Sunday, September 03, 2017

`The Whole Sky Seems to Turn Into Rain'

When C.H. Sisson translated De Rerum Natura, customarily rendered into English as On the Nature of Things, he retained its Latin title, preserving the original’s concision and its suggestion of scientific comprehensiveness. Lucretius (c. 99-c. 55 B.C.), roughly a contemporary of Julius Caesar, was writing a curiously unpopulated philosophical epic, one without an Achilles or Odysseus. His world was not Newton’s or Darwin’s and he was not moved by “data.” He trusted his senses and drew conclusions based on observation, but was not a dispassionate, strictly evidence-driven scientist. In his introduction, Sisson tells us Lucretius is concerned with “the explanation of phenomena, which leads to a speculation about the ultimate nature of the universe – a subject which in the long run is more hopeful than conclusive.”

To the modern mind, Lucretius’ poem often sounds more mythological than scientific, but the world he describes makes for compelling reading. There’s a certain audacious bravery about the poet’s efforts. In his world, everything is in flux. By nature it is Heraclitean, perpetually becoming something else. Twentieth-century physics has made us sympathetic to this idea, and Sisson likens Lucretius’ understanding of the universe to a layman’s understanding of contemporary science – not utterly mistaken, but simplified. I picked up Sisson’s Lucretius again because I wanted to see what the Roman had to say about Hurricane Harvey. He doesn’t disappoint:

“Then a trembling seizes the earth and a murmur
Runs heavily through the sky; and the whole storm almost
Trembles as if it were shaken by the roaring:
The shock is followed by explosions of rain
So that the whole sky seems to turn into rain
And pouring down it calls back the time of the flood:
There is such a breaking of cloud and such bursts of wind
And the sound of thunder flies out of the burning strokes.”

Even to us sophisticated moderns, proud of our scientific understanding of the world, a hurricane is a primally frightening event, perhaps as close to warfare as most civilians ever get. Without fuss or pedantry, Sisson’s plain-spoken version of De Rerum Natura conveys Lucretius’ elemental understanding of the natural world. “Nature is on dramatic display here,” Sisson writes in his introduction.      

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