One curious statement about Lucretius appears, not in any contemporary or near-contemporary writer, but in the Christian chronicle of Saint-Jerome: that he was driven mad by a love philter administered by his wife, wrote his famous poem, The Nature of Things, in his lucid intervals, and committed suicide.
A distinguished English poet who had affinities with both Virgil and Lucretius, Alfred Tennyson, accepted this statement and converted it into a remarkable dramatic monologue called Lucretius- a soliloquy of great power and passion spoken by a thinker who finds himself struggling against the terrible visions of madness. We have no way of judging whether it is true or not: love philters were often used by Roman women, sometimes with dire effects. And certainly there is both in the fourth book of Lucretius’s poem and in Tennyson’s recreation of his troubled mind, an unusual, un-Roman, unphilosophical interest in sex and its aberrations.
In Book IV is a passage which looks as though it had been developed from Epicurus’s simple warning, “Sexual intercourse has never done anyone any good and may well have done harm,” into the idea that sexual activity was either a disagreeable routine, or a dangerous form of insanity, or … and again Lucretius drifts inconclusively away.
If we were to read the poem without knowledge of Jerome’s report, we might reach a similar, but simpler, conclusion. A poet who vacillates between lofty confidence in reason and feverish fascination with decay and death, whose arguments are often compulsively repetitive and sometimes trail away into half-comprehensible reveries, and whose final lines describe, with gruesome intensity, mania and death- was he not endeavoring, through meditation upon those doctrines which with great technical and linguistic skill he turned from hard Greek prose into rich Latin poetry, to liberate, not Memmius or his other readers, but himself, from the horror of great darkness? And did he succeed, or fail?
Meanwhile, Levi Bryant has a great post up on reading Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’). My favorite passage in this post (one which I entirely agree with) is his last:
With Lucretius, by contrast, we get nature as absolute interactive immanence where whatever comes to be is but one of the possibilities of nature. Within this nature there is no outside or other (there is no culture, for example, that is something “other” than nature), but rather there is just The Wild. Culture too is a part or manifestation of the wilderness. One cannot travel to the wilderness or wild because wherever one is they are already in the wild or wilderness. Our building of houses is no more unnatural than beavers building damns. And this conception of nature, without teleology or divinely decreed ought is the condition and mark of any genuinely emancipatory project.Read More:http://www.archivefire.net/2011/08/connolly-bryant-lucretius-and-wild.html