Jessie Hock maps the intersection of poetry and natural philosophy in the early modern reception of Lucretius and his De rerum natura. Focusing on Pierre de Ronsard, Remy Belleau, John Donne, Lucy Hutchinson, and Margaret Cavendish, she demonstrates how these poets read De rerum natura as a treatise on the poetic imagination.
2021 | 288 pages | Cloth $59.95
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Table of Contents
Introduction. The Supple Snare 1
Chapter 1. Materializing the Lyric Tradition: Lucretius and the Poetry of Pierre de Ronsard
Chapter 2. Poetry in a Time of War: Lucretius and Poetic Patrimony in Pierre de Ronsard's Sonnets pour Helene and Remy Belleau's Pierres précieuses
Chapter 3. "Like gold to aery thinness beat": John Donne's Materialisms
Chapter 4. Lucy Hutchinson and the Erotic Reception of Lucretius
Chapter 5. Lucretian Poetics and Women's Writing in Margaret Cavendish's Poems and Fancies
Epilogue. This Is Our Venus
The Supple Snare
Overwhelmingly in my submission to reading's supple snare, I feel love.
—Lisa Robertson, Nilling (2012)
In 1500, the Greek émigré Michael Marullus (b. ca. 1453/4) drowned while trying to cross the flooded Cecina River in western Italy. Marullus was a scholar and poet prominent in humanist circles in Florence and Naples, the compositor of an influential set of corrections to the text of a recently rediscovered masterpiece of classical Latin literature, Lucretius's epic poem of nature, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things, hereafter DRN, composed around 50 BCE). Afterward, it was widely repeated that Marullus had perished with a copy of DRN tucked into his pocket. The circumstances of his death were suggestive. The swollen river in which Marullus drowned evokes imagery from DRN's most famous passage, the celebrated hymn to Venus that opens the poem, where Lucretius praises the generative power of Venusian desire: "denique per maria ac montis fluviosque rapaces / frondiferasque domos avium camposque virentis / omnibus incutiens blandum per pectora amorem / efficis ut cupide generatim saecla propagent" (All through the seas and mountains, torrents, leafy-roofed abodes / Of birds, and greening meadows, [striking seductive love / Into the] breast of every creature, and you urge all things you find / Lustily to get new generations of their kind). Marullus was deeply influenced by the hymn to Venus, which he imitates in his own neo-Latin Hymni naturales (1497). Like the yearning, rushing birds and beasts of the Lucretian hymn, Marullus has been swept up by passion, though for Lucretian poetry about Venus rather than for the goddess herself. While it is plausible that Marullus did indeed die with DRN on his person (in the midst of preparing his commentary, he would have kept the text close), the enduring appeal of the story, repeated by Marullus's contemporaries and modern commentators alike, speaks to more than just the facts. DRN was a scandal in Renaissance Europe for espousing Epicurean philosophy's functional atheism and sharply reductive materialist vision of nature, in which atoms and void, and not the gods, govern nature and drive human destiny. In this context, the story of Marullus's death has a moralizing force, implying that his passionate attachment to the heretical DRN led to his untimely end.
Gossip also linked the death of Thomas Creech (b. 1659), one of the earliest English translators of DRN, to his fixation with Lucretian poetry. In the preface to his translation, Creech admits to an obsessive relationship with DRN, writing that he loved Lucretius "almost more than is right." In 1700, he committed suicide for unknown reasons, and rumors quickly began to fly that he had killed himself for love. As in the stories that circulated about Marullus, here life is said to follow art. The circumstances of Creech's suicide echo the influential but apocryphal tale popularized by Saint Jerome about Lucretius himself: that the Roman poet died for love, having committed suicide after being driven mad by a love potion administered by a jealous woman; DRN was composed in the intervals of his madness, and the poem was later revised by Cicero. Some of Creech's contemporaries, David Hopkins writes, "attributed his [suicide], admiringly or contemptuously, to an obsession with Lucretius so intense that it provoked him to emulate the Latin poet's own fabled end."
The persistence of these stories—about Lucretius's love madness, Marullus's untimely death, and Creech's suicide—reveal a deep anxiety about DRN. They censure those who dared to tarry with DRN, tarring them with the brush of Lucretian heresy, and also function as cautionary tales, regulatory mechanisms for warning others of the text's dangers. Lucretius's poem was considered one of the most treacherous texts bequeathed to Christendom by pagan antiquity. While knowledge of Epicureanism had survived through the Middle Ages, this was primarily in the crude misrepresentations of its critics; most of Epicurus's vast writings were lost. DRN, the most complete surviving account of Epicurean philosophy, lay dormant, the handful of extant manuscripts forgotten in monastery libraries. When the poem began to circulate again in the latter half of the fifteenth century, after its rediscovery in 1417 by the famed bookhunter Poggio Bracciolini, it provoked fierce reactions. Not only did Lucretius give thorough explanations of controversial Epicurean doctrines, but he did so in gorgeous verse explicitly designed to seduce readers to his Epicurean views. Yet although DRN's hostile reception in the Renaissance and early modernity could be explained by the poem's content, both that reception's vehemence and the prominence of tropes of desire and sex in it (as in the stories that attached to DRN's translators and editors) index reactions not just to Epicurean ideas but also to Lucretian poetry. In DRN, Lucretius uses stories about sex and desire to foreground poetic issues: amorous seduction is a figure for the persuasive work of poetic language, and discussions of erotic fantasy and sex are venues for thinking through the relation between fantasy and matter, images and the things they represent. Lucretius mounts a robust defense of poetry's ability to explain mysterious natural phenomena and persuade readers of difficult philosophical doctrines. Early modern readers were attentive to Lucretius's emphasis on poetry and understood that Lucretian materialism entailed a theory of the imagination and, ultimately, a poetics, which they were quick to absorb and adapt to their own uses. Today, DRN is best known as a source of materialist and atheist thought in early modernity, but sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poets read DRN as a treatise on the poetic imagination, initiating an atomist genealogy at the heart of the lyric tradition.
Jerome's apocryphal biography of Lucretius established erotics as a flashpoint for DRN's reception. The church father's accusations about the love potion had an enormous influence on Renaissance and early modern editors of Lucretius, almost all of whom approvingly repeat the story for the benefit of their readers. While there is no evidence that Jerome's biography has anything to do with Lucretius's actual life—Jerome's statement that the poem was given its shape by Cicero is as unsubstantiated as his claims about the love philter and the poet's madness—it does respond to and emphasize erotic thematics within Lucretian poetry. In different ways throughout DRN, Lucretius advertises that his poem is designed to seduce readers. In one infamous passage, Lucretius compares himself to a doctor and his verse to honey rimming a cup of salutary but bitter wormwood medicine. Lucretian poetry is a "lure" that will entrap "gullible" readers to "drain the bitter cure" of Epicurean philosophy. "[D]uped but not cheated," the patients are healed, though against their will. Elsewhere, Lucretius compares DRN to a different sort of honey. In the hymn to Venus, the poet begs the goddess to intervene with her lover, Mars, to put a stop to the Roman civil wars so that he can have peace and quiet to write his poem of nature. As the god of war lies helpless in her lap, his face upturned to catch her kisses, Venus instead lets drop words, "sweet-talk[ing] him with honeyed speech" in an effort to draw him from the fields of war and into more amorous battles. The interlude foregrounds the sexual potential of linguistic seduction and the erotic power of Lucretian poetry. Having already invoked Venus as his muse, Lucretius aligns the Venus of poetic inspiration with the Venus of sexual seduction and associates his poetry with the pleasures of the flesh. Love and war are DRN's overriding metaphors: atoms are said to crash together in the void like soldiers clashing in battle, and sexual desire is presented as the engine of all change and creation, as in the poem's opening lines, where it is passion for Venus that presses animals to procreate and flourish. The episode with Venus and Mars suggests that the imperative of Lucretian poetry is to shift the balance of power from war to love.
From its opening lines, and in its most gorgeous poetic set pieces, DRN declares itself to be a poem of seduction, one that does not shrink from using deception and the sensual manipulations of language to entice its readers. By calling attention to its seductive stratagems, DRN produced readers attuned to the power of poetic seduction and the potentially dangerous effects of Epicurean philosophy. Even as poetic language does crucial persuasive and explanatory work, drawing readers to Epicurean thought and illuminating the subvisible atomic basis of natural phenomena through analogy and metaphor, Lucretian protestations that Epicurean philosophy needs poetry to be understood and accepted—that the wormwood of philosophy needs poetic honey to seduce readers—potentially intensify doubt by drawing attention to the difficulty of Epicurean thought and the absence of visible proof for Epicurean teachings about nature. Moreover, because Lucretius broadcasts the seductiveness of his verse, tropes of desire became prominent in DRN's reception, as readers responded fiercely to what the text announces as its temptations and dangers. Such readerly anxieties manifest themselves in DRN's early modern reception in narratives about Lucretius as a poet and early moderns as readers, in which DRN's figures for poetic persuasion are repurposed as accounts of the poem's composition and reception. The reception of Lucretius from late antiquity onward is organized by erotic tropes that respond to the sensual presentation of poetry in DRN.
One of the most disturbing things about DRN is how forthright it is about its own powers of poetic mystification. Poetic seduction may be justifiable when the ideas a poem communicates are salutary, but poetic pleasure is equally capable of persuading readers to accept evil or harmful doctrines. This is precisely what Christian readers argued about DRN, maintaining that the poem's gorgeous poetry delivered a poison, not a cure, in the form of heretical Epicurean ideas about the mortality of the soul and the absence of divine providence. The love philter that Jerome says drove Lucretius mad evokes the pharmakon of the honey and wormwood passage; Jerome twists the image of honey rimming a wormwood draught, which Lucretius uses to justify writing philosophical poetry, to imply the opposite, that the poison of Epicurean philosophy would always triumph over the honey of Lucretian poetry. Like Lucretius himself, who complicates the presentation of his poetics by linking poetic suasion to sexual seduction, Jerome associates the poison of Epicurean philosophy with the perils of sex and desire. The love madness that Jerome says drove Lucretius to suicide is inspired by another section of DRN, the corruscating finale to Book 4, where Lucretius describes in agonizing detail the causes and trials of erotic obsession as well as its cures. The end of Book 4 is supposed to warn readers about the dangers of sexual desire and love—amorous obsession is a dire threat to ataraxia, the mental and emotional equilibrium that is central to Epicurean moral practice—so Jerome's accusation that Lucretius died for love implies that Lucretius failed to follow his own teachings. Lucretius's imputed amorous frenzy speaks to the supposed failure of Epicurean moral philosophy to produce mental equilibrium in its followers.
This book studies the legacy of Lucretian poetics in Renaissance and early modern vernacular poetry. I emphasize the seductions of Lucretian poetry because, as I demonstrate in what follows, Lucretian thinking on erotics and on poetry occupies the same theoretical terrain, so that accounts of the former—in DRN's most gorgeous poetic set pieces, the hymn to Venus, the honey and wormwood passage, and the end of Book 4—illuminate Lucretian thinking on the latter. The poetic implications of the honey and wormwood passage and the hymn to Venus are already well documented, and scholars have also shown how Lucretius's analogy between atoms and letters connects the verse of DRN to the atomist cosmos it describes. This book, however, focuses on a less appreciated section of DRN, the end of Book 4. I show that Lucretius's description of erotic fantasy and obsession in Book 4 is central to DRN's wide-ranging discussion of poetics and the imagination, as well as to the reception of those ideas in early modernity.
The end of Book 4 provocatively performs and problematizes the poetics of seduction that Lucretius lays out in Book 1. In the hymn to Venus and the honey and wormwood passage, Lucretius establishes erotic seduction as a figure for poetic persuasion. It is Book 4 that springs the trap set at the beginning of the poem, what one of the most astute contemporary readers of DRN, poet Lisa Robertson (in the line that stands as this Introduction's epigraph), calls the "supple snare" of Lucretian poetry. Robertson describes how in Book 4, Lucretius "advise[s] the lover how to avoid unhappy love, 'for it is easier to avoid falling into love's nets, than it is to free oneself once taken, breaking the snare Venus closes tightly around her prey.' But I fall into the lace of the text, the vellum; caught there, I contemplate my masters. From the point of view of the world, the site of my capture remains invisible. Sometimes it is more like a pact than a capture." While Lucretius warns his readers against the snares of love, Robertson uses alliteration to signal the similarity between contract, pact, and capture, and embraces amorous entanglement as a mode of reading. To read DRN—to read anything, Robertson asserts—is to be captured in an embrace so subtle, so artfully woven from the words and stuff of the text, that many readers consent to their own seduction: it is "sometimes more like a pact than a capture." The Erotics of Materialism explores the "supple snare" of Lucretian poetry: the trap that was set with the rediscovery of the full text of DRN in fifteenth-century Italy, the readers and writers who were captured, the pacts that were made, and the poetry that ensued. DRN's theorization of the imagination, poetry, and reading had a profound impact on early modern poetic theory and practice. Lucretius's sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers were absorbed by Book 4's gorgeous account of love's pleasures and pains, and they recognized that the amorous snares Lucretius describes there illuminate the textual snares that DRN itself deploys to seduce its readers. Book 4's account of erotic obsession and insatiable sexual desire elucidates Lucretian ideas about poetry: the book's reflections on the functioning of the imagination and the seductive potential of amorous images reveal ideas about the poetic imagination and poetic images.
Book 4 presented early moderns with sophisticated reflections on the materiality of fantasy, which had major implications for thinking about poetry. A thoroughgoing materialist, Lucretius maintains that images—both mental and poetic—have actual material substance and a presence beyond the mind or the page, which gives the figurative realm a powerful claim on the real. Indeed, according to Lucretius it is specious to think of the imagination and "the real" as occupying different realms at all. As Amanda Jo Goldstein argues, Lucretius conceives of both matter and language in terms of figure (figura), the "transient congeries of elements, composed of, and decomposing into, the myriad little bodies in motion that are nature's only permanent parts." DRN, Goldstein concludes, is "the kind of poetry and science that results from declining to conceive of figuration exclusively as a strategy of consciousness or a linguistic effect." Lucretian poetry confounds conventional divisions between words and things.
In Book 4, Lucretius delivers this theoretical payload in stunning erotic poetry that electrifies readers. In her research on annotations in early manuscripts and print copies of DRN, Ada Palmer finds that "the most frequently marked passage in the whole text is the section often labeled De Rebus Veneriis, a lengthy description of love and how to avoid its snares, which occupies the last 300 lines of Book IV. . . . So frequently is this the most heavily (or only) annotated section, that it is clear that some readers had more interest in Rebus Veneriis than in Rerum Natura." It is remarkable that the end of Book 4 was so frequently and heavily annotated, given that very few Renaissance and early modern readers, according to Palmer's evidence, read much beyond the first hundred lines of DRN (roughly the hymn to Venus). Yet although the past twenty years have seen an efflorescence of scholarship on Lucretius and Renaissance and early modern literature and culture, the role Book 4 played in Lucretius's reception in the period has gone largely unremarked.
The following chapters attend to what sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poets learned from Lucretian poetics and its erotic lessons in the delicate entanglement of words and things, images and matter, poetry and nature. Critical accounts of DRN tend to develop arguments in relation to specific tropes or passages, the loci classici around which DRN's transmission has always revolved. In part, this is because the poem was not read in its entirety for most of the Middle Ages, when it was known through the few passages that did circulate. It is also due to the structure of the poem itself, which toggles between long, technical explanations of natural phenomena and more accessible sections of gorgeous poetry—particularly the proems that open each book of DRN. This book recovers the erotics of Lucretian materialism, and I pay particular attention to the end of Book 4 because Lucretius there uses a language of desire, whose natural home is lyric, to explore poetic issues. The lyric affinities of Book 4's theoretical language help to explain why Lucretian poetics, expounded in a didactic epic, take hold in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century lyric. Another important factor, discussed in Chapters 1 and 3, is the way that poets came to associate the fragmentation of atomist matter with the fragmentations—of poet and poem—of Petrarchism, the poetic idiom that dominated Renaissance lyric. I argue that DRN served in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a textbook of poetics, offering a stronger defense of poetry than its Neoplatonic or Horatian alternatives and leaving a complex and profound legacy in Renaissance and early modern lyric. In what follows, I analyze how Lucretian poetics came in early modernity to stand for the way that poetry—in an overused but perennially evocative play on words—matters, for a language whose intimacy with things gives the imagination and poetry purchase on the real, from the practice of philosophy to that of politics. In addition to Lucretius's De rerum natura, I read Petrarch's Rime sparse; Pierre de Ronsard's sonnets; Remy Belleau's Pierres précieuses; John Donne's secular lyrics and sermons; Lucy Hutchinson's Elegies, Order and Disorder, and translation of DRN; and Margaret Cavendish's Poems and Fancies. I show how early modern French and English poets respond to Lucretius's erotic poetics: in their own poetry, in their characterization of the poetry of others, and in their accounts of how they read Lucretius. Because Lucretius expounds his poetics in a language of love and desire, the influence of Lucretius in early modernity is particularly potent in love poetry, and early moderns habitually express their negotiations with Lucretian poetry in erotically charged language derived from DRN itself.
Although The Erotics of Materialism is centrally concerned with lyric, it does not consist exclusively of readings of lyric. Indeed, the relation between lyric and nonlyric receptions of Lucretian poetics is at the heart of this book. As I have already been arguing, the sensual presentation of Lucretian poetry provoked the erotic tropes of Lucretian reception history, and the ways that readers perform their submission or resistance to that seduction index their responses to Lucretian poetics. This means that valuable evidence about the nature and circulation of Lucretian poetics in early modernity is to be found not just in, but also around, poetry: in the gossip, dedicatory epistles, autobiographies, accounts of reading and translating Lucretius, apocryphal biographies, and more that define and transmit Lucretian poetics. My readings of apocryphal Lucretian biographies (Introduction), Remy Belleau's and Marc-Antoine Muret's commentaries on Pierre de Ronsard's sonnets (Chapter 1), John Donne's sermons and letters (Chapter 3), and Lucy Hutchinson and Margaret Cavendish's dedicatory epistles (Chapters 4 and 5, respectively) supplement and frame my readings of the verse of these poets. Their nonlyric engagements with Lucretian poetics are fascinating in their own right, but more importantly they bring into sharper focus how Lucretian ideas operate within their poetry. This interplay illuminates the way that Lucretian ideas circulated in early modernity—widely and variously, between genres and forms.
Lucretian atomism is uniquely invested in poetry. While Epicurus scorned poetry as frivolous, Lucretius believed Epicurean philosophy needed poetry's explanatory and persuasive power to be understood and embraced, and he justifies his choice to write in verse with a robust defense of natural philosophical poetry. Epicurean philosophy, Lucretius suggests, presents significant challenges to its popularizers. Lucretius's task is to free humanity from the bonds of superstition by disclosing the mysteries of the universe, but he is hindered in this momentous undertaking by the tenacity of superstition, by the Latin language in which he writes (which has a more limited philosophical vocabulary than Epicurus's Greek), and because Epicureanism denies divine power and the immortality of the soul and encourages followers to withdraw from civic life and pursue pleasure, all of which went against conventional morality and civic practice in Lucretius's Rome. These issues are matched in difficulty by the epistemological and representational issues raised by Epicurean physical theory. Because the most intimate workings of nature are invisible to the human eye—atoms are simply too small to see—atomist ideas are unprovable. The invisible atom undercuts materialism because it is difficult to establish the existence of an invisible thing, and simply asserting the existence of the invisible comes precariously close to propagating the sort of illusion Epicurus seeks to banish. What is the difference between imagining that the gods control nature and imagining that atoms do?
That there is, in fact, very little difference is one of the major problems of Lucretian atomism. While Lucretius argues that myths about the gods should not be believed, he contends that his poem about invisible atoms should be; faith in poetry takes the place of faith in the gods. Lucretius presents poetry as particularly well equipped to tackle the epistemological aporia of the invisible atom. As a poet, he has at his disposal a whole toolbox of poetic tropes—metaphor, sound effects, wordplay, and so forth—with which to illustrate by analogy the way atoms move in space. Furthermore, in DRN, analogy goes beyond the illustrative comparison of like and unlike. Lucretius presents his poem as not just representative of but rather cognate with the physical universe. The alphabetical letters that make up the words of his poem are fundamentally akin to the atoms that make up things (one of the Latin words Lucretius uses for atoms, elementa, is also the word for alphabetical letters). Lucretius formalizes the bond between the atomist cosmos and his poem with an analogy between atoms and letters, which he repeats throughout DRN.
quin etiam passim nostris in versibus ipsis
multa elementa vides multis communia verbis,
cum tamen inter se versus ac verba necessest
confiteare et re et sonitu distare sonanti.
tantum elementa queunt permutato ordine solo.
at rerum quae sunt primordia, plura adhibere
possunt unde queant variae res quaeque creari.
[Furthermore, all through these very lines of mine, you see / Many letters that are shared by many words—and yet / You must confess that words and lines from this one alphabet / Have sundry sounds and meanings. Letters only have to change / Their order to accomplish all of this—and still the range / Of possibilities with atoms is greater. That is why / They can create the universe's rich variety.]
The way that a limited quantity of alphabetical letters variously combines into a range of different words illustrates how a limited set of atoms produces a staggering range of things. The analogy also suggests that a poem (Lucretius here refers to his own—"all through these very lines of mine") is able to figure the combinatory nature of the atomist cosmos in a particularly powerful way. The poetic text, with its dense linguistic play and bounded forms, figures the coming together of atoms into things and the bounds of the atomist cosmos (Lucretius frequently mentions the "walls of the world"). When he asks the reader later in Book 1 to reflect upon the fact that the words for "maple" and "flame" (ligum and ignes) contain the same letters (DRN 1.912), he calls attention to the way his sophisticated wordplay and soundplay make DRN a corollary of the nature it describes, even at the level of its smallest elements.
Lucretius's understanding of poetry's relation to the natural world makes him an important participant in what Plato famously called the "ancient quarrel between [poetry] and philosophy." Plato was firmly in the philosophy camp: in the Republic, he ejects the poets from his ideal city for fear that their tales of the misdeeds of gods and heroes will corrupt the youth, who are being groomed to govern and lead. For Plato, poetry is problematic both because of what it represents and for how representation is structured. Book 10 of the Republic expounds the Platonic theory of forms: things in the world are shadows of ideal forms, and visual and linguistic representations such as poems and paintings are shadows of things in the world. Because poets imitate things in the world rather than the ideal forms, poetry, like all representative arts, is an imitation of an imitation—ontologically, epistemologically, and morally removed from the realm of the ideal and the good. For Plato, poetry's corrupt content and its corrupt nature mean that it has to be tightly controlled if it is to serve any positive purpose.
Lucretius's understanding of poetry's relation to truth is opposed to Plato's. In powerful natural philosophical verse, Lucretius makes poetry philosophy's partner, or even a form of philosophy itself, freeing poetry from being what it has too often been—philosophy's handmaiden. While Lucretius was neither the first nor the last of the ancients to claim poetry as the honey that sweetens philosophy—Horace was famous in early modernity for arguing that poets seek to instruct, delight, or (better yet) do both at once—neither Horace nor any of the other ancients thought poetry shared in the world's primary structures. Thus, although DRN's famous image of poetry as the honey rimming philosophy's bitter cup implies that poetry is a prop for philosophy, a superficial inducement to swallow philosophical medicine, in Lucretius's presentation of Epicurean philosophy, poetry is intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the atomist system. Poetry is an effective inducement to natural philosophical thought not simply for its seductive beauty, but because its beauty is as much part of the nature philosophy seeks to describe as are trees, clouds, and birds.
The analogy between atoms and letters is one Lucretian strategy for addressing the epistemological and representational crises produced by the invisible atom. By asserting the fundamental likeness of letters and atoms, words and things, Lucretius subverts what Plato presents as a fundamental hierarchy of things over representations (and of the transcendent, inaccessible forms over both). The fundamental sameness of rhetorical and corporeal figurality means that the complex interweavings of letters in words capably figure forth the invisible configurations of atoms that structure all things. Lucretius thus can ask his readers to accept the teachings of his poem even though it is impossible to obtain ocular proof for his claims about the atomist structure of nature.
Like the analogy between atoms and letters, Book 4 of DRN is centrally concerned with the relation between things and representations. The book is dedicated to sense perception, which Lucretius explains is caused by the films of atoms that continuously stream off of objects.
dico igitur rerum effigias tenuisque figuras
mittier ab rebus summo de corpore rerum,
quae quasi membranae vel cortex nominitandast,
quod speciem ac formam similem gerit eius imago
cuiuscumque cluet de corpore fusa vagari.
[Now there's another crucial fact I must explain—so mark / My words—that there are images of things—a skin, or bark / As we can call it, shed from objects, since it bears the same / Form and likeness of whatever thing from which it came.]
These are simulacra, which are responsible for both reliable sense perception and errant fantasy. While simulacra generally transmit accurate impressions of objects to the senses, they can also be profoundly fickle. Labile and incredibly fine, simulacra sometimes combine midair, forming amalgam images that reflect no real object; sometimes they are generated from thin air rather than from things. Such simulacra infiltrate and trick the mind, sometimes producing terrifying visions of ghosts and monsters, at other times more pleasurable apparitions. Lucretius lingers over the example of wet dreams, describing adolescent boys who are visited at night by visions of beauty generated from "some random body or other" (e corpore quoque; DRN 4.1032). Aroused by images, the boys spill their seed into the sheets.
Lucretius maps the simulacrum's play of presence and absence, embodiment and disembodiment, onto the sweetness and bitterness, pleasure and pain, of sexual desire. The end of Book 4 is brimming with sex, and its disquisitions on wet dreams, the proper positions for marital coitus, and the expediency of sleeping with prostitutes contain sophisticated theories of fantasy, seduction, and desire that reveal novel ways to think about the image-making of poetry. Lucretius explains that all desire is roused by simulacra. However, precisely because they long for images, lovers find no relief in sex. The separation between a simulacrum and the body that generates it produces a category mistake that frustrates lust and makes sex a brutal affair. In a startlingly vivid passage, Lucretius describes two lovers grappling with each other,
quod petiere, premunt arte faciuntque dolorem
corporis et dentes inlidunt saepe labellis
osculaque adfligunt, quia non est pura voluptas
et stimuli subsunt qui instigant laedere id ipsum
quodcumque est, rabies unde illaec germina surgunt.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
sic in amore Venus simulacris ludit amantis
nec satiare queunt spectando corpora coram
nec manibus quicquam teneris abradere membris
possunt errantes incerti corpore toto.
(DRN 4.1079-83, 1101-4)
[so closely pressing / What they long for, that they hurt the flesh by their possessing, / Often sinking teeth in lips, and crushing as they kiss, / Since what lovers feel is not some pure and simple bliss— / Rather, there are stings that lurk beneath it, pains that shoot, / Goading them to hurt the thing that's made madness take root, / Whatever it may be. . . . So [in love] Venus teases [lovers] with images—[they] can't satisfy / The flesh however they devour each other with the eye, / Nor with hungry hands roving the body can they reap / Anything from the supple limbs that they can take and keep; translation modified]
Although they "devour each other with the eye," these lovers never satisfy the flesh, no matter how much they bite and crush each other's bodies in wild attempts to extract pleasure. If their desires were more reasonable—either for procreation or for brief release—they would be satisfied with mere moments of pleasure, but because they long to possess each other fully they are consumed by a ruinous and insatiable obsession. Lucretius places this perverse desire, too, under the name "Venus"—this is how Venus teases lovers with images (sic in amore Venus simulacris ludit amantis; DRN 4.1101).
The end of Book 4 is a poetic tour de force. Its powerful depiction of sexuality made it one of the most controversial of DRN's poetic set pieces in early modernity, when it was a source of fierce disagreement and the object of intense censure. Some readers and editors praised Lucretius for his practical advice on everything from sexual positions to choosing partners, while others were shocked by the passage's violence and denounced its explicit sexual content. Yet while many resisted the scandals of Book 4, others succumbed. Although John Dryden acknowledged the objections of other seventeenth-century Lucretius translators, all of whom refused to render the most graphic lines into English, he gave no better explanation for his own decision to translate them than that they gave him pleasure: "Without the least Formality of an excuse . . . I own it pleas'd me." Modern poets, too, have been taken with Book 4: W. B. Yeats called it "the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written."
The pleasures of Book 4 are strategic. Lucretius must hold his readers' attention because he is there explicating one of Epicurean philosophy's thorniest conceptual issues, what Michel Foucault described as the "incorporeal materiality" of simulacra. While simulacra are unreliable and delicate (Lucretius writes that they are like "spider webs . . . or gold to airy thinness beat" [DRN 4.726-27]), they are also the only bridge between bodies and the sole cause of sense perception. And although simulacra are made of atoms and thus firmly material, precisely because image atoms are the finest of all the atoms, simulacra verge away from corporeality. Poised between the corporeal and the incorporeal, simulacra are here-not-here, there-not-there, mutable and swift (though the simul- of the simulacrum is etymologically linked to similis, meaning "similar," it also evokes simul, "simultaneous"). Jonathan Goldberg points out that Foucault's phrase applies to atoms as well as to simulacra: "With 'incorporeal materiality,' [Foucault] recalls a controversy that haunts Epicureanism from the start: if atoms are themselves imperceptible, colorless, tasteless—if they lack almost every feature by which bodies can be known, virtually every characteristic that characterizes matter—in what sense are atoms material? Although we see thanks to these atomic effluxes, we do not see them." What I earlier called the "category mistake" of sexual desire—the way it feeds on images but founders on bodies—also relates to the atom, to its paradoxical status as matter that cannot be comprehended by the senses. The lovers who fall in love with images but cannot sate themselves on bodies are figures for the impossibility of gaining sensory satisfaction from the atom. Like the body of the beloved, mediated by the unsatisfyingly attenuated materiality of its simulacra, the atom is material, it is there, but just out of reach. The atom cannot be captured by the senses, only by images, be they simulacra or poetic images.
The Lucretian explanation of simulacra contains a commentary on poetic images and poetic pleasures. Like simulacra, DRN's poetic images manifest the motions of atoms. By analogy, the pleasures produced by poetic images parallel the agonies and ecstasies produced by erotic simulacra, and DRN's readers, captivated by Lucretian poetry, parallel Book 4's lovers in thrall to their fantasies. As in the honey and wormwood passage, in Book 4 Lucretius shows his hand: DRN is a poem designed to arouse readers, to seduce them, to entrap them. Though Lucretius advises against getting carried away in matters of love and sex, DRN actively endeavors to transport readers on the swells of its poetry. (To a certain extent, Lucretius proves his early modern critics right: a poem that purports to teach emotional equilibrium [ataraxia] relies on arousing the passions to make its points.) Just as images stoke desire for bodies, Lucretian poetry stokes desire for the atom itself, or rather, for materialist teachings about the atom. Fantasy's power to provoke very real physical response thus acts as a figure for the way that poetic images of atoms can materialize convictions about the structure of nature. Wet dreams are a good example: when boys dream of beautiful bodies, their effusions of semen materialize the nebulous effluvia of the simulacra that invade their minds. Poetic seduction is designed to impel readers to accept atomist teachings about the nature of matter. The sensual episodes of Book 4 allegorize this process while also trying to enact it.
In early modernity, the seductions of Lucretian poetry were central to the reception of Lucretian poetics. In DRN, seduction takes strategic precedence over other aspects of Lucretian poetics—claims about the shared figurality of atoms and letters, about poetry's capacity to illuminate the invisible structures of matter—because seduction is the means by which these other claims are made. This is why DRN opens with the hymn to Venus, an enormously seductive passage that also thematizes seduction, rather than with, say, an extended treatment of the analogy between atoms and letters. Seduction continues to play a crucial role in the early modern reception of Lucretian poetics in part because it is the least dogmatic, and thus most portable, element of Lucretian thought. Even when illumination and conviction about materialist doctrine fails, Lucretian erotics remains a useful tool. At a time when the hegemony of Christianity rendered Epicurean ideas about the soul's mortality and the indifference of the gods particularly intolerable, it was well-nigh impossible that readers of DRN would accept all (or even most of) Epicurean doctrine.
In spite of this—that is, even when illumination and conviction about materialist doctrine failed—Lucretian idioms of seduction remained viable and valuable for exploring theoretical issues around the materiality of fantasy and the power of poetic persuasion. Of the poets discussed in this book, only one (Margaret Cavendish) could be said to have even briefly embraced atomist materialism as a physical doctrine, yet every poet under discussion responded to and adapted Lucretian erotics in their negotiations with Lucretian poetics.
Words and Things
Foucault's conception of atomist matter as "incorporeal materiality" is a far cry from the solid state physics that is more frequently associated with Lucretian atomism. Early modern mechanical philosophy, which explained all natural phenomena in terms of matter and motion, took inspiration from classical atomism, but the elegant equation of atoms, void, and swerve was not the only vision of matter Lucretius bequeathed to the period. Escaping the overriding association of Lucretius with mechanistic philosophy makes it much easier to grasp the ways that Lucretian atomism spoke to Renaissance and early modern poetics. If atomist matter is an incorporeal materiality, best embodied in simulacra, then a thinking about images and fantasy—the stuff of poetry—is at the heart of atomist materialism. Simulacra speak to the imaginative potential of the material world, to the dangerous powers of fantasy embedded in the stolid powers of sense. They attest to the fact that there is plenty of room in a materialist universe for the fantastic, the imaginative, the seductive—though in a much different way than the detractors of the Epicureans would have it (this fantasy is balanced between the material and immaterial, the corporeal and incorporeal, not mired in carnal gluttony). With the simulacrum, Lucretius illustrates the same fundamental principle he expounds in the analogy of atoms and letters: the interconnection of words and things, here images and bodies. But whereas in the analogy Lucretius emphasizes the underlying sameness of letters and atoms, here he stresses the ways in which images diverge from reality, even as they remain—however tenuously—material. Both the simulacrum's effectiveness and its danger derive from its delicate position on the fault line between truth and trick, matter and illusion. As such, the simulacrum also speaks to the delicate balance in Lucretian materialism between matter and language, things and fantasies, objects in the world and those in the mind. The function of simulacra is thus dual: on the one hand, they establish the materiality of fantasy and of the imagination. On the other hand, they reveal the attenuation of matter in fantasy and demonstrate that fantasy can be dangerous and deceptive even though it is material. Though these lessons may appear divergent, they both work (though in different ways) to establish that fantasy and matter exist along the same spectrum.
The Lucretian simulacrum thus undermines the mode of representational thinking that has dominated Western thought since Plato, which characterizes all representation (images, words, artworks, etc.) as a falling off from truth. As I will show in Chapters 1, 2, and 3 (on Pierre de Ronsard, Remy Belleau, and John Donne, respectively), Lucretian simulacra appear frequently in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century lyric poetry to mark the site of a contestation of the Neoplatonic poetics that dominated the age. Against Renaissance Neoplatonism, which downgraded the status of poetry and questioned its place in the social world (as when Plato kicks the poets out of his republic), Lucretius offered a way of thinking that refuted transcendence and put poetry on an equal footing with things. This fascinated poets. While Lucretian materialism was not the only materialism known to early modernity, it was certainly the strongest, and the only one to posit an equality between things and that which represented them (words, images, etc.). Augustinian semiotics, Petrarchan idolatry, and even some varieties of Platonism offered theories of language, poetry, and love that stressed the body and mortal experience. But even the most materialist wings of Platonic and Christian thought are grounded in notions of truth and meaning that place the ultimate referent of language in a transcendent realm beyond the reach of mortals (be it that of the Platonic forms or the Christian God). Margaret Ferguson explains that "Western philosophy's traditional notion of language as mimesis. . . . the theory of language as an imitation of something essentially unlike language" rests on "ontological presuppositions about humanity's exile from divine truth and Presence." A thinker like Augustine, whose theorizations of language laid the groundwork for all of Western semiotics, found human language "fundamentally inadequate" to expressing transcendent truths; for Augustine, "all language is metaphorical in the road to God because no sequence of words, even proper words, can adequately represent an atemporal and holistic cause." Platonizing, Christian Renaissance love poetry presented human desire for mortal love as a stepping stone toward desire for divine love. In the Divina commedia, the paradigmatic example, Beatrice guides Dante in transmuting his love for her into love of God and things divine. Just as earthly desires should lead toward desire for and union with the divine, so ought earthly mediums (human language) lead toward the divine Word. In this trajectory, poetry exists as part of the striving toward an ideal, but is excluded from the site of transcendence: there is no place for human writing at the site of the Platonic idea or of the divine Word (just as, in negative theology, there is no language adequate to God).
When the full text of DRN appeared on the scene in fifteenth-century Europe, it offered a wildly different way of understanding the relationship between words and things, and thus for conceiving of the nature of poetry. Lucretian materialism, unlike weaker Augustinian, Neoplatonic, Petrarchan, or other materialisms, denied transcendence of any kind and asserted the equality of words, images, and things. Epicureans maintained that the material world is all there is. Although the Epicurean system admits the existence of the gods, it presents them as fundamentally uninterested in human affairs: they do not meddle in human lives, and humans do not join them in an afterlife. Though mortal existence is marked by dissatisfaction and insatiability, Lucretius refuses to offer a transcendent promise of relief, either in an afterlife or in an immaterial and ideal realm of forms. The account of insatiable sexual desire in Book 4 of DRN represents in an amorous key a general truth about all of human life. Lucretius's advice for lovers—to moderate their desires, be practical, be reasonable—is the sort of advice that Epicurean philosophy offers about human life in general. All that can be done is to manage expectations about this life, because there is nothing after it.
The same ideas that made Lucretius a powerful new entrant into early modern semiotics and poetics also made him a strong contrarian voice in developing early modern scientific debates about the relative value of words and things. Attempts to police the imagination and poetic language were central to the construction of early modern science. In his History of the Royal Society, published in 1667, seven years after that society's founding, Thomas Sprat praises the new scientists for eliminating linguistic flourishes from their speech and writing. Sprat's account develops ideas that had been in circulation since 1605, when Francis Bacon published The Advancement of Learning and advocated a new method for "restoring or cultivating a just and legitimate familiarity between the mind and things" by purifying degraded habits of thought and language. Sprat mourns the language spoken directly after the creation in Eden, when Adam was able with what Sprat calls "native easiness" to give names to his fellow creatures, effortlessly assigning one word to each one thing. He hopes that his fellow scientists will be able to approximate this originary language by adopting a plain style stripped of all ornamentation. The fewer words there are, the better the odds that the two halves of the equation between words and things will add up.
Although Sprat's vision for a scientific plain style relies on the (tragically lost) equivalence between words and things, the critiques of rhetoric and poetry mounted by early modern scientists made it clear that the primary object of their inquiries would always be things—not words, nor even the equivalence between words and things—and that they saw language as the natural enemy of natural inquiry. In The Advancement of Learning, Bacon diagnoses the "the first distemper of learning" as "when men studie words, and not matter." He muses "that Pigmalions frenzie is a good embleme or portraiture of this vanitie: for wordes are but the Images of matter, and except they haue life of reason and inuention: to fall in loue with them, is all one, as to fall in loue with a Picture." Bacon takes a Platonic (and Augustinian) line: words are not the equals of things, but rather their degenerate copies. To take them for anything else is madness, a narcissistic logophilia he scornfully compares to the sculptor Pygmalion's attraction to a statue of his own making. Bacon implies that representation—be it representative language or a representational art such as sculpture—regularly fails at its core mission of representing things, and instead merely represents itself. Like Pygmalion, who spurns real women but falls in love with his own creation, a statue that thereby represents himself and his own artistry more than its ostensible subject, language all too frequently ends up representing itself rather than its objects. That Bacon connects representational narcissism to sexual depravity casts light on the early modern prominence of Saint Jerome's story about Lucretius's suicide. In view of Bacon's reference to Pygmalion as an example of degenerate self-referentiality in mediums that ought to be representational, the early modern popularity of the apocryphal story of Lucretius's madness begins to look like a punishment for the Roman poet's decision to versify Epicurean philosophy, that is, for both his decision to pair natural philosophy and poetry and his robust defense of seductive, luxuriant modes of poetic expression.
In separating Lucretius the natural philosopher from Lucretius the poet, early modern scientists were following a well-trodden path. As hard as Lucretius works in DRN to break down the boundaries between poetry and philosophy, those very boundaries have been repeatedly reinscribed in the reception of his poetry. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century readers of DRN had done the exact opposite of the British natural philosophers, denying Lucretian philosophy in order to embrace the poetry, arguing that it was possible to separate the wonders of Lucretian verse from the heretical philosophies they enclosed. In his 1563 dedicatory letter to Charles IX, Denis Lambin, the greatest sixteenth-century editor of DRN, lays the blame for DRN's heresies at the feet of Epicurus: "Albeit Lucretius attacked the immortality of the soul, denied divine providence, abolished all religions, and placed the highest good in pleasure (voluptas). But this fault belongs to Epicurus, whom Lucretius followed, not to Lucretius." Lucretius is worthwhile for his poetry, and ought neither be blamed nor be heeded for the ridiculous notions he inherits from Epicurus. These, Lambin argues, are nothing more than the ravings of a madman: "[T]hese insane and frenzied ideas of Epicurus, those absurdities about a fortuitous conjunction of atoms, about innumerable worlds, and so on, neither is it difficult for us to refute them, nor indeed is it necessary: certainly when they are most easily disproved by the voice of truth itself or by everyone remaining silent about them." This view was widespread: Ada Palmer argues that partitioning Lucretian poetry off from Epicurean philosophy likely kept DRN out of the censors' lists. In 1557, in the midst of preparing revisions for the Inquisition's Index, Michele Ghislieri—the future Pope Pius V—"wrote to the Inquisitor General of his concern that, in aiming to stifle truly dangerous works, they might draft language that would also target such authors as Lucian and Lucretius, whose works, like Orlando Furioso and the Decameron, were not dangerous because everyone knew to read them as fables, not seriously." Ghislieri conceives of poems as inconsequential—fables, toys, the stuff of children and madmen—incapable of corrupting a strong mind. Moreover, it was not only poets and inquisitors who approached Lucretian philosophy this way: even natural philosophical poets were prone to read the content of Lucretius's poem as a fable. Maurice Scève, the sixteenth-century French poet whose long cosmographical poem, Microcosme (1562), was deeply indebted to Lucretius, rejected atomism wholesale, indicating that absorbing Lucretian lessons about didactic style need not lead to an acceptance of the Epicurean philosophy.
Modern criticism has followed suit. From the Romantics onward, the strong tendency to separate DRN's proems from the poem's expository passages, the purple passages from the long technical explanations, has manifested itself in several ways. In the nineteenth century, scholars saw Lucretius as a poet divided against himself, one who betrays his own doubts about the doctrines he espouses. In the words of M. Patin, this is "L'Antilucrèce chez Lucrèce." Patin finds it particularly telling that Lucretius uses religious imagery (particularly in the hymn to Venus) even as he argues against myth and religious superstition. Like Blake, who in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" accused Milton of being "of the Devils party without knowing it," Patin argues that the gloriousness of Lucretius's poetry in passages like these betrays the poet's passion for the gods, for myth, for vain pleasures, even as he argues against them. Lucretius (perhaps unconsciously) rebelled against Epicurean thought even as he struggled to elucidate and defend it. The notion that Lucretius endured a psychic dislocation between the parts of himself that supported and those that denied Epicureanism feeds into Jerome's tale about the love philter and Lucretius's madness. This story reinforced the sense that Epicurean philosophy was so distant from standard orthodoxy that it could simply be ignored as madness.
Methodology and Chapters
This book studies how five poets—Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), Remy Belleau (1528-1577), John Donne (1572-1631), Lucy Hutchinson (1620-1681), and Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673)—adapted Lucretian poetics to their own sixteenth- and seventeenth-century purposes. These poets offer declensions on a shared set of Lucretian ideas and images related to poetry and the imagination. DRN's accounts of seduction and erotic fanatsy work through a set of issues with enormous poetic resonance: the relation between images and things, words and matter, poetry and nature, fantasy and reality. The poetry of Ronsard, Belleau, Donne, Hutchinson, and Cavendish responds to Lucretian erotics and to the poetics conveyed in that erotics. These poets evince a consistent interest both in what Lucretius posits as the materiality of the phantasmatic and in how he posits it: in a language of love, desire, and sex whose natural home is lyric.
Despite this consistent core of interest, the very different cultural contexts in which these poets wrote leads to significant diversity in their adaptations of Lucretius. Beginning in France around the middle of the sixteenth century and coming to a close after the restoration of the monarchy in England, in the final decades of the seventeenth, this book covers substantial ground. The poets under discussion come from different countries, write in different languages, are of different genders, and have different intellectual backgrounds, politics, and poetic goals. They all treat DRN as a conceptual workbook for poetic problems, but the experiments they undertake in relation to Lucretius are carried out under very different conditions. The Erotics of Materialism tracks the accretion of Lucretian experiments across centuries, languages, and nations, analyzing both the diversities and the continuities of these poets' moves in relation to an erotic Lucretian poetics.
The diversity of these authors allows me to make a claim for a lyric tradition of Lucretian poetics—a cumulative, adaptive, flexible tradition that is coherent but not restricted. Because these poets are responding not only to Lucretius, but also to other vernacular writers whose work they read as being in conversation with Lucretius, there is continuity even in diversity. For example, in his first book of sonnets, published in 1552, Pierre de Ronsard recasts Petrarchism in Lucretian terms, reimagining the amorous tears and sighs that constituted Petrarch's Rime as atoms that collide in the void of his own body and produce his amours, or love poems. Ronsard pits Lucretian materialism against the idealizing Neoplatonism that dominated the Petrarchan poetics of his time in order to test the efficacy of lyric language within natural philosophical and political discourse. Meanwhile, writing in England around the turn of the seventeenth century, John Donne also links the fragmented matter of atomist physics to the fragments—of bodies, emotions, and verses—of Petrarchan lyric. In his praise poems, Donne declines to play the Petrarchan lover because he doesn't want to "fall apart," to act out, in amorous fashion, the same jarring fragmentation of matter that he associates with both the new world picture of the seventeenth century and Petrarchan love poetry. In the context of the revival of interest in atomist physics that was taking place in Donne's time, the association between atomism and Petrarchism takes on new—and fraught—force. While pairing atomism and Petrarchism was a way for Ronsard to contest the idealist, Platonizing, currents that dominated lyric practice in his day, when Donne, writing in the waning of Petrarchism, links the fragmentations of atomist matter to those of Petrarchan verse he does so to critique and renovate a Petrarchan style that he finds tired and ineffectual. Though context proves decisive for the value Ronsard and Donne each attach to Lucretius, the pattern of their thought is remarkably consistent. Both poets associate atoms with the fragmentary poetics of Petrarchism, and do so with allusion to the Lucretian analogy between atoms and letters. Ultimately, differences between Ronsard and Donne's Lucretianizing poetry bespeak not the incoherence of the lyric tradition indebted to Lucretius, but rather its tenacity and flexibility.
Early modern poets looked not just to DRN, but also to their recent predecessors and peers, for their sense of Lucretian poetry and its contemporary affordances; these poets learned Lucretian poetics both from DRN and from later poets whose work they read through a Lucretian lens. Donne, for example, admired Ronsard's poetry. It is possible that his characterization of the sympathy between Petrarchism and atomist cosmology was born from his reading of Ronsard's atomist sonnets. Ronsard had already interpreted Petrarchan poetry as Lucretian. Though we cannot know how well Petrarch knew DRN (he certainly knew short sections of the poem and some Epicurean ideas indirectly), Ronsard draws connections between the scattered atoms of Lucretian cosmology and Petrarch's scattered rhymes, using atomist cosmology to intensify the way Petrarchan poetry stages poetic creation through bodily fragmentation. Ronsard and Belleau may have developed this way of thinking together. They were close friends who dedicated poems to each other and who wrote on similar Lucretian themes. Belleau edited and commented one of Ronsard's volumes of love poems; in his commentary, he points out Ronsard's debts to DRN. Meanwhile, Hutchinson and Cavendish were contemporaries and neighbors who came from opposite ends of the political spectrum: Hutchinson was a stout parliamentarian, and Cavendish a proud royalist. A sense of competition may have spurred them on in their Lucretian undertakings (Cavendish's atomist poetry and Hutchinson's translation of DRN). The way that these poets read and respond to each other's work demonstrates that a recognizable Lucretian influence on lyric developed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France and England not just because poets were reading DRN, but because poets read each other's work as Lucretian (whether it was or not, as in the case of Ronsard's interpretation of Petrarch). Early modern dialogues around Lucretian ideas developed not just in reference to DRN itself, but among contemporaries, constituting a vibrant tradition of intertextual reading. This approach illuminates the broad diffusion of Lucretian ideas in a time when DRN itself was feared and mocked for its heretical ideas.
While no single set of poems or poets can give a complete picture of the reception of Lucretian poetics in early modernity, the selected poets allow me to sketch the historical arc of a distinctive moment in the history of Lucretian reception. Both before the midpoint of the sixteenth century and after the first three-quarters of the seventeenth, poets extracted very different poetic questions, and answers, from DRN than did the poets described in this book. By the mid-sixteenth century, the text of DRN was well established, and new and authoritative editions of the poem were widely available. Belleau and Ronsard probably first read DRN in the 1514 Paris Navagero edition or the 1515 Venetian Aldine edition. Later they would have enjoyed Denis Lambin's magisterial editions of Lucretius, the first of which was published in 1563 in Paris and Lyon, and then reprinted in 1564, 1565, and 1570 (Lambin dedicated Book 2 of his magnificent 1563 edition of DRN to Ronsard). Poets like Ronsard and Belleau began to adapt Lucretius in vernacular as well as neo-Latin poetry, in lyric as well as didactic or epic forms. These vernacular adaptations of Lucretian poetry were freer and more adventurous than the neo-Latin Lucretian poetry that had come before. Charlotte Polly Goddard writes that "with the rise of the vernacular and the gradual decline of Latin, Lucretian imitation moved into a new stage. It was no longer based on the borrowing and manipulation of specific words or phrases in poems of the same language, genre, and metre." This is where my story begins.
French poets in the second half of the sixteenth century felt a twofold pressure to defend and enrich their vernacular literary tradition. They strove to match the French language and French literature to Latin and Greek, but also Italian, models by translating old forms and inventing new ones, while also struggling against the sense that the Wars of Religion (1562-1598) could destroy any progress they had already made. Chapter 1 discusses Pierre de Ronsard's Lucretianizing of Petrarchism, mentioned above. Chapter 2 argues that both Ronsard and Remy Belleau found resources for defending and enriching French lyric in Lucretius's discussion of erotic fantasy, which crowns Book 4 of DRN. They apply Lucretius's language of love to the political crises of their time, adapting Lucretian theories about sexual reproduction to illustrate new ways of thinking about the reproduction of France's social, political, and creative economies.
Chapter 3 turns from sixteenth-century France to seventeenth-century England to demonstrate the continuing importance of Lucretian poetics in a period more commonly associated with the birth of modern scientific atomism. While John Donne's lament in the First Anniversarie (1611) has drawn critical attention to what he there presents as the devastating epistemological, moral, and social impacts of early modern science, particularly atomism, I argue that Donne's engagement with Lucretius stands between a scientific understanding of the structure of the universe and a description of human or erotic relation. Through readings of Donne's diverse uses of Lucretian imagery and concepts in the Songs and Sonets and the praise poems, I show that Donne draws on Lucretius to contest Petrarchan influence and seek a new lexicon for erotic love. Linking the fragmentation of Petrarchan lyric to the fragmentation of a dying world, Donne characterizes Petrarchizing verse as exhausted and incapable of establishing relations, whether between poet and patron or poet and beloved. However, even as Donne's critique of Petrarchism unfolds through Lucretian images, he develops his new erotic lexicon in conversation with different Lucretian concepts and images. That is, even as Lucretius helps Donne to deconstruct Petrarchism, he also helps him to construct alternative ways of thinking about the workings of love and the writing of love poetry.
Like Pierre de Ronsard and Remy Belleau, the sixteenth-century French poets I discuss in the book's first two chapters, Donne connects Lucretianism and Petrarchism. Unlike these earlier poets, however, Donne was witness to the rise of modern scientific atomism, and his poetry looks forward to the epistemological, social, and religious crises that would come to a head in England in the civil war and the scientific revolution (circumstances decisive for Lucy Hutchinson and Margaret Cavendish, discussed in this book's final two chapters). The chapter on Donne therefore functions as what Cavendish, in her book of atomist poems, calls a "claspe," a bridge between two sections of a book. In addition to marking temporal and spatial transitions—between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, between France and England—Chapter 3 is also the site of a migration in my methodology. While the first two chapters of book are primarily interested in the microworkings of Ronsard's and Belleau's poetry, and while I continue to close read poetry in the final three chapters of the book, the chapter on Donne opens out onto the chapters on Hutchinson and Cavendish, writers who, like Donne, were invested in theorizing as well as in practicing Lucretian poetics. All of the book's chapters tend to offer frameworks for interpretation rather than definitive readings of particular texts, and that tendency is especially evident here, where I move between the Songs and Sonets, the First Anniversary, verse epistles, elegies, letters, and sermons. This is intentional: I aim to do justice to the diversity and complexity of Donne's Lucretian thinking and the way this thought breaks the boundaries of genre. The book's focus broadens in this chapter as I move outward into the social, theoretical, and literary critical contexts of Lucretian poetics. These contexts illuminate the work that Lucretius is made to do in Donne's (and Hutchinson's and Cavendish's) poetry, and is necessary because the contexts of Lucretian reception themselves broaden in this period. The growing popularity of atomist physics is one important context, and it is essential for understanding how Donne and Cavendish put Lucretius to work in their poetry. A second is the appearance in the mid-seventeenth century of the first vernacular translations of DRN, which made the poem available to new readers. Translations were widely assumed to target women readers, who were less likely to have Latin.
Chapters 4 and 5 both address the appeal DRN held for early modern women. Chapter 4 takes as its starting point Lucy Hutchinson's delayed dedication (1675) of her verse translation of DRN (carried out in the 1650s, Hutchinson's was likely the poem's first English translation), which denounces her early labor in harsh and overtly sexualized terms. Reprising themes from this Introduction, I show that Hutchinson's repentance for her "wanton dalliance with impious books" responds to many different ways in which DRN was eroticized in early modernity: the long history of erotic responses to Lucretian poetry instantiated by DRN's own poetics of seduction; the libertine climate around Lucretius during the Restoration period; and the sexual discourse around early modern women's writing, particularly intense for a woman translating a text as scandalous as DRN. Yet although her dedication vociferously rejects the wayward poetics and morality Hutchinson associates with the pagan Lucretius, Lucretian desire plays an important part in her elegies and her biblical epic, Order and Disorder (1679), as a figure for painful, yet unavoidable, human desire. Hutchinson's late poetry thus attests once more to the importance of desire and seduction in Hutchinson's response to DRN, reinforcing the book's broader argument about the importance of erotics in the early modern reception of Lucretius.
Like Donne's, Hutchinson's reaction to Lucretius is violent. DRN was a particularly contentious text from antiquity onward because its claims about physics as well as ethics contravened first Roman, and later Christian, civic and religious practices and doctrines. Because Lucretius was so controversial, every sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poet who drew on Lucretius reformed Lucretian thought with Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Skeptical, but above all Christian ideas. Each of the poets discussed in this book go a certain distance with Lucretius, then adapt or repudiate him. These efforts to tame and disavow Lucretius do not constitute unequivocal refusals of all Lucretius had to offer; rather they are indices of engagement, however fraught. The subject of Chapter 5, Margaret Cavendish, goes further with Lucretius than perhaps any other early modern poet. Cavendish's 1653 Poems and Fancies, a collection of atomist poems, cultivates a Lucretian poetics and epistemology that stay with Cavendish throughout her entire career. Although the unhappy critical fate of Poems and Fancies has downgraded the status of atomism and poetry alike in Cavendish's corpus, Cavendish does not reject atomism in her later works (as is often argued), because her atomism is focused less on materialist dogma than on Lucretian poetics. Like Lucretius, Cavendish espouses a skepticism of truth claims while endorsing the capacity of imaginative literature to educate and convince where "facts" cannot. Cavendish adapts these Lucretian ideas to her own seventeenth-century moment, responding to both the situation of women and the burgeoning scientific establishment by rejecting experimental values in favor of a vision of nature and human reason in which fancy and the imagination, not experiment, are the proper tools for natural inquiry. If natural philosophy is better conducted in the freewheeling imagination than in the laboratory, seventeenth-century women were as—if not more!—qualified to be natural philosophers as men. Lucretian poetic natural philosophy offered a model for a new science that was not predicated on a (masculine) domination of nature, but rather attempted to think with it, in a feminine register.
The book ends with a brief epilogue on libertine poetry, which takes "The Imperfect Enjoyment" by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), as a case study in the course taken by Lucretian erotics after the age of experimentation with Lucretian poetics that is the focus of this book. If my story begins with the adventurous vernacular adaptations of DRN that began to appear around the middle of the sixteenth century, it ends with the rise of libertinism near the end of the seventeenth, when poets in both France and England launched Lucretian erotics and Epicurean philosophy on a new trajectory. Libertine poets like Rochester wrote sexually explicit poetry praising promiscuous erotic experience. At the end of Book 4 of DRN, Lucretius explains that love's pains can be avoided through promiscuity. Homing in on Lucretius's apparent endorsement of infidelity, libertines characterized Lucretius as a libertine avant la lettre and transformed Lucretian erotics into a physical and philosophical program. By fixing the erotics of Lucretian materialism within a specific contemporary philosophical system, libertinism marks a decisive shift in the possibilities available to Lucretian poetics. For Rochester, Lucretius is a philosopher of the body and a poet of uninhibited sex. For the poets that are the focus of this study, Lucretian erotics spoke neither to unbridled hedonism nor to Epicurean dogma, but rather to poetic questions: the delicate balance between fantasy and bodies, images and things, poetry and nature.