Laughter and Tears in Lucretius

Christina Clark

In his 1969 book The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius, David West complains that for the most part translators of the De rerum natura murder Lucretius’ imagery. He exhorts readers to pay attention to the literal meaning of the Latin instead of changing the imagery to suit themselves (3-4). Because Lucretius uses imagery to pursue his aim of freeing people from fear and the longing for false goods which destroy peace of mind, we would do well to attend to the complex ways in which imagery furthers the poet’s didactic purpose. In this paper I argue generally that readers must also pay attention to the nonverbal behavior that Lucretius uses. While many have studied Lucretius’ imagery (e.g. Bailey 1947, Maguinness, Townend, West), no one has systematically examined Lucretius' use of nonverbal behaviors as part of his poetic arsenal, his lumina ingenii and ars, to teach his readers the nature of reality and how to live a happy life.

To illustrate Lucretius' overall practice, I will show how he uses two types of nonverbal behavior, laughter and tears. Lucretius uses nonverbal behaviors for two main purposes. First, they capture his readers’ attention and seduce them into learning his underlying message. Such imagery is part of Lucretius’ metaphorical "honey rimming the wormwood cup" of Epicurean philosophy (1.935-950): the sea laughs for Venus (1.8-9), the weather smiles on human beings (2.32), peacocks are imbued with smiling grace (2.502), the aether smiles around the abode of the gods (3.22), vineyards laugh (5.1361-78), and weather smiles on picnickers, who themselves laugh (5.1392-1404); water trickles through rocky caves and all weeps with copious drops (1.349). Second, Lucretius uses them both to satirize excessive emotion arising from mistaken beliefs and fears and to drive his argument home by way of reductio ad absurdum. We see the tears of Iphigeneia’s murderers (1.80-101) as part of Lucretius’ emotionally powerful and pictorially vivid illustration of the evil deeds done for the sake of religion. Lucretius wants his readers to feel revulsion and horror at such things, and is able elicit these by using nonverbal behavior which reveals emotional states quickly and creates atmosphere. Shortly thereafter, the poet both lauds his poetic forebears for their artistic greatness and gently chastises them for their mistaken beliefs when he relates Ennius’ dream in which the ghost of Homer appeared to him and wept (2.124-126). Later, he sharply satirizes mourners’ exaggerated grief, tearful lamentations and self-pity within his argument against the fear of death (3.465-469; see especially Kenney 1984 and Wallach 1976). Inveighing against amor, the poet uses laughter four times in quick succession (4.1125, 1140, 1157, and 1189) to show the risible nature of lovesick behavior and the needless pain this insatiable furor and rabies causes. In his scientific argument against homoeomeria, the poet illustrates its ridiculousness by picturing atoms laughing loudly and crying, sprinking their faces and cheeks with dewy tears (2.979-980). Forced by his subject to describe matter too small to be seen (nequeunt oculis rerum primordia cerni, 1.268), Lucretius uses his imagination to translate “the abstract statements of his master into visible pictures” (Bailey 1947, 171), often using nonverbal behavior. Indeed, because of their atomic shapes, horrible images literally hurt our eyes, making us cry (1.420). According to Epicurean philosophy, we acquire knowledge of the world through our senses, and Lucretius is a keen and sensitive observer of natural phenomena. We can understand its deeper structures by using abstract reasoning and analogy (for analogy Snyder 1980, 31-51 and Volk 2002, 103-105). Lucretius’ images using nonverbal behavior create an emotional impact, seducing his readers into learning his philosophy and demolishing conventional sentiments and ideas, linking his epic to the diatribe tradition of practical philosophical rhetoric (Wallach 1976, Conte 1994) and the relatively new genre of satire (Sellar 1880, Dudley). I will provide handouts supplying relevant textual quotations.

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