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De Rerum Natura 1.44-49: A Spoiler in Lucretius’ first proem?

Seth Holm

This paper defends lines 1.44-49 of De Rerum Natura as a genuine part of Lucretius’ original proem, despite the renewed tendency to suspect or excise them, and illustrates the didactic value of their repetition.  Lucretius describes the nature of the gods with these same 6 lines in two very different contexts, once at the outset of the poem during the hymn to Venus, and again in book 2 as the conclusion to his arguments against divine providence (1.44-49=2.646-651):

omnis enim per se divum natura necessest

immortali aevo summa cum pace fruatur

semota ab nostris rebus seiunctaque longe.

nam privata dolore omni, privata periclis,

ipsa suis pollens opibus, nil indiga nostri,

nec bene promeritis capitur neque tangitur ira.

In his second book, these lines are intended to illustrate the gods’ absence from our world and indifference to human affairs.  Such a denial of divine providence seems out of place, however, in the poem’s opening, which is ostensibly a reverential hymn to Venus in her role as patron goddess of the race of Aeneas and as Lucretius’ poetic muse.  Since Clay (1983) and Gale (1994), scholars have acknowledged that the hymn to Venus serves as an overture to non-Epicurean readers—an enticement to begin and to continue on the course of Epicurean education that Lucretius’ poem offers. This understanding of the proem’s function renews the impulse (originating in the sixteenth century, though for different reasons) to excise them, since they seems to reveal Epicurean theology sooner than their author probably intended (Asmis 1982, 469-70 and Gale 1994, 215-17).  This paper highlights the multiple meanings available in these lines in their different contexts—a polyvalence powerful enough to preserve the proem’s introductory function even if the lines are kept.

These lines (adapted from Epicurus’s first Kyria Doxa) convey emphatically the eternal peace and ataraxia which the gods continually enjoy.  In book 2, which stresses the impossibility of divine providence on earth, they reinforce the idea that the gods’ perfect peace and distance from our world prohibit their ability to show concern for mankind.  In the first proem, however, the idea of the gods’ perfect peace blends into the local context, following naturally from Lucretius’ request for national peace, suavis ex ore loquellas | funde petens placidam Romanis, incluta, pacem (1.10).  The lines express that the gods are free from pain and danger and are capable of controlling their anger or admiration as they please (1.47-9).  But in the context of the hymn these ideas come off as fairly standard and don’t give the game away in themselves.  The idea of divine apathy begins to creep in only when the gods’ peace relates to their concern for us, which happens only twice in the phrases semota ab nostris rebus and nil indiga nostri.  But the terms employed here carry a range of meanings that renders even these phrases ambiguous enough to preserve the introductory role required of the proem.  For example, semota ab nostris rebus in the proem may imply simply that the gods’ perfect peace prevents them from experiencing the same troubles that afflict men.

In these lines, the experienced reader may see foreshadows of the theological arguments to come, but for the novice these shadows are easily scattered by the brilliant light of the proem’s vivid expression of Venus’ divinity.  In book 2, the now educated reader understands them differently, and the exact repetition of the same lines exemplifies Lucretius’ larger didactic strategy of polyvalence and correction.  The passage’s reappearance in book 2 acts as a sort of palinode—a moment in the poem when the reader is implicitly encouraged to look back on what came before with more experienced eyes, to reevaluate his former thinking in light of his new learning, to see how the voice of the poem has changed and in turn how the poem has changed him.

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Latin Hexameter Poetry

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