The Poem That Changed the World

Stephen Greenblatt thinks he’s found it, but has he?

Adam Kirsch

Titus Lucretius Carus, ca. 99 BC. Titus Lucretius Carus, the Roman poet and philosopher, ca. 99 BC.

When Stephen Greenblatt, the eminent Renaissance scholar and Harvard professor of English, titled his new book The Swerve, it’s a safe bet that he wasn’t thinking about the current slang meaning of the word, which according to Urban Dictionary is “used most often as a sexual reference,” as in “get your swerve on.” The swerve Greenblatt has in mind, rather, is the abrupt, unpredictable movement of atoms that, according to the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, makes possible the creation and destruction of everything in the universe. “The swerve—which Lucretius called declinatio, inclinatio, or clinamen—is only the most minimal of motions,” Greenblatt explains. “But it is enough to set off a ceaseless chain of collisions. Whatever exists in the universe exists because of these random collisions of minute particles.”

There is, however, a nice symmetry between the ancient and current senses of the word. For the universe Lucretius portrays in De rerum natura, the 7,000-line epic poem that is the main character of Greenblatt’s story, is definitely one that likes to get its swerve on. Or, to use the Roman’s preferred terminology, it is governed by Venus, the goddess of Love. The poem (quoted here in Frank Copley’s translation) begins with a an invocation to Venus:

For soon as the year has bared her springtime face,
and bars are down for the breeze of growth and birth,
in heaven the birds first mark your passage, Lady,
and you; your power pulses in their hearts …
in every creature you sink love’s tingling dart,
luring them lustily to create their kind.

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