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Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: Lucretius and the Book Hunters

In his new book, The Swerve, Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of an ancient poem and a manuscript explorer, and resurrects a time when people truly loved books.

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s new offering is a love letter to books. The public views literary criticism as it does an uncle who works in insurance—old, mirthless, long-winded, and pats you on your head too often. But literary criticism at its best—as practiced by, for example, Greenblatt—can remind us that what really matters is the love of reading. In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Greenblatt makes the impassioned plea to read On the Nature of Things by the Roman poet Lucretius, not by singing its merits but by telling us the story of its rediscovery. The epic very nearly disappeared forever. If not for the efforts of a stumpy, rather obsessive Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini, a convincing case could be made that the Renaissance and modernity might never have dawned. The least we could do is read the poem.

As Greenblatt sees it, the least he could do was to tell the story. “The story itself is so remarkable, and it’s so strange it hasn’t been—as far as I know, hasn’t really been—taken in,” he said. “A bureaucrat goes into a library one day and pulls a poem off a shelf, and it changes the world.”

What is On the Nature of Things? We know next to nothing about its author, Lucretius, and practically all we have of him is On the Nature of Things, which was written probably around the time Julius Caesar was running around Gaul. Not a lot to hang a tale on, you might say, but out of this void spins the work itself and its afterlife. For On the Nature of Things delivers precisely what its title advertises: it can be said to be about everything in the entire universe. It argues that all matter can be accounted for through natural phenomena, and goes about laying out how stuff works.

On the Nature of Things is, therefore, not just any other poem. It’s among a rare breed: a scientific and philosophical treatise as well as a literary one, equal parts didactic and symbolic. Anybody who’s read the poetry of Richard Feynman (Deep in the sea, / All molecules repeat / The patterns of another / Till complex new ones are formed) or James Maxwell (In working the problem the first thing of course is
/ To equate the impressed and effectual forces. / K is tugged by two tensions, whose difference dT
/ Must equal the element’s mass into Vt) knows that these don’t always work. But one look at the spectacular opening invocation of Lucretius’s offering and it won’t be hard to understand why it inspired Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Here’s poet John Dryden’s translation: “The flowers unseen, in fields and meadows reign’d, And western winds immortal spring maintain’d.”

The poem is 7,400 six-beat hexameter lines, divided into six untitled books—not exactly an easy read. And at times, Lucretius can seem—to us modern men—like the other uncle we are often blessed with, the one who’s a hippie oddball. He wrote raunchy passages on love and sex. (“They grip, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart, As each would force their way to th’others heart.”) He thought that worms spontaneously grew out of wet soil, and that earthquakes happened because winds swirled and bumped things around in underground caves. “What’s weird about Lucretius is that, of course, there’s a lot of strangeness and lots of sense of distance,” Greenblatt said. “But you’re eerily in your own world in Lucretius. There isn’t anything, as far as I know, that’s comparable to that.”

Lucretius belonged to the school of philosophy known as Epicureanism, and the Epicureans believed in the (ultimately correct) theory that all things are made of atoms, the consequence of which is that humans are not exactly unique. The particles in our bodies must eventually disperse and become something else. When we die, we die, and that’s that.

Greenblatt will turn a young 68 in a few months, and the last thing on his ebullient, flitting mind is death. What Greenblatt dreads is the decline of literacy, the disappearance of texts, the narrowing of expression. He would have been comfortable among the Romans, for they went a little wacko over books. The grammarian Tyrannion supposedly had 30,000 of them; the physician Serenus Sammonicus is reputed to have had 60,000. Greenblatt tells us of Didymus of Alexandria, who earned the nickname “Bronze-Ass” because he sat his behind down and wrote more than 3,500 books. (“Apart from a few fragments, all have vanished.”)

Then the empire fell, and Rome was sacked. Many great books disappeared. Aeschylus wrote some 90 plays and Sophocles about 120; seven from each of them have survived. Many were burned, but “rolling and unrolling the scrolls or poring over the codices, touching them, dropping them, coughing on them”—pretty much anything you do with them, including reading them—eroded and destroyed the print.

Some scrolls survived thanks to the destructive eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In 1750, explorers found a villa filled with what looked like caches of charcoal briquettes, which they burned when they got chilly in the morning. By chance, one of these pieces fell and broke open, and only then did the explorers knew what they were looking at: books. The room was a library, sealed in a tomb of volcanic ash.

The odds have never been in favor of the fragility of knowledge and the delicacy of ideas. How many great books were thrown into flames as charcoal, never to return? Against this stood On the Nature of Things, which had seemed destined for that fate, having disappeared for hundreds of years, when in 1417 “a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied.”

Meet the man who resurrected On the Nature of Things: Poggio Bracciolini. He was a larger-than-life character by any account. He had beautiful handwriting, a very important talent for a scribe. He wrote a scathing satire of the church’s court called Facetiae, and in it there’s a story of a priest who didn’t know which day Palm Sunday fell, as well as this: “The worst men in the world live in Rome, and worse than the others are the priests, and the worst of the priests they make cardinals, and the worst of all the cardinals is made pope." He must have been burned at the stake, you might guess, but the Vatican had a special way to deal with men like him: hire them. At court, Poggio once got into a brawl with a rival official and tried to gouge out his eyes. (The other scribe had his hands on Poggio’s testicles, presumably squeezing.) The aggressiveness must have served Poggio well, for he was eventually made an apostolic secretary to the "antipope" John XXIII, the slithering, conniving man born Baldassare Cossa.

Thanks to Greenblatt, Poggio will not be remembered for fighting dirty, but for being a superb book hunter. He left the Vatican to become one, inspired by the poet Petrarch, who pieced together Livy’s History of Rome and found masterpieces by Cicero. Poggio seemed to have read everything, and one day he found himself in a monastery library—perhaps in Fulda, Germany—and inside a volume he recognized the name of Lucretius, because Cicero had praised him.

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The rest, as they say, is history. Or rather, modernity, in a sense. For the poem was dangerous. It told of a godless world, which is not something the church is keen on. After years of quiet circulation, it was banned, but Machiavelli copied it. Montaigne swore by it and quoted it extensively in his Essays. Thomas Jefferson had five copies of it. The Swerve can’t quite convince us that On the Nature of Things kick-started the Renaissance and the modern world. But it really doesn’t need to.

What The Swerve does so well is to resurrect so joyously a time when people truly loved books, and remind us what it is like to sway and swerve to the beauty of the written word—something that Greenblatt knows all about.