Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.12.41

David R. Slavitt (trans.), Lucretius. De rerum natura = The Nature of Things: A Poetic Translation. The Joan Palevsky Imprint in Classical Literature.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2008.  Pp. xiv, 301.  ISBN 9780520255937.  $14.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University (
Word count: 2749 words

The Slavitt Lucretius (emphasis mine) follows on the heels of A.E. Stallings's recent Penguin Lucretius as another choice for Latin-less anglophone readers of the enigmatic Epicurean.1 Unlike Stallings's admirable Penguin, Slavitt's translation cannot be recommended for any would-be reader of the De Rerum Natura, except those interested in a tedious lesson on how not to render Latin verse into English.

Slavitt does not disclose the Latin text he purports to translate. He mentions Bailey's magisterial edition of 1947 (actually revised in 1949) and no other, so I presume throughout this review that he used Bailey's 1947/1949 text (itself significantly revised from his Roaring Twenties (second edition) OCT.2 The translation is not complete; Slavitt notes that he has omitted some ten percent of the text where he feels Lucretius is "repetitive" in his examples (nowhere does he alert the reader to where he is making cuts, and only once does he explicitly note a probable lacuna in the original--often ellipses are misleadingly used). As if this were not sufficient to raise eyebrows among those who want to read something as closely approximating Lucretius' original as possible, Slavitt further reveals that not only was it a matter of removing "repetitive" examples, but also sparing the presumably fragile ego of the long dead Lucretius by eliminating repetitive examples that are "embarrassing" in the light of "modern science". In point of fact, much of what Slavitt omits seems inexplicable, and rarely something at which modern science might scoff.

Lucretius is a difficult poet, and any translator of the De Rerum Natura needs to provide something in the way of introduction to the challenges that await the neophyte reader. Slavitt offers two paragraphs, including an excerpt from the close of Bailey's Lucretius article in the 1949 OCD (the only work of scholarship that is cited; Slavitt provides no bibliography). From Slavitt we learn that "[Lucretius'] belief is that pleasure is the object of life." We learn that Memmius, the alleged "embodiment of all evil" for Catullus, was governor of "Bythnia."

Slavitt expresses the fear that someone might use Bailey's prose translation ("and others by other translators") without having the Latin at hand, something he concludes "contorts and betrays the encounter." Are we to assume Slavitt intends his Lucretius to be read only by those who have the Latin at hand and can read it with proficiency? In what remains of a muddled foreword, Slavitt announces that he is an impersonator of Lucretius, a director "making a few cuts here and there for dramatic purposes." Slavitt declares that he intends to "restore" the "poetry" to Lucretius, repeatedly aiming his barbs at prose translations (really only one, Bailey's, since he mentions not a single other translator of Lucretius anywhere in his book). No indication is given of how his version might be better than Stallings' Penguin, or the Oxford verse translation of Melville, another formidable competitor Slavitt does not equal.3 It does not seem to have occurred to Slavitt that someone taking his implicit advice to have the Latin at hand might profitably use Bailey's text and translation or the quite serviceable Loeb.4

I sample only some of the numerous problems. In general, the greatest deficiency in the translation (besides its omissions) is failure to capture Lucretius' style: archaism and indeed repetition are part of what makes Lucretius Lucretius (and not Slavitt).

I, 21) "I seek, therefore, your blessing and help in writing these verses" (te sociam studeo scribendis versibus esse). Lucretius would not approve of making his divine ally into a giver of blessing.

23) Lucretius does not call (the son of) Memmius (Slavitt does not like patronymics) his "friend," a misleading term to use in the Roman patron-client relationship.

47-51) Lucretius tried to make clear what Slavitt seriously muddles by not providing an accurate distinction between materiem, genitalia corpora, semina rerum, and corpora prima. Slavitt's capitalization of Matter is deeply misguided, especially before he (correctly) capitalizes the Nature (59) he did not capitalize previously (e.g., 49).

119 ff.) Slavitt's mistranslation has Lucretius imply that he will go beyond what the Greeks discovered.

124-125) Slavitt is often unnecessarily obscure where Lucretius is not; here the translation could give the impression that Lucretius is speculating on whether or not he will enjoy being friends with Memmius.

138) We are not "obliged to look further" past the first of Lucretius' principles to find another foundation for the argument.

145) "Meadowlands" and "deserts" for culta and deserta rather misses the point.

154-155) Slavitt has "It cannot happen that things can arise and be begotten from anything else" for atque hac re nequeunt ex omnibus omnia gigni. And yet it happens every day.

185) Slavitt introduces a misleading duality of "flesh" and "matter" foreign to Lucretius.

232-233) There are no children playing in the streets or birds raising chicks in Lucretius 259) "Gently purling brooks" is a lovely phrase of which Slavitt is fond (cf. II, 31), but not an accurate translation here.

297) Our sight is not "crude" but rather begrudges us the chance to perceive the atoms. Slavitt warned us he would omit repetitive examples from Lucretius' text; he does not note that he also adds examples: the plant of 299 ff. is his invention. 320) Slavitt neglects to translate Lucretius' important point that without void there could be no birth, let alone movement.

391-392) Another mistranslated un-Lucretian statement: "Whatever there is must possess physical properties our senses can report." What about the void, which has just been discussed?

451 ff.) Slavitt omits the important point that there must be solid first bodies (i.e., atoms) without void.

468) Lucretius' "penetrating fire" penetralem ignem is stronger than Slavitt's "heat."

485) Slavitt twice omits mention of the concept of fixed seasons for growth.

498) Not "matter," but (literally) the "most solid bodies of matter," i.e., the atoms. So again at 506 Slavitt gives the false impression that Lucretius is talking about two things (solids and single atoms).

522) Slavitt paraphrases rather than translates the Latin, thereby missing the important concept of the "boundary stone" (terminus).

567) Slavitt omits translating Lucretius' reference to Heraclitus' obscure language, and gives the impression that Lucretius is accusing all Greeks of "silliness."

752) Lucretius does not express the hope that the "meanings" of his words "are clear." Likewise Lucretius' atoms do not merely copy what letters do, but do more than the elements of words.

837 ff. In Lucretius the atoms laugh, which is more clever than having the hapless reader laugh.

893) "And the flight of the weapon can never escape into even more distant space." Slavitt gives us the opposite of what Lucretius actually argues.

II, 7 ff. Slavitt unnecessarily introduces the concept of "philosophical battles," while failing to translate the crucial nil dulcius. Similarly at 18 Slavitt omits translating nil aliud.

23-24) Latin epulis does not = "grand salons," and Lucretius' language is not recherché enough to warrant "gewgaws" and "garnitures."

52) As elsewhere, the important mention of species with ratio is conflated.

72) "Different and yet the same" is not in the Latin and decidely un-Lucretian. At 77 "inertia" (also not in the Latin) adds needless complications for the scientifically educated reader (as does 334 "photons"). Nor does the Latin restrict atomic clashes to encounters between two bodies only.

174 ff. Slavitt leaves the beams and rafters out of the water, which leads to the rather amusing image of people trying to push down water itself.

188 ff. Slavitt removes Lucretius' first person introduction to the clinamen atomorum, becomes perhaps the first person in English poetry to define the swerve as the atoms' "wiggle," and omits the key detail that the "wiggle" occurs at undetermined times and locations.

274) There is no "veranda" in Lucretius to make sheep-gazing a more comfortable prospect, nor a "pastoral mural."

315) Petulci does not = "wobbly."

342) Lucretius' centaury is wild, not red. His saffron is from Cilicia, not Corcyra (416), though in any case Slavitt should prefer Corfu to Corcyra since elsewhere he makes Acragas Agrigento. We find Etna but also Aetna.

468 ff. Slavitt omits the specific mention of India/ivory and Lucretius' description of how the elephants keep its interior inaccessible.

525) Lucretius does not use the name Cybele, and Slavitt misses the point that grain first appeared in Phrygia. In Lucretius the crowds are ungrateful and "unfilial" (Bailey); in Lucretius coins are not softer than roses.

592) Some words do have the same letters (but in different arrangements). Slavitt regularly mistranslates or confuses Lucretius' non quo constructions.

624) There is pleasure in Lucretius, but no pain. Slavitt omits some of Lucretius' discourse on the colorless nature of the atoms. A note would be helpful to assist the reader with the highly condensed section on the (non-possibility of) white crows and black swans, one of the more challenging passages in Book II.

III, 9) In Lucretius the followers of Epicurus are the bees, not E. himself.

23 ff.) Lucretius says that there are no realms of Acheron; he does not say that the gods think Acheron an "unlikely story" or that the gods look down on earth.

81) Slavitt omits Lucretius' mention of suicide.

84 ff. Slavitt omits mention of the Greeks and inserts the misleading concept of the "aura."

122) Lucretius does not say that the mind "alone is the locus of sense."

275) Slavitt omits translating Lucretius' important point that he cannot set forth the secret causes for the differences in temperament. "There must be a physical basis for these differences in behavior" is not in the Latin.

311) At death the body loses the soul that was "not its own," rather than "an essential part of itself."

695) An odd misreading of III, 793: Lucretius' point is that even in such bizarre circumstances as the mind arising in the foot, at least it would still appear in the same man.

771) Lucretius does not say that the Hyrcanians (or anyone else) feed people to wild beasts.

801) Lucretius does not say that the dead have a better lot than the living.

805) The unwary reader might be led to believe that the phrase tempus fugit originated with Lucretius

808) There are no canapés or bowls of fruit in Lucretius

821) The Danaids are not mentioned in Lucretius, and Slavitt gets the sense reversed.

900) Lucretius does not mention Homer here or the death of Patroclus.

IV, 1ff. The breathless imagery Slavitt introduces is not in Lucretius, but there is a spring of venerable poetic history Slavitt omits.

90 ff. Slavitt does not note a lacuna of probably considerable extent; Slavitt mistranslates Lucretius' IV, 127-128.

329) The distance is great between the sun and the mountain, not the mountain and us.

370) There is no dreaming eloquent orator in Lucretius.

418) "Sigodlin" is rather pompous for obstipa, even if the word is rare.

476) Lucretius does not compare echoes to "trained falcons."

480-481) Pan and his entourage do not have "fairy pipes" and "violins," but Pan does have a piny covering for his head.

627) The mind is not itself said to be delicate, but rather the idols.

819) Lucretius mentions the starting gate, not the finish line. Slavitt also omits Lucretius' point that the zeal one brings to an activity excites dreams (IV, 984).

852) Lucretius' account of nocturnal emissions is very much in the high style; Slavitt's "sweetest tits" gives exactly the wrong impression (and there are no breasts in Lucretius).

872) Lucretius' boy has girlish limbs, not a pout.

878) Lucretius speaks of "chilly care" (frigida cura), not madness.

883) "Shoot your wad elsewhere" is un-Lucretian and fails to catch the elevated style.

966) Lucretius' vocabulary to describe terms of endearment for less than desirable women deserves less bland adjectives; Slavitt's one attempt to match Lucretius' descriptions, "humongous Winnebagoes," is questionable for tumida ... mammosa.

989) The "reek" is not necessarily "floral."

1009-1011) "thrust against the penis of the mounting..." is perhaps borrowed from Smith's revision of Rouse's Loeb, where it is no better a translation of Lucretius' coyly subtle Latin. Lucretius' subare deserves a better translation to convey its porcine connotations.

1076-1077) "Blow jobs or taking it up the ass" are not in Lucretius

V, 9) Not "close to a god" but a "god, a god" was Epicurus (and cf. 26 and 51 for the same problem).

20) Lucretius does not mention the Germans.

41) Lucretius does not joke about the eastern home of the Hesperides because he knew they were in the west.

53) Slavitt seems determined to avoid translating or mistranslate what Lucretius says about Epicurus and the gods.

59-60) Lucretius says nothing about time.

79 ff. Lucretius' point is that the progress of the sun does impact the growth of crops, but the sun does not know that.

104) Lucretius says that perhaps only actual earthquakes will cause belief in his doctrines.

253-254) The earth is the common tomb for all things, not just human beings. 355) "Infinite" refers here to space, not bodies.

385) Lucretius does not mention the aetiology of African deserts, nor does he make explicit reference to the deluge.

458) "Part" should be "parts."

474) Slavitt obscures Lucretius' two explanations for the existence of air currents.

516 ff. Lucretius notes how a thin body can have great power.

618 ff. Slavitt omits the key mention of the "mid-course" of the winds, admittedly the main problem in a difficult section that demands notes. Slavitt omits note of a probable lacuna at 631.

758) Slavitt abbreviates the section on the disappearance of monsters.

845) "For which she would give him a tumble" is another of Slavitt's frequent sexual colloquialisms that are foreign to Lucretius

862) Slavitt misses Lucretius' vivid image of the living flesh becoming a living tomb.

885) Slavitt expands the section on the enervating effects of sex but removes Lucretius' note about children cajoling parents.

919) "Teaching is hard enough when students are eager" is not in the Latin. 1101) The fences are dogs are for hunting, not guarding cattle.

1139) Slavitt omits Lucretius' mention of scythe chariots. Lucretius' boars stain the half-weapons left in them with blood, but his fallen horses do not crush riders.

1219) Lucretius does not say that the invention of music led (perhaps) to the first hint of happiness.

1236) Lucretius says the enjoyment of modern watchmen in their songs is no greater than among the ancients, which leads to his discussion of how the pursuit of novelty goads humans ever forward.

1246) No togas in Lucretius

1280) Slavitt misses the point that we have reached the summit (summum cacumen) of human evolution.

VI, 39) Some mention of the serious corruption in the text here would be useful. 79) Lucretius does not mention the Etruscans.

84) Calliope is callida; she is also the muse of epic, not history. Further, it is C. who is rest for men and delight for gods, not Lucretius

241) Lucretius does not personify his storm's lightning with "demoniac glee" or elsewise.

309) Lucretius says that lightning passes harmlessly through some things, not all, and he does not mention ground strikes.

359) Jupiter does not "keep a book and wait for cloudy weather," but rides the clouds.

398) The mountains most likely prevent waterspouts from being seen, not from occurring.

574) Lucretius says the sky is actually smaller in ratio to the whole universe than a single man is to the world.

630) It is redundant to say that the "etesian" winds blow "every year."

636) The blacks of Ethiopia are not called "tribesmen" in Lucretius Further, the sea drives the sand, not the Nile.

661) Cecrops did not disobey Athena, but rather his daughters.

671) The deer draws snakes, not insects.

832) Slavitt misses the interesting image of the "breastplate of the sky" (caeli lorica).

930) Lucretius does not mention borax, which Lucretius probably did not have in mind.

958) Slavitt omits Lucretius' mention of the Ethiopians.

987) Catervatim does not imply a military metaphor.

1070) "In agony but in no way without honor" is not in the Latin.

Slavitt's volume enters a crowded field where there are praiseworthy translations of Lucretius in both prose and poetry. There was no need for yet another English version of the De Rerum Natura, and Slavitt's attempt to compete with the likes of the venerable Bailey, the reliable Melville and the often sublime Stallings should serve as an impetus for those interested in Lucretius to learn Latin, or at least to use a translation that is more Lucretius and less David Slavitt.


1.   A.E. Stallings, Lucretius: The Nature of Things. London: Penguin Group Ltd., 2007. On matters metrical relevant to the translation of classical verse into English, Stallings' "note on the text and translation" is a model of clarity.
2.   Cyril Bailey, Titi Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura Libri Sex, edited with Prolegomena, Critical Apparatus, Translation, and Commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947. (As for the two editions of his OCT, Bailey himself seems not to have been sure when they were published, as Holford-Strevens and Smith have shown). At 801 ff. Slavitt notes B.'s solution to a locus desperationis, but omits mention of the probable lacuna.
3.   Ronald Melville, Lucretius On the Nature of the Universe. Oxford, 1997. Also Anthony M. Esolen, Lucretius On the Nature of Things. Baltimore, 1995.
4.   M.F. Smith, Lucretius De Rerum Natura (revision of Rouse). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975 (reprinted with revisions, 1997).

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