Honey for the Soul:
Lucretius’ Sweet Poetry

Gwendolyn M. Gruber (University of Iowa)

Epicureanism is bitter medicine, Lucretius admits in his famous programmatic statement of De Rerum Natura 1.931-50, reiterated at 4.8-25. Therefore, as a doctor puts honey on the rim of a cup to entice children to drink bitter wormwood, so Lucretius uses poetry to make the Epicurean message easier to swallow. Honey hides the bad-tasting, but nourishing medicine; in the same way, the sweet song of the Muses masks the sometimes harsh, but healthful, truth of philosophy. The “honey on the cup” metaphor for Lucretius’ poem takes on profound philosophical import when viewed in the context of two other passages in which honey appears as a significant image. In Book 2, Lucretius describes the atomic structure of honey and its impact on the senses. In Book 3, he compares the structure of soul atoms with those that compose honey. These passages reveal an implicit epistemological process contained in the “honey on the cup” metaphor.

Amongst the list of atomic properties in Book 2, Lucretius explains that there are different shapes of atoms to account for differing sensory experiences. He again uses the examples of honey and wormwood: the pleasant sensation of honey is due to the round, smooth atoms that compose it, while the barbed, rough atoms of wormwood cause pain (2.398-407). This passage is a preview of the extended discussion of atoms and sense perception in Book 4, where the principle of atomic shapes is applied to explain different sensations of taste, vision, hearing, smell, and touch. In light of these explanations and the image of “honey on the cup,” it is clear that Lucretius considers poetry to be made up of smooth, round atoms.

For Lucretius, the oral reading of poetry is understood atomically: the round, smooth atoms strike the ear in a pleasing, sweet way. His poetry, however, is not merely to cause pleasant aural sensation; the Epicurean message must get through as well. The targeted sense organ is not just the ears but the animus itself. Another image using honey gives a clue as to how this happens. At 3.176-207, we learn that both soul and honey have smooth, round, and swift moving atoms. The correspondence in structure between soul and honey, and by extension, soul and poetry, allows the images or simulacra of the poem to penetrate and instill truth or ratio in the soul, a process detailed more extensively in Book 4.

Lucretius uses honey to explain the function of sense perception and the structure of the soul. Taking these passages into account reveals the epistemological weight of the “honey on the cup” metaphor contained in the poet’s statement of purpose.

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