No, it was something else that reached me, something that lived and moved within the sentences for more than 200 densely packed pages. I am committed by trade to urging people to attend carefully to the verbal surfaces of what they read. Much of the pleasure and interest of poetry depends on such attention. But it is nonetheless possible to have a powerful experience of a work of art even in a modest translation, let alone a brilliant one. That is, after all, how most of the literate world has encountered Genesis or the Iliad or Hamlet, and, though it is certainly preferable to read these works in their original languages, it is misguided to insist that there is no real access to them otherwise.
I can, in any case, testify that, even in a prose translation, On the Nature of Things struck a very deep chord within me. Its power depended to some extent on personal circumstances — art always penetrates the particular fissures in one's psychic life. The core of Lucretius' poem is a profound, therapeutic meditation on the fear of death, and that fear dominated my entire childhood. It was not fear of my own death that so troubled me; I had the ordinary, healthy child's intimation of immortality. It was rather my mother's absolute certainty that she was destined for an early death.
My mother was not afraid of the afterlife: like most Jews she had only a vague and hazy sense of what might lie beyond the grave, and she gave it very little thought. It was death itself — simply ceasing to be — that terrified her. For as far back as I can remember, she brooded obsessively on the imminence of her end, invoking it again and again, especially at moments of parting. My life was full of extended, operatic scenes of farewell. When she went with my father from Boston to New York for the weekend, when I went off to summer camp, even — when things were especially hard for her — when I simply left the house for school, she clung tightly to me, speaking of her fragility and of the distinct possibility that I would never see her again. If we walked somewhere together, she would frequently come to a halt, as if she were about to keel over. Sometimes she would show me a vein pulsing in her neck and, taking my finger, make me feel it for myself, the sign of her heart dangerously racing.
She must have been only in her late thirties when my own memories of her fears begin, and those fears evidently went back much further in time. They seem to have taken root about a decade before my birth, when her younger sister, only sixteen years old, died of strep throat. This event — one all too familiar in the world before the introduction of penicillin — was still for my mother an open wound: she spoke of it constantly, weeping quietly, and making me read and reread the poignant letters that the teenaged girl had written through the course of her fatal illness.
From The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. Copyright 2011 by Stephen Greenblatt. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.