Scholia Reviews 15 (2006) 10.
John Godwin, Lucretius. Ancients in Action. London: Bristol Classical Press / Duckworth Press, 2004. Pp. 141. ISBN 1-85399-671-8. UK£10.99.
Trinity College, Cambridge
John Godwin's latest offering to Lucretian scholarship forms part of the Ancients in Action series, which professes its aim to be to 'introduce major figures of the ancient world to the modern general reader', dealing with 'each subject's life, works, and significance for later western civilisation' (back cover). This prescription may seem a tall order for such a short book, but Godwin's thoughtful and impressively accessible volume does not disappoint. In just four chapters, he covers an impressive range of material, offers pungent original analysis of several gripping passages of the de Rerum Natura, and makes more than clear how relevant Lucretius' poem and philosophy are to the modern reader.
The book is divided into four chapters, each seeking to deal with an issue central to the understanding of Lucretius' complex but rewarding poem. Perhaps the most impressive, simply because of the verve with which Godwin manages to compress so much knowledge into so few pages, is the first of the four, 'The Writer and his World' (pp. 9-46). As the chapter heading suggests, this opener aims to equip the reader with everything he needs to know to be able to tackle the De Rerum Natura in its context. A tall order, to be sure, but the chapter does not disappoint. Godwin opens by grounding the de Rerum Natura in what most would argue is its most important context -- as a work seeking to solve the big issues: the ethical, physical, epistemological, and cultural concerns still discussed to the present day. These issues -- death, the gods, happiness -- are presented with great skill and economy, giving a very clear picture not just of why Lucretius wrote his poem, but why the area of thought we call 'philosophy' arose in the first place. Godwin also presents a good survey of the doctrines of Epicurus and his philosophical forerunners concerning those questions (pp. 13-34), as well as a valuable analysis of the various cares and concerns, personal and political, of Lucretius' target audience (pp. 34-46). As a clear, cogent, basic introduction to the background of the de Rerum Natura, it is hard to find fault with this opening chapter.
In his second chapter (pp. 47-90), Godwin tackles head-on the question most likely to intrigue a newcomer to the genre of didactic, and the de Rerum Natura in particular -- why Lucretius chose to write in poetry. Once more, the chapter opens with a fine overview of the relevant issues (pp. 47-56); the didactic tradition, the importance of the poet-figure in Ancient society, and the need for original subject matter are all debated thoroughly. Godwin does, however, skirt the issue of Epicurus' distaste for poetry. Whilst this is perhaps understandable, given that the main focus of the book is Lucretius rather than his self-professed rerum inventor (Lucr. 3.9), Godwin's main reason offered, that Lucretius could argue that 'there is no reason why the devil should have all the best tunes' (p. 52), sounds a little hollow. One of the most effective sections of the chapter follows (pp. 56-60), in which Godwin offers a decent explanation of the differences between English and Latin in linguistic terms, as well as an impressively accessible setting out of the basics of Latin hexameter, and some excellent discussion of the interaction between meter and meaning in the poem. We are also given a brief analysis of Lucretius' favoured types of argument (pp. 65-72). The summary itself is useful, but some of the examples are less so; the first example offered of an a fortiori argument ('team A will win the cup as they have beaten team B who themselves beat team A's opponents last month', p. 69) may be a commonplace argument, but anyone who follows competitive sport will know that it is in no way comparable to the example that follows, concerning height relations between three individuals. This is a minor quibble, however, with a very useful few pages of accessible explanation of Lucretius' argumentative procedures. The chapter closes with a discussion of the influence of rhetoric on the de Rerum Natura (pp. 72-90). Again, Godwin provides excellent background detail on the importance of rhetoric in Roman education, before moving on to analyze various Lucretian rhetorical ploys. There are good discussions of several of Lucretius' more satirical passages of argument, most notably (pp. 75f.) the lengthy attack on the folly of the lover in Book 4, and a sensitive reading (pp. 78-80) of the emotional manipulation inherent in the description of the cow searching for her lost calf at de Rerum Natura 2.352-70. Godwin ends the chapter with a lengthy analysis aiming to show all the various poetic techniques highlighted thus far at work in a single passage, 5.195-234 (pp. 89f.). Godwin does not skimp on attention to detail, and is not afraid to make the newcomer to the text (at whom the book is aimed) get to grips with the actualities of the Latin; the impact of individual items of vocabulary is frequently discussed, as well as the more general themes of this Lucretian anti-teleological argument. As will inevitably be the case with any lengthy passage of close critical analysis, not every point will convince every reader, but the professed aim of showing Lucretius' manifold talents in action is undoubtedly achieved, and the discussion will no doubt send Godwin's readers hurrying to the original for more of the same. Sandwiched in the middle of this is a summary of the whole poem (pp. 61-65), which readers new to Lucretius will find indispensable during the chapters to follow.
In these, Godwin shows us much more of this ancient in action, by offering further close readings of several key passages of the de Rerum Natura. Chapter 3, 'The Greatest Show on Earth' (pp. 91-117), focuses in particular upon what he regards as the theatrical elements of Lucretius' poem. He begins the chapter by making a good case for the importance of theatre in Lucretius' day, and therefore the likelihood that theatrically connected concerns will have influenced Lucretius whilst he was writing (pp. 92-95). Lucretius himself makes use of the theatre on several occasions to illustrate his arguments. His famous borrowing from Greek tragedy of Iphigeneia's sacrifice in Book 1 is usefully contrasted with its tragic portrayal by Euripides (pp. 101-4), and the examples he gives from the actual physical theatre buildings in Rome are also clearly presented and explained (pp. 95-97). Godwin does not stop there though; returning to the picture of the self-deluded lover in Book 4 of Lucretius' poem, he draws some interesting comparisons with Roman comedy (pp. 97-101), before moving on (pp. 104-11) to offer an analysis of the 'viewing' experience in the proem to Book 2. This passage has often left readers uncomfortable, seeming as it does to revel in the misfortune of others. Godwin's conclusion -- that we are not encouraged to enjoy the suffering we see, but rather to make sure we are in the audience, rather than on the stage -- is uncontroversial and convincing, but the passage does seem to have been shoe-horned in to fit with the overriding theme of the chapter. There is no more reason to think of the theatre here than of the other, excellent, explicatory framework Godwin gives, of a scientist taking pleasure in discovering, so as to cure, the workings of a deadly virus (without taking any pleasure in the deaths which it causes). The closing section of the chapter, characterising the de Rerum Natura as a tragedy (pp. 112-17), is more successfully integrated into the theatrical theme, and more successful as a result.
Finally, in Chapter 4, 'The Naturalist and the Grim Reaper' (pp. 118-35), Godwin, like Lucretius, forces us to confront death, in the form of the plague narrative with which the poem closes. Just as Lucretius does not spare us the details, so Godwin confronts us with the gruesome specifics of the text, offering a close reading of one of the more stomach-churning parts of medical description we come across in the poem (6.1199-1212, pp. 130-33), once more picking out detail after detail to demonstrate Lucretius' poetic skill, but also to point out the fundamental ethical drive of this part of the poem, the need to acquire the Epicurean ability to look death in the face without flinching. It forms a powerful ending to the book, allowing Godwin to tie together the threads of philosophical and historical context and literary endeavour that have been woven throughout each chapter.
Overall, then, this slim volume represents a substantial achivement. In relatively few pages, Godwin manages to pack in enough information to enable a beginner to start to get to grips with one of the more difficult poems in the Latin language. The few occasional slips, or overstatements of case,[] are understandable given the enthusiasm Godwin brings to his task. He has written an immensely erudite book, which nevertheless wears its learning lightly, and forms an excellent starting point for anyone intrigued by the complex masterpiece that is the de Rerum Natura.
[] On p. 36, for example, Godwin's analysis of 'Epicurus the victorious general who conquered the dragon religion . . . bringing back the booty which outdid all other booty' seems to me to be stretching the actual Latin (Lucr. 1.62-79) somewhat.