The way things are by Lucretius translated by Rolfe Humphries (1969)

I try to learn about the way things are
And set my findings down in Latin verse.

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

This is a hugely enjoyable translation of Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura which literally translates as ‘On the nature of things’. Fluent, full of force and vigour, it captures not only the argumentative, didactic nature of the poem but dresses it in consistently fine phrasing. It has an attractive variety of tones, from the lofty and heroic to the accessible and demotic, sometimes sounding like Milton:

Time brings everything
Little by little to the shores of light
By grace of art and reason, till we see
All things illuminate each other’s rise
Up to the pinnacles of loftiness.

(Book V, final lines, 1,453 to 1,457)

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

We had better have some principle
In our discussion of celestial ways,
Under what system both the sun and moon
Wheel in their courses, and what impulse moves
Events on earth.

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

Sometimes like the guy sitting next to you at the bar:

I keep you waiting with my promises;
We’d best be getting on.

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

What once was too-much-feared becomes in time
The what-we-love-to-stomp-on.

(Book V, lines 1,140 and 1,141)

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from about 99 to about 55 BC. Not much is known about him. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura, a didactic epic poem of some 7,500 lines, written entirely to promote the abstract philosophy of Epicureanism. No heroes, no gods, no battles, no epic speeches. Just 7,500 lines comprehensively describing Epicurus’s atomic materialism and his ‘scientific’, rationalist worldview.

The title is usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. It is a mark of Rolfe Humphries’ attractive contrariness that he drops the almost universally used English title in favour of the slightly more confrontational and all-encompassing The ways things are. He himself in his preface describes this title as ‘simple, forthright, insistent, peremptory’. Peremptory. Nice word. Like so much else in his translation, it feels instantly right.

The various modern translations

In the past few months I’ve had bad experiences with both Oxford University Press and Penguin translations of Latin classics. I thought the Penguin translation of Sallust by A.J. Woodman was clotted, eccentric and misleading. But I also disliked the OUP translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars by Carolyn Hammond, which I bought brand new but disliked her way with English in just the introduction before I’d even begun the text, so that I ended up abandoning her for the more fluent 1951 Penguin translation by S.A Handford (which also features a useful introduction by Jane Gardner, who comes over as intelligent and witty in a way Hammond simply isn’t).

Shopping around for an English translation of Lucretius, I was not impressed by the snippets of either the Penguin or OUP translations which are available on Amazon. It was only when I went further down the list and read the paragraph or so of Rolfe Humphries’ translation which is quoted in the sales blurb that I was immediately gripped and persuaded to cough up a tenner to buy it on the spot.

I knew an OUP edition would be festooned with notes, many of which would be insultingly obvious (Rome is the capital city of Italy, Julius Caesar was the great Roman general who blah blah blah). Humphries’ edition certainly has notes but only 18 pages of them tucked right at the very back of the text (there’s no list of names or index). And there’s no indication of them in the actual body text, no asterisks or superscript numbers to distract the reader, to make you continually stop and turn to the end notes section.

Instead the minimal annotation is part of Humphries’ strategy to hit you right between the eyes straightaway with the power and soaring eloquence of this epic poem, to present it as one continuous and overwhelming reading experience, without footling distractions and interruptions. Good call, very good call.

[Most epics are about heroes, myths and legends, from Homer and Virgil through Beowulf and Paradise Lost. Insofar as it is about the nature of the universe i.e. sees things on a vast scale, The way things are is comparable in scope and rhetoric with Paradise Lost and frequently reaches for a similar lofty tone, but unlike all those other epic poems it doesn’t have heroes and villains, gods and demons, in fact it has no human protagonists at all. In his introduction, Burton Feldman suggests the only protagonist is intelligence, the mind of man in quest of reality, seeking a detached lucid contemplation of the ways things are. On reflection I think that’s wrong. This description is more appropriate for Wordsworth’s epic poem on the growth and development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude. There’s a stronger case for arguing that the ‘hero’ of the poem is Epicurus, subject of no fewer than three sutained passages of inflated praise. But ultimately surely the protagonist of The way things are is the universe itself, or Lucretius’s materialistic conception of it. The ‘hero’ is the extraordinary world around us which he seeks to explain in solely rationalist, materialist way.]

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

It was a grind reading Cicero’s On the nature of the gods but one thing came over very clearly (mainly from the long, excellent introduction by J.M. Ross). That Epicurus’s philosophy was designed to allay anxiety and fear.

Epicurus identified two causes of stress and anxiety in human beings: fear of death and fear of the gods (meaning their irrational, unpredictable interventions in human lives so). So Epicurus devised a system of belief based on ‘atomic materialism’, on a view of the universe as consisting of an infinite number of atoms continually combining in orderly and predictable ways according to immutable laws, designed to banish those fears and anxieties forever.

If men could see this clearly, follow it
With proper reasoning, their minds would be
Free of great agony and fear

(Book III, lines 907-909)

Irrelevant though a 2,000 year old pseudo-scientific theory may initially sound, it has massive consequences and most of the poem is devoted to explaining Epicurus’s materialistic atomism (or atomistic materialism) and its implications.

Epicurus’s atomic theory

The central premise of Epicureanism is its atomic theory, which consists of two parts:

  1. Nothing comes of nothing.
  2. Nothing can be reduced to nothing.

The basic building blocks of nature are constant in quantity, uncreated and indestructible, for all intents and purposes, eternal. Therefore, everything in nature is generated from these elementary building blocks through natural processes, is generated, grows, thrives, decays, dies and decomposes into its constituent elements. But the sum total of matter in the universe remains fixed and unalterable.

Once we have seen that Nothing comes of nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no ‘gods’ will’ about it!

It may sound trivial or peripheral, but what follows from this premise is that nature is filled from top to bottom with order and predictability. There cannot be wonders, freak incidents, arbitrary acts of god and so on. The unpredictable intervention of gods is abolished and replaced by a vision of a calm, ordered world acting according to natural laws and so – There is no need for stress and anxiety.

Because if no new matter can be created, if the universe is made of atoms combining into larger entities based on fixed and predictable laws, then two things follow.

Number One, There are no gods and they certainly do not suddenly interfere with human activities. In other words, nobody should be afraid of the wrath or revenge of the gods because in Epicurus’s mechanistic universe such a thing is nonsensical.

Holding this knowledge, you can’t help but see
That nature has no tyrants over her,
But always acts of her own will; she has
No part of any godhead whatsoever.

(Book II, lines 1,192 to 1,195)

And the second consequence is a purely mechanistic explanation of death. When we, or any living thing, dies, its body decomposes back into its constituent atoms. There is no state of death, there is no soul or spirit, and so there is no afterlife in which humans will be punished or rewarded. We will not experience death, because all the functioning of our bodies, including perception and thought, will all be over, with no spirit or soul lingering on.

Therefore: no need for ‘the silly, vain, ridiculous fear of gods’ (III, 982), no need to fear death, no need to fear punishment in some afterlife. Instead, we must live by the light of the mind and rational knowledge.

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

Interestingly Lucretius likes this phrase so much that he repeats it verbatim at Book II, lines 57 to 61, at Book III, lines 118 to 112, and Book VI, lines 42 to 45. Like all good teachers he knows the essence of education is repetition.

Epicurus the god

The radicalness of this anti-religious materialist philosophy explains why, early in Book I, Lucretius praises Epicurus extravagantly. He lauds him as the man whose imagination ranged the lengths of the universe, penetrated into the secrets of its origin and nature, and returned to free the human race from bondage. One man alone, Epicurus, set us free by enquiring more deeply into the nature of things than any man before him and so springing ‘the tight-barred gates of Nature’s hold asunder’.

Epicureanism is as much as ‘religious’ experience as a rational philosophy and Lucretius’s references to Epicurus in the poem could almost be hymns to Christ from a Christian epic. They are full of more than awe, of reverence and almost worship. (Book I 66ff, Book II, Book III 1042, opening of Book V).

He was a god, a god indeed, who first
Found a new life-scheme, a system, a design
Now known as Wisdom or Philosophy…

He seems to us, by absolute right, a god
From whom, distributed through all the world,
Come those dear consolations of the mind,
That precious balm of spirit.

(Book V, lines 11 to 13 and 25 to 28)

Lucretius’s idolisation of Epicurus just about stops short of actual worship because Religion is the enemy. Organised religion is what keeps people in fear of the gods and makes their lives a misery. Epicurus’s aim was to liberate mankind from the oppression and wickedness into which Religious belief, superstition and fanatacism all too often lead it.

Religion the enemy of freedom

Lucretius loathes and detests organised Religion. It oppresses everyone, imposing ludicrous fictions and superstitions about divine intervention and divine punishment. Nonsense designed to oppress and quell the population.

I teach great things.
I try to loose men’s spirits from the ties,
Tight knotted, which religion binds around them.

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

As a vivid example of the way Religion always stands with evil he gives the story of Agamemnon being told by soothsayers to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the gods, to calm the seas, so that the fleet of 1,000 Greek ships can sail from Greece to Troy. Could you conceive a worse example of the wicked behaviour religious belief can lead people into.

Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness…
A mighty counsellor, Religion stood
With all that power for wickedness.

(Book I, lines 83 to 84 and 99 to 100)

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

The notes to the book were written by Professor George Strodach. Like the notes in H.H. Scullard’s classic history of Republican Rome, Strodach’s notes are not the frequent little factoids you so often find in Penguin or OUP editions (Democritus was born in Thrace around 460 BC etc), but fewer in number and longer, amounting to interesting essays in their own right.

Among several really interesting points, he tells us that after Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city states in the late 4th century (320s BC) many of those city states decayed in power and influence and their citizens felt deprived of the civic framework which previously gave their lives meaning. To fill this void there arose two competing ‘salvation ideologies, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Each offered their devotees a meaningful way of life plus a rational and fully worked out account of the world as a whole. In both cases the worldview is the groundwork for ‘the therapy of dislocated and unhappy souls’. In each, the sick soul of the initiate must first of all learn the nature of reality before it can take steps towards leading the good life.

Lucretius’ long poem is by way of leading the novice step by step deeper into a worldview which, once adopted, is designed to help him or her conquer anxiety and achieve peace of mind by abandoning the chains of superstitious religious belief and coming to a full and complete understanding of the scientific, materialistic view of the way things are.

There’s no good life
No blessedness, without a mind made clear,
A spirit purged of error.

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

Hence the poem’s extreme didacticism. It is not so much a long lecture (thought it often sounds like it) as a prolonged initiation into the worldview of the cult of Epicurus, addressed to one person, Lucretius’s sponsor Gaius Memmius, but designed to be used by anyone who can read.

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

Hence the didactic lecturing tone throughout, which tells the reader to listen up, pay attention, focus, remember what he said earlier, lays out a lesson plan, and then proceeds systematically from point to point.

I shall begin
With a discussion of the scheme of things
As it regards the heaven and powers above,
Then I shall state the origin of things,
The seeds from which nature creates all things,
Bids them increase and multiply; in turn,
How she resolves them to their elements
After their course is run.

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

The poem is littered with reminders that it is one long argument, that Lucretius is making a case. He repeatedly tells Memmius to pay attention, to follow the thread of his argument, not to get distracted by common fears or misapprehensions, and takes time to rubbish the theories of rivals.

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

If you know this,
It only takes a very little trouble
To learn the rest: the lessons, one by one,
Brighten each other, no dark night will keep you,
Pathless, astray, from ultimate vision and light,
All things illumined in each other’s radiance.

And it’s quite funny, the (fairly regular) moments when he insists that he’s told us the same thing over and over again, like a schoolteacher starting to be irritated by his pupils’ obtuseness:

  • I have said this many, many times already
  • I am almost tired of saying (III, 692)
  • as I have told you all too many times (IV, 673)
  • Be attentive now. (IV, 878)
  • I have said this over and over, many times. (IV, 1,210)
  • This I’ve said before (VI, 175)
  • Don’t be impatient. Listen! (VI, 244)
  • Remember/Never forget this! (VI, 653 to 654)
  • As I have said before… (VI, 770)
  • Once again/I hammer home this axiom… (VI, 938)

The good life

Contrary to popular belief the Epicureans did not promote a hedonistic life of pleasure. Their aim was negative: the good life is one which is, as far as possible, free from bodily pains and mental anxiety. They deprecated the competitive and acquisitive values so prevalent in first century BC Roman society:

The strife of wits, the wars for precedence,
The everlasting struggle, night and day
To win towards heights of wealth and power.

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

What vanity!
To struggle towards the top, toward honour’s height
They made the way a foul and deadly road,
And when they reached the summit, down they came
Like thunderbolts, for Envy strikes men down
Like thunderbolts, into most loathsome Hell…
…let others sweat themselves
Into exhaustion, jamming that defile
They call ambition…

(Book V, lines 1,124 to 1,130 and 1,134 to 1,136)

Instead the Epicureans promoted withdrawal from all that and the spousal of extreme simplicity of living.

Whereas, if man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, lines 1,117 to 1,120)

This much I think I can, and do, assert:
That our perverse vestigial native ways
Are small enough for reason to dispel
So that it lies within our power to live
Lives worthy of the gods.

This kind of life is challenging to achieve by yourself which is why the Epicureans were noted for setting up small communities of shared values. (See what I mean by the disarmingly open but powerful eloquence of Humphries’ style.)

If man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, 1,118 to 1,121)

Shortcomings of Latin

Lucretius repeatedly points out that it is difficult to write about philosophy in Latin because it doesn’t have the words, the terminology or the traditions which have developed them, unlike the Greeks.

I know
New terms must be invented, since our tongue
Is poor and this material is new.

The poverty of our speech, our native tongue,
Makes it hard for me to say exactly how
These basic elements mingle…

(Book III, lines 293-295)

Interesting because this is the exact same point Cicero makes in the De rerum deorum. Cicero, in his books and letters made clear that his philosophical works as a whole have the aim of importing the best Greek thinking into Latin and, as part of the process, creating new Latin words or adapting old ones to translate the sophisticated philosophical terminology which the Greeks had spent centuries developing.

The really miraculous thing is that Humphries captures all this, or has written an English poem which is actually worth reading as poetry. ‘I

for your sake, Memmius,
Have wanted to explain the way things are
Turning the taste of honey into sound
As musical, as golden, so that I
May hold your mind with poetry, while you
Are learning all about that form, that pattern,
And see its usefulness.

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)

Synopis

Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

– hymn to Venus, metaphorical symbol of the creative urge in all life forms

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

– the two basic postulates of atomism, namely: nothing comes of nothing and the basic building blocks of the universe, atoms, cannot be destroyed

– the importance of void or space between atoms which allows movement

– everything else, all human history, even time itself, are by-products or accidents of the basic interplay of atoms and void

– on the characteristics of atoms

– a refutation of rival theories, of Heraclitus (all things are made of fire), Empedocles (set no limit to the smallness of things), the Stoics (who believe everything is made up of mixtures of the 4 elements) and Anaxagoras (who believed everything was made up of miniature versions of itself) – all comprehensively rubbished

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

– the good life is living free from care, fear or anxiety

– varieties of atomic motion namely endless falling through infinite space; atoms travel faster than light

– the atomic swerve and its consequences i.e. it is a slight swerve in the endless downward fall of atoms through infinite space which begins the process of clustering and accumulation which leads to matter which leads, eventually, to the universe we see around us

– how free will is the result of a similar kind of ‘swerve’ in our mechanistic lives

– the conservation of energy

– the variety of atomic shapes and the effects of these on sensation

– atoms themselves have no secondary qualities such as colour, temperature and so on

– there is an infinite number of worlds, all formed purely mechanically i.e. no divine intervention required

– there are gods, as there are men, but they are serenely indifferent to us and our lives: in Epicurus’s worldview, the so-called gods are really just moral exemplars of lives lived with complete detachment, calm and peace (what the Greeks called ataraxia)

to think that gods
Have organised all things for the sake of men
Is nothing but a lot of foolishness. (II, 14-176)

– all things decay and our times are degraded since the golden age (‘The past was better, infinitely so’)

That all things, little by little, waste away
As time’s erosion crumbles them to doom.

Book III (1,094 lines)

– Epicurus as therapist of the soul – this passage, along with other hymns of praise to the great man scattered through the poem, make it clear that Epicurus was more than a philosopher but the founder of a cult whose devotees exalted him

– the fear of hell as the root cause of all human vices

– the material nature of mind and soul – their interaction and relation to the body – spirit is made of atoms like everything else, but much smaller than ‘body atoms’, and rarer, and finely intricated

– rebuttal of Democritus’s theory of how atoms of body and spirit interact (he thought they formed a chains of alternating body and spirit atoms)

– descriptions of bodily ailments (such as epilepsy) and mental ailments( such as fear or depression) as both showing the intimate link between body and spirit

– an extended passage arguing why the spirit or soul is intimately linked with the body so that when one dies, the other dies with it

– the soul is not immortal – therefore there is no ‘transmigration of souls’; a soul which was in someone else for their lifetime does not leave their body upon their death and enter that of the nearest newly-conceived foetus – he ridicules this belief by envisioning the souls waiting in a queue hovering around an egg about to be impregnated by a sperm and all vying to be the soul that enters the new life

– the soul is not immortal – being made of atoms it disintegrates like the body from the moment of death (in lines 417 to 820 Lucretius states no fewer than 26 proofs of the mortality of the soul: Strodach groups them into 1. proofs from the material make-up of the soul; proofs from diseases and their cures; 3. proofs from the parallelism of body and soul; 4. proofs from the various logical absurdities inherent in believing the soul could exist independently of the body)

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

– vivid descriptions of types of people and social situations (at funerals, at banquets) at which people’s wrong understanding of the way things are makes them miserable

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

Because I teach great things, because I strive
To free the spirit, give the mind release
From the constrictions of religious fear…

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

– atomic images or films: these are like an invisible skin or film shed from the surfaces of all objects, very fine, passing through the air, through glass – this is his explanation of how sight and smell work, our senses detect these microscopic films of things which are passing through the air all around us

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

all knowledge is based on the senses; rejecting the evidence of the senses in favour of ideas and theories leads to nonsense, ‘a road to ruin’. Strodach calls this ‘extreme empiricism’ and contrast it with the two other ancient philosophies, Platonism which rejected the fragile knowledge of the senses and erected knowledge on the basis of maths and logic; and Scepticism, which said both mind and body can be wrong, so we have to go on probabilities and experience

– his explanations of sight, hearing and taste are colourful, imaginative, full of interesting examples, and completely wrong

– how we think, based on the theory of ‘images’ derived by the impression of atomic ‘skins’ through our senses; it seems wildly wrong, giving the impression that ‘thought’ is the almost accidental combination of these atomistic images in among the finer textured atoms of the mind

– a review of related topics of human experience, including movement, sleep and dreams, the latter produced when fragments of atomistic images are assembled by the perceiving mind when it is asleep, passive and undirected

– an extended passage ridiculing romantic love which moves on to theory about sex and reproduction, namely that the next generation are a mix of material from each parent, with a load of old wives’ tales about which position to adopt to get pregnant, and the sex or characteristics of offspring derive from the vigour and other characteristics of the parents. Lucretius tries to give a scientific explanation of the many aspects of sex and reproduction which, since he lacked all science, come over as folk myths. But he is a card carrying Epicurean and believes the whole point of life is to avoid anxiety, stress and discombobulation and so, logically enough, despises and ridicules sex and love.

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

– the world is mortal, its origin is mechanical not divine

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

– an extended passage describing the rise of man from lying under bushes in a state of nature through the creation of tribes, then cities – the origin of civilisation, including the invention of kings and hierarchies, the discovery of fire, how to use metals and weave clothes, the invention of language and law and, alas, the development of Religion to awe and terrify ourselves with

This book is the longest and also the weakest, in that Lucretius reveals his woeful ignorance about a whole raft of scientific issues. He thinks the earth is at the centre of the universe and the moon, sun, planets and stars all circle round it. He thinks the earth is a flat surface and the moon and the sun disappear underneath it. He thinks the sun, moon and stars are moved by the wind. He thinks all animals and other life forms were given birth by the earth, and that maggots and worms are generated from soil. In her early days the earth gave birth to all kinds of life forms but this no longer happens because she is tired out. Lucretius is anti-evolutionary in the way he thinks animals and plants and man came into being with abilities fully formed (the eye, nose, hand) and only then found uses for them, rather than the modern view that even slight, rudimentary fingers, hands, sense of smell, taste, sight, would convey evolutionary advantage on their possessors which tend to encourage their development over successive generations.

I appreciate that Lucretius was trying his best to give an objective, rational and unsupernatural account of all aspects of reality. I understand that although his account of the origins of lightning and thunder may be wildly incorrect (clouds contain particles of fire) his aim was worthy and forward looking – to substitute a rational materialistic account for the absurdly anthropocentric, superstitious, god-fearing superstitions of his day, by which people thought lightning and thunder betokened the anger of the gods. He had very good intentions.

But these good intentions don’t stop the majority of his account from being ignorant tripe. Well intention and asking the right questions (what causes rain, what causes thunder, what is lightning, what is magnetism) and trying hard to devise rational answers to them. But wrong about almost everything.

Reading it makes you realise what enormous events the invention of the telescope and the microscope were, both around 1600, Galileo’s proof that the earth orbits round the sun a decade later, the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 1620s, Newton’s theory of gravity in the 1680s, the discovery of electricity around 1800, the theory of evolution in the 1850s, the germ theory of the 1880s and, well, all of modern science.

Reading Lucretius, like reading all the ancients and medieval authors, is to engage with intelligent, learned, observant and sensitive people who knew absolutely nothing about how the world works, what causes natural phenomena, how living organisms came about and evolved, next to nothing about astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry or any of the natural sciences. Their appeal is their eloquence, the beauty of their language and the beguilingness of their fairy tales.

And of course, the scientific worldview is always provisional. It may turn out that everything we believe is wrong and about to be turned upside down by new discoveries and paradigm shifts., It’s happened before.

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

…he cleansed
Our hearts by words of truth; he put an end
To greed and fears; he showed the highest good
Toward which we all are aiming, showed the way…

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

– meteorology: thunder, lightning because the clouds contain gold and seeds of fire, waterspouts

– geological phenomena: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, clouds, rain, why the sea never overflows considering all the rivers running into it, the inundation of the Nile

– why noxious things oppress humanity; pigs hate perfume but love mud!

– four pages about magnetism, noticing and describing many aspects of it but completely wrong about what it is and how it works

– disease, plague and pestilence, which he thinks derive from motes and mist which is in the right ballpark

The odd thing about the entire poem is that it leads up, not to an inspiring vision of the Good Life lived free of anxiety in some ideal Epicurean community, but to a sustained and harrowing description of the great plague which devastated Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC). For four pages the poet lays on detail after detail of the great plague, the symptoms, the horrible suffering and death, its spread, social breakdown, streets full of rotting corpses. And then – it just ends. Stops. Not quite in mid-sentence, but certainly in mid-flow.

The abruptness of this unexpected ending has led many commentators to speculate that Lucretius intended to write a seventh book, which would have been devoted to religion, theology, ethics and led up to the hymn to the Good Life everyone was expecting. I agree. Throughout the poem he is chatty, badgering the reader, telling us he’s embarking on a new subject, repeating things he’s said before, haranguing and nagging us. For the text to just end in the middle of describing men fighting over whose family members will be burned on funeral pyres is macabre and weird. Here are the very last lines:

Everyone in grief
Buried his own whatever way he could
Amid the general panic. Sudden need
And poverty persuaded men to use
Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place
Their dead on pyres prepared for other men’
Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl
To keep the corpses from abandonment.

(Book VI, lines 1,279 to 1,286)

It must be unfinished.

Thoughts

1. The philosophy

I’m very attracted by Epicurus’s thought, as propounded here and in Cicero’s De natura deorum. After a long and sometimes troubled life I very much want to achieve a state of ataraxia i.e. freedom from mental disturbances. However, there seems to me a very big flaw at the heart of Epicureanism. One of the two cardinal fears addressed is fear of the gods, in the sense of fear of their arbitrary intervention in our lives unless we endlessly propitiate these angry entities with sacrifices and processions and whatnot. This fear of punishment and retribution is said to be one of the principle sources of anxiety in people.

Except that this isn’t really true. I live in a society, England, which in 2022 is predominantly godless. Real believers in actual gods are in a distinct minority. And yet mental illnesses, including depression and ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, are more prevalent than ever before, afflicting up to a quarter of the population annually.

It felt to me throughout the poem that accusing religious belief in gods as the principle or sole cause of anxiety and unhappiness is so wide of the mark as to make it useless. Even in a godless world, all humans are still susceptible to utterly random accidents, to a whole range of unfortunate blows, from being diagnosed with cancer to getting hit by a bus, losing your job, losing your house, losing your partner. We are vulnerable to thousands of incidents and accidents which could affect us very adversely and it is not at all irrational to be aware of them, and it is very hard indeed not to worry about them, particularly if you actually do lose your job, your house, your partner, your children, your parents etc.

The idea that human beings waste a lot of time in fear and anxiety and stress and worry is spot on. So the notion that removing this fear and anxiety and stress and worry would be a good thing is laudable. And Epicurus’s argument against the fear of death (death is the end of mind and body both; therefore it is pointless worrying about it because you won’t feel it; it is less than nothing) is still relevant, powerful and potentially helpful.

But the idea that you can alleviate anxiety do that by disproving the existence of ‘gods’ is, alas, completely irrelevant to the real causes of the problem, which have endured long after any ‘fear of the gods’ has evaporated and so is of no practical help at all. All Epicurus and Lucretius’s arguments in this area, fluent and enjoyable though they are, are of purely academic or historical interest. Sadly.

2. The poem

Cicero’s De rerum natura was a hard read because of the unrelentingness of the arguments, many of which seemed really stupid or petty. The way things are, on the contrary, is an amazingly enjoyable read because of the rhythm and pacing and phrasing of the poem.

Lucretius is just as argumentative as Cicero i.e. the poem is packed with arguments following pell mell one after the other (‘Moreover…one more point…furthermore…In addition…’) but this alternates with, or is embedded in, descriptions of human nature, of the world and people around us, and of the make-up of the universe, which are both attractive and interesting in themselves, and also provide a sense of rhythm, changes of subject and pace, to the poem.

Amazingly, although the subject matter is pretty mono-minded and Lucretius is banging on and on about essentially the same thing, the poem itself manages never to be monotonous. I kept reading and rereading entire pages just for the pleasure of the words and phrasing. This is one of the, if not the, most enjoyable classical text I’ve read. And a huge part of that is, I think, down to Humphries’s adeptness as a poet.

Comparison with the Penguin edition

As it happened, just after I finished reading the Humphries translation I came across the 2007 Penguin edition of the poem in a local charity shop and snapped it up for £2. It’s titled The Nature of Things and contains a translation by A.E. Stallings with an introduction and notes by Richard Jenkyns.

Textual apparatus

As you’d expect from Penguin, it’s a much more traditional layout, including not only the translation but an introduction, further reading, an explanation of the style and metre of the translation, 22 pages of factual notes at the end (exactly the kind of fussy, mostly distracting notes the Humphries edition avoids), and a glossary of names.

In addition it has two useful features: the text includes line numberings, given next to every tenth line. It’s a feature of the Humphries version that it’s kept as plain and stripped down as possible with no indication of lines except at the top of the page, so if you want to know which line you’re looking at you have to manually count from the top line downwards. Trivial but irritating.

The other handy thing about the Penguin edition is it gives each of the books a title, absent in the original and Humphries. Again, no biggy, but useful.

  • Book I – Matter and Void
  • Book II – The Dance of Atoms
  • Book III – Mortality and the Soul
  • Book IV – The Senses
  • Book V – Cosmos and Civilisation
  • Book VI – Weather and the Earth

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

Epicurus’s own writings are austere and he was said to disapprove of poetry. Lucretius’s achievement, and what makes his poem so great, was the tremendous depth of lyric feeling he brought to the, potentially very dry, subject matter. He doesn’t just report Epicurus’s philosophy, he infuses it with passion, conviction and new levels of meaning.

This, for Jenkyns, explains a paradox which has bugged scholars, namely why a poem expounding a philosophy which is fiercely anti-religion, opens with a big Hymn to Venus. It’s because Venus is a metaphor for the underlying unity of everything which is implicit in Epicurus’s teaching that there is no spirit, no soul, nothing but atoms in various combinations and this means we are all united in the bounty of nature.

The opponents of Epicureanism commonly treated it as a dull, drab creed; Lucretius’ assertion is that, rightly apprehended, it is beautiful, majestic and inspiring. (p.xviii)

Lucretius’s was very influential on the leading poet of the next generation, Virgil, who assimilated his soaring tone.

The passages praising Epicurus are strategically place throughout the poem, much as invocations of the muses open key books in the traditional classical epic.

Jenkyns points out that Lucretius’s tone varies quite a bit, notable for much soaring rhetoric but also including invective and diatribe, knockabout abuse of rival philosophers, sometimes robustly humorous, sometimes sweetly domestic, sometimes focusing on random observations about everyday life, then soaring into speculation about the stars and the planets. But everything is driven by and reverts to, a tone of impassioned communication. He has seen the light and he is desperate to share it with everyone. It is an evangelical poem.

Stalling’s translation

Quite separate from Jenkyns’s introduction, Stalling gives a 5-page explanation of the thinking behind her translation. The obvious and overwhelming differences are that her version rhymes, and is in very long lines which she calls fourteeners. To be precise she decided to translate Lucretius’s Latin dactylic hexameters into English rhyming heptameters, where heptameter means a line having seven ‘feet’ or beats. What does that mean in practice? Well, count the number of beats in each of these lines. The first line is tricky so I’ve bolded the syllables I think need emphasising:

Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
And the ship-freighted sea – for every species comes to birth
Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
For you, the oceans laugh, the sky grows peaceful after showers…

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

Stalling concedes that the standard form for translating foreign poetry is probably loose unrhymed pentameters, with five beats per line – exactly the metre Humphries uses:

Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered ocean, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.

Clearly Humphries’ unrhymed pentameters have a much more light and airy feel. They also allow for snazzy phrasing – I like ‘marinered ocean’, a bit contrived, but still stylish. Or take Humphries’ opening of Book III:

O glory of the Greeks, the first to raise
The shining light out of tremendous dark
Illumining the blessings of our life
You are the one I follow. In your steps
I tread, not as a rival, but for love
Of your example. Does the swallow vie
With swans? Do wobbly-legged little goats
Compete in strength and speed with thoroughbreds?

Now Stalling:

You, who first amidst such thick gloom could raise up so bright
A lantern, bringing everything that’s good in life to light,
You I follow, Glory of the Greeks, and place my feet,
Within your footsteps. Not because I would compete
With you, but for the sake of love, because I long to follow
And long to emulate you. After all, why would a swallow
Strive with swans? How can a kid with legs that wobble catch
Up with the gallop of a horse? – the race would be no match.

Stalling makes the point that the heptameter has, since the early Renaissance, been associated with ballads and with narrative and so is suited to a long didactic poem. Arthur Golding used it in his 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and George Chapman in his 1611 translation of the Iliad. Stalling hopes the ‘old fashioned rhythm and ring’ of her fourteeners will, implicitly, convey ‘something of the archaic flavour of Lucretius’s Latin’ (p.xxvi).

OK, let’s look at the little passage which I noticed crops up no fewer than four times in the poem. Here’s Stalling’s version:

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away
Not by rays of the sun or by the brilliant beams of day,
But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp out for us – her first principle: that nothing’s brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught
.

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

That use of ‘naught’ transports us back to the 1850s and Tennyson. It is consciously backward looking, in sound and meaning and connotation. I can see why: she’s following through on her stated aim of conveying the original archaism of the poem. But, on the whole, I just don’t like the effect. I prefer Humphries’ more modern-sounding diction.

Also, despite having much longer lines to play with, something about the rhythm and the requirement to rhyme each line paradoxically end up cramping Stalling’s ability to express things clearly and simply. Compare Humphries’ version of these same lines:

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation. So
Our starting point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods’ will
.

‘Insight into nature’ and ‘systematic contemplation’ are so much more emphatic and precise than ‘by observing Nature and her laws’ which is bland, clichéd and flabby.

Humphries’ ‘Our starting point shall be this principle’ is a little stagey and rhetorical but has the advantage of being crystal clear. Whereas Stalling’s ‘And this will lay/The warp out for us – her first principle…’ is cramped and confusing. Distracted by the odd word ‘warp’, trying to visualise what it means in this context, means I miss the impact of this key element of Lucretius’s message.

In her translator’s note Stalling refers to earlier translations and has this to say about Humphries:

Rolfe Humphries’ brisk, blank verse translation The way things are (1969) often spurred me to greater vigour and concision. (p.xxviii)

Precisely. I think the Stalling is very capable, and it should be emphasised that the fourteeners really do bed down when you take them over the long haul. If you read just a few lines of this style it seems silly and old fashioned, but if you read a full page it makes sense and after several pages you really get into the swing. It is a good meter for rattling through an extended narrative.

But still. I’m glad I read the poem in the Humphries’ version. To use Stalling’s own phrase, it has ‘greater vigour and concision’. Humphries much more vividly conveys Lucretius’s urgency of tone, his compulsion to share the good news with us and set us free:

…all terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void of empty space. I see
The gods majestic, and their calm abodes
Winds do not shake, nor clouds befoul nor snow
Violate with the knives of sleet and cold;
But there the sky is purest blue, the air
Is almost laughter in that radiance,
And nature satisfies their every need,
And nothing, nothing mars their peace of mind.

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

I’m with him, I’m seeing the vision of the passionless gods with him, and I’m caught up in his impassioned repetition of ‘nothing, nothing‘. All of which, alas, is fogged and swaddled in the long fustian lines of Stalling’s version:

…The gods appear to me
Enthroned in all their holiness and their serenity,
And where they dwell, wind never lashes them, cloud never rains,
And snowfall white and crisp with biting frost never profanes.
The canopy of aether over them is always bright
And unbeclouded, lavishing the laughter of its light.
And there they want for nothing; every need, nature supplies;
And nothing ever ruffles their peace of mind. Contrariwise…

The key phrase about the gods’ peace of mind should conclude the line; instead it ends mid-line and is, as a result, muffled. Why? To make way for the rhyme, which in this case is supplied by another heavily archaic word ‘contrariwise’ which has the unintended effect of trivialising the preceding line.

Stalling’s translation is skilful, clever, immensely rhythmic, a fascinating experiment, but…no.

Online translations

Now let me extend my argument. I’ll try
To be as brief as possible, but listen!

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

There have been scores of translations of De rerum natura into English. An easy one to access on the internet is William Ellery Leonard’s 1916 verse translation. Compared to either Stalling or Humphries, it’s dire, but it’s free.


Roman reviews

The Expelled by Samuel Beckett (1946)

Beckett’s big artistic breakthrough was to start writing in French. All four short stories in this volume (First LoveThe ExpelledThe CalmativeThe End) were originally written in French (in 1946) then translated back into English by Beckett alone or (like this one) with Richard Seaver.

I’m glad I read More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy and Watt first, because they give a sense of how Beckett’s writing in English had become an over-filled attic stuffed with arcane terminology and wilful obscurancies. He needed to break free of the tendency to clutter, to aggregate and add to his prose.

Writing in French represented the opposite direction – towards leaner and cleaner. The French language has a fraction of the vocabulary of the great woolly mongrel, English. Writing in it always sounds purer, clearer, more intellectual and more intense.

And Beckett’s translations from French back into English, though they still contain oddities and Irishisms, feel considerably lighter and slicker than his earlier style. (An article about Irishisms.)

The plot

Like the narrator of First Love the first-person narrator of this short text is a man, of apparently very damaged mind, obsessed with the immediate physical presence of his body, who is booted out of the family home now that his father is dead, by ‘them’, ‘they’ – an unnamed host of enemies.

He’s walking away from the house in the gutter when a policeman tells him to walk on the pavement not in the road. He bumps into a fat lady. A funeral passes, with everyone crossing themselves. There’s a hansom cab and he climbs into its snug interior. He gets pally with the cabman who tells him about his life. He treats the cabby to lunch with money he has somehow. The cabby offers to drive him to a few apartments looking for one to rent, with no luck. They light the lamps on the cab. The cabby offers him a bed for the night in his stable, introduces him to his wife. The narrator goes down the ladder to the stable where the horse is munching hay. Unable to sleep in the straw he climbs into the snug cab, but still can’t sleep. He discovers the cab door is jammed and so has to – ridiculously – force his way out of the small cab window, his hands on the stable floor his waist lodged in the small window, while the horse looks on. Then he leaves.

Dawn was just breaking. I did not know where I was. I made towards the rising sun, towards where I thought it should rise, the quicker to come into the light. I would have liked a sea horizon, or a desert one. When I am abroad in the morning I go to meet the sun, and in the evening, when I am abroad, I follow it, till I am down among the dead. I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.

Comedy pessimism

The text is much more ‘about’ decrepitude and decay than First Love, with the result that it becomes a kind of device for turning out hundreds of bleak little pessimistic phrases, like the mottos in existentialist fortune cookies. I imagined I heard a cash machine going ching-ching! every time a new motto appeared:

Memories are killing.

No need then for caution, we may reason on to our heart’s content, the fog won’t lift.

But does one ever know oneself why one laughs?

We did our best, both of us, to understand, to explain.

No reason for this to end or go on. Then let it end.

It wasn’t easy. But what is easy?

I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another.

Reassuring words for the angst-ridden teenager in all of us. Note the way they only have full resonance when appearing in a paragraph about something else. They need to be embedded to really drive home, to be the conclusion or climax of a series of sentences.

They lived above a stable, at the back of a yard. Ideal location, I could have done with it. Having presented me to his wife, extraordinarily full-bottomed, he left us. She was manifestly ill at ease, alone with me. I could understand her, I don’t stand on ceremony on these occasions. No reason for this to end or go on. Then let it end.

The pessimistic phrases need to bubble up out of the everyday situation, suddenly emerging in their sackcloth and ashes, the wisdom of Aspergers.

Asperger’s Syndrome

‘Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger’s, is a developmental disorder characterised by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. As a milder autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it differs from other ASDs by relatively normal language and intelligence. Although not required for diagnosis, physical clumsiness and unusual use of language are common.’ (Wikipedia)

  • difficulty in social interaction
  • restricted interests
  • repetitive patterns of behavior

This accurately describes all Beckett’s protagonists. Surely thousands of other commentators must have pointed out the similarity between Beckett’s men and the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. Surely someone must have speculated whether Beckett himself was on the spectrum.

Hyper-obsession with the simplest physical activities

There were not many steps. I had counted them a thousand times, both going up and coming down, but the figure has gone from my mind. I have never known whether you should say one with your foot on the sidewalk, two with the following foot on the first step, and so on, or whether the sidewalk shouldn’t count. At the top of the steps I fell foul of the same dilemma. In the other direction, I mean from top to bottom, it was the same, the word is not too strong. I did not know where to begin nor where to end, that’s the truth of the matter. I arrived therefore at three totally different figures, without ever knowing which of them was right. And when I say that the figure has gone from my mind, I mean that none of the three figures is with me any more, in my mind. It is true that if I were to find, in my mind, where it is certainly to be found, one of these figures, I would find it and it alone, without being able to deduce from it the other two. And even were I to recover two, I would not know the third. No, I would have to find all three, in my mind, in order to know all three.

If he thinks too much about walking, he falls over.

I set off. What a gait. Stiffness of the lower limbs, as if nature had denied me knees, extraordinary splaying of the feet to right and left of the line of march. The trunk, on the contrary, as if by the effect of a compensatory mechanism, was as flabby as an old ragbag, tossing wildly to the unpredictable jolts of the pelvis. I have often tried to correct these defects, to stiffen my bust, flex my knees and walk with my feet in front of one another, for I had at least five or six, but it always ended in the same way, I mean with a loss of equilibrium, followed by a fall. A man must walk without paying attention to what he’s doing, as he sighs, and when I walked without paying attention to what I was doing I walked in the way I have just described, and when I began to pay attention I managed a few steps of creditable execution and then fell.

His protagonists are capable only of minute attention to present physical activities or remote rarefied meditations on philosophy and life, and completely lack the vast middle ground most of us inhabit, of chores and showers and buses and jobs and shopping and cleaning. It is nearly, but not quite, obsessive compulsive disorder.

He was lighting the lamps. I love oil lamps, in spite of their having been, with candles, and if I except the stars, the first lights I ever knew. I asked him if I might light the second lamp, since he had already lit the first himself. He gave me his box of matches, I swung open on its hinges the little convex glass, lit and closed at once, so that the wick might burn steady and bright, snug in its little house, sheltered from the wind.

Relishing the crudest physical functions

If you have no mental capacity to formulate rational plans and strategies, then you live in a permanent present where the most pressing concern is the ongoing condition of your body.

I had then the deplorable habit, having pissed in my trousers, or shat there, which I did fairly regularly early in the morning, about ten or half past ten, of persisting in going on and finishing my day as if nothing had happened. The very idea of changing my trousers, or of confiding in mother, who goodness knows asked nothing better than to help me, was unbearable, I don’t know why, and till bedtime I dragged on with burning and stinking between my little thighs, or sticking to my bottom, the result of my incontinence. Whence this wary way of walking, with the legs stiff and wide apart, and this desperate rolling of the bust, no doubt intended to put people off the scent, to make them think I was full of gaiety and high spirits, without a care in the world, and to lend plausibility to my explanations concerning my nether rigidity, which I ascribed to hereditary rheumatism.

The horses were farting and shitting as if they were going to the fair.

Not long before the farting horses, the narrator had mentioned Heraclitus, making a sort of joke, implying that the Greek philosopher’s famous nostrum could be rewritten, ‘You can’t bathe in the same gutter twice’. It is fundamental to Beckett’s technique to juxtapose the learnèd and the bathetic: Heraclitus and horse shit. Whether you find this entertaining, or funny, or a bleak comment on ‘the human condition’, depends on your sense of humour.

Prose poetry

But as often as there are the nihilist sententiae, there appear moments of beautiful perception.

We saw nothing, by the light of these lamps, save the vague outlines of the horse, but the others saw them from afar, two yellow glows sailing slowly through the air. When the equipage turned an eye could be seen, red or green as the case might be, a bossy rhomb as clear and keen as stained glass.

Good, isn’t it? Fragments of sweet sensual Joyce in the arid obsessiveness of Beckett’s brain-damaged vagabonds. And part of the appeal of his poetry is the insertion of show-off lexicon – ‘equipage’, ‘rhomb’ – but anyone who’s read this far knows to take these nuggets of knowledgeableness with a pinch of salt, as part of the package.

The brevity of these pieces certainly helps, but taken as a whole, the weird combination of elements – the retarded narrator, his high-falutin’ style, his oddity of observation, his lack of any normal sense of his predicament, the oddity of the entire vision – makes these short monologues strangely compelling. Very rereadable.

Credit

The Expelled by Samuel Beckett was written in French in 1946 and published in Paris in 1954. A translation into English by Beckett and Richard Seaver was published in 1967, in a collection along with The Calmative and The End and titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

All three – The Expelled, The Calmative and The End – were then collected, along with First Love, into a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett (1934)

‘You and your sad and serious,’ she said. ‘Will you never come off it?’ (p.24)

Beckett biography

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906 into a middle-class Anglican family (they had a tennis court in the garden). He went to private school, where he excelled at cricket, and people who like arty anecdotes will tell you he is the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who is also mentioned in Wisden, ‘the Bible of cricket’, for his several appearances in county-level cricket teams.

From 1923 to 1927 Beckett studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin, which goes a long way to explaining the polyglot nature of his texts. In 1929, while living in Paris, the young Anglo-Irishman was introduced to the great Modernist writer, James Joyce, famous for his vast rewriting of the English language in the experimental novel, Ulysses, and became his secretary for a while.

In 1931 Beckett returned to Dublin to take up an appointment as a lecturer, but in 1931 resigned, packing in academic life to travel on the Continent. He published a study of Proust, miscellaneous poems and tried to find a publisher for his first novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the title being a ponderously jocose reference to Tennyson’s poem, A Dream of Fair Women.

All the publishers rejected it, but Beckett reworked passages of it into this collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks. In fact, the failed novel is referred to by title as the long-pondered work of a character in the seventh story, What a Misfortune, the would-be poet and cuckold of Mr Otto Olaf bboggs, Walter Draffin.

The tilted kepi of the attendant, its green band and gilt harp, and the clang beneath in black and white of his riotous hair and brow, so ravished Walter that he merely had to close his eyes to be back in Pisa. The powers of evocation of this Italianate Irishman were simply immense, and if his Dream of Fair to Middling Women, held up in the limae labor stage for the past ten or fifteen years, ever reaches the public, and Walter says it is bound to, we ought all be sure to get it and have a look at it anyway. (p.128)

More pricks than kicks

So this collection is Beckett’s first published work of fiction. It’s a sequence of ten interlocking stories (with a few author’s footnotes explaining the linkages, where necessary), set in Dublin and describing the super-bookish, über-erudite but shiftless anti-hero, Belacqua Shuah – ‘a dirty lowdown Low Church Protestant high-brow’ (p.156) – who has a series of mostly pretty mundane encounters and adventures around Dublin and in the neighbouring countryside.

(Nowhere in the text does it explain that the name Belacqua Shuah comes from a figure in Dante’s Purgatorio, a Florentine lute-maker famed for his laziness, who has given up on ever reaching heaven. ‘Samuel Beckett, whose favorite reading was Dante, closely identified with Belacqua and his indolence.’ I mean Beckett mentions Dante, the medieval Italian poet’s name is in the title of the first story, but it’s left to the enterprising reader either to look up the connection or, one assumes, to erudite enough to spot it straightaway. – We have Wikipedia to thank for this information.)

Like most Modernist texts More Pricks than Kicks assumes you have a good working knowledge of European literary classics and are fluent in at least the key modern languages (not only the French and Italian which Beckett himself studied, but German also) as the text is sprinkled with quotes like the following, with no translation:

Meine Ruh ist hin mein Herz ist schwer
Ich finde Sie nimmer und nimmer mehr.

You only have to read a few sentences to realise that Beckett has a very tangential relationship to the English language. His prose wilfully combines:

  • Irish idioms and phrases (‘It would take off the rough wet’)
  • Latin tags and phrases (obiter, pro tem, tempus edax)
  • worn-out English proverbs and clichés:
    • better late than never
    • the things people come out with sometimes!
  • pompous Biblical phraseology:
    • ‘Who shall silence them, at last?’
  • and clichés from popular fiction treated with elaborate academic condescension:
    • The effect of this was to send what is called a glow of warmth what is called coursing through his veins
    •  … and no mistake!
    • well, to make a long story short
    • Hairy was as snug as a bug in a rug
  • archly direct address to the reader:
    • ‘Reader, a rosiner is a drop of the hard…’
    • ‘Reader, a gloria is coffee laced with brandy.’

along with:

  • a liberal sprinkling of the three main European languages
  • sly quotes from literary classics
  • rebarbatively arcane words
  • an elaborately Euphuistic register
  • deliberately obscure phrasing and sentence structure

The book has a strong sense of humour but of a very distinct and idiosyncratic kind. Three pages are devoted to describing Belacqua’s extremely pedantic way of toasting bread for lunch which – it appears – involves burning each of the two slices of bread to a smouldering crisp.

When the first candidate was done, which was only when it was black through and through, it changed places with its comrade, so that now it in its turn lay on top, done to a dead end, black and smoking, waiting till as much could be said of the other… Belacqua on his knees before the flame, poring over the grill, controlled every phase of the broiling. It took time, but if a thing was worth doing at all it was worth doing well, that was a true saying. Long before the end the room was full of smoke and the reek of burning. (p.11)

Because:

This meal that he was at such pains to make ready, he would devour it with a sense of rapture and victory, it would be like smiting the sledded Polacks on the ice. He would snap at it with closed eyes, he would gnash it into a pulp, he would vanquish it utterly with his fangs. Then the anguish of pungency, the pang of the spices, as each mouthful died, scorching his palate, bringing tears.

This is certainly pretentious (the sledded Polacks are from Hamlet), but is it funny? Or just student-type self-indulgence? The show-off antics of a top-of-the-class ephebe?

These questions hover over the entire book, which treads all kinds of knife-edges. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Some of it is, frankly, incomprehensible. Most of it is painfully arch and contrived. You get the sense that a lot of it – whether the use of Irish idioms or obvious proverbs, the learned disquisitions about Italian poets or the sentences which feel like they’re walking on stilts – they all seem to be mocking their respective registers, styles and conventions.

Take this portrait of a lady, ‘the Frica’, which, beneath the glossolalia, seems to be comparing her, caustically, to a horse:

Behold the Frica, she visits talent in the Service Flats. In she lands, singing Havelock Ellis in a deep voice, frankly itching to work that which is not seemly. Open upon her concave breast as on a lectern lies Portigliotti’s Penombre Claustrali, bound in tawed caul. In her talons earnestly she grasps Sade’s 120 Days and the Anterotica of Aliosha G. Brignole-Sale, unopened, bound in shagreened caul. A septic pudding hoodwinks her, a stodgy turban of pain it laps her horse face. The eyehole is clogged with the bulbus, the round pale globe goggles exposed. Solitary meditation has furnished her with nostrils of generous bore. The mouth champs an invisible bit, foam gathers at the bitter commissures. The crateriform brisket, lipped with sills of paunch, cowers ironically behind a maternity tunic. Keyholes have wrung the unfriendly withers, the osseous rump screams behind the hobble-skirt. Wastes of woad worsted advertise the pasterns. Aïe! (p.46)

It comes from the longest ‘story’, A Wet Night which seems to be about a soirée for poets and literary layabouts held by this same Frica.

It’s as if the entire text is held at an angle from normal human perception, and bears only a passing resemblance to traditional narrative conventions. Maybe it’s intended to have the same deliberately angular feel as Wyndham Lewis’s consciously Modernist prose. Maybe its sentences are intended to contain lots of jagged edges, like a Vorticist painting.

Portrait of Kate Lechmere by Wyndham Lewis

Portrait of Kate Lechmere by Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis’s prose was generally satirical in intention. This book feels like it is not only satirising the ‘grotesque’ and apparently ageing anti-hero, his solemn monologues and pettifogging concerns, and also many of the traditions of conventional narrative – plot, dialogue, description – but is also satirising the reader for wanting to read it and the author for ever writing it. The whole enterprise is a right boggins.

Some occasional phrases appear legible and funny, and ring with a Joycean poetry:

  • ‘Oh Winnie’ he made a vague clutch at her sincerities, for she was all anyway on the grass. (p.25)
  • Chastening the cat with little skelps she took herself off. The grey hairs of her maidenhead
    screamed at Belacqua. A devout, virginal blue-stocking, honing after a penny’s worth of scandal. (p.17)
  • Though he might be only able to afford a safety-bicycle he was nevertheless a man of few words.
  • Capper Quin arrived on tiptire, in a car of his very own. (p.164)

But many, many, many other passages are purposely obtuse and circumlocutory, wilfully repelling and discomforting comprehension.

At this all-important juncture of his delirium Belacqua found himself blinking his eyes rapidly, a regular nictation, so that little flaws of dawn gushed into his mind. This had not been done with intent, but when he found that it seemed to be benefiting him in some curious way he kept it up, until gradually the inside of his skull began to feel sore. Then he desisted and went back to the dilemma. Here, as indeed at every crux of the enterprise, he sacrificed sense of what was personal and proper to himself to the desirability of making a certain impression on other people, an impression almost of gallantry. He must efface himself altogether and do the little soldier. It was this paramount consideration that made him decide in favour of Bim and Bom, Grock, Democritus, whatever you are pleased to call it, and postpone its dark converse to a less public occasion. This was an abnegation if you like, for Belacqua could not resist a lachrymose philosopher and still less when, as was the case with Heraclitus, he was obscure at the same time. He was in his element in dingy tears and luxuriously so when these were furnished by a pre-Socratic man of acknowledged distinction. How often had he not exclaimed, skies being grey: “Another minute of this and I consecrate the remnant of my life to Heraclitus of Ephesus, I shall be that Delian diver who, after the third or fourth submersion, returns no more to the surface!” (p.149)

For long stretches the text is an omnium-gatherum of obfuscation. But despite its post-graduate knick-knackery – I liked it. I read many passages twice, getting to know them better. The Lobster, Lethe, Walking out and Yellow repay rereading.


The stories

Dante and the Lobster (11 pages)

Introducing Belacqua, who makes burned toast for lunch, stops in a pub till chucking out time (2.30), picks up the lobster his aunt ordered from a fishmonger, goes to his Italian lesson, where the lobster is attacked by the French tutor’s cat, and arrives with the lobster at his aunt’s, who boils it alive.

Fingal (10 pages)

Belacqua takes his lady love to Fingal, a viewing point outside Dublin, where they colloquise almost incomprehensibly before walking over to enjoy the view of the lunatic asylum, where Belacqua is replaced in the lady’s affections by Dr Sholto, sidles off, then nicks a labourer’s bicycle and scarpers back to Dublin where the story ends with him happily ensconced in a warm snug downing a pint of porter.

Ding-Dong (9 pages)

Restlessly moving from pub to pub, Belacqua witnesses a child being run over by a cart, though that’s not the point, the point seems to be a woman approaching him to sell theatre tickets in yet another pub.

A Wet Night (30 pages)

Belacqua is dragged along to a party hosted by ‘the Finca’, and attended by the ‘homespun Poet’, ‘the Alba’, the Polar Bear (P.B.), a Jesuit (S.J.), Chas and his girl (‘a Shetland Shawny’), the ‘arty Countess of Parambini’, the Student, the Caleken, a Galway Gael, the Man of Law escorting three tarts, two banned novelists, a bibliomaniac and his mistress, a paleographer, a violist d’amore with his instrument in a bag, a popular parodist with his sister and six daughters, a still more popular Professor of Bullscrit and Comparative Ovoidology, the saprophile the better for drink, a communist painter and decorator fresh back from the Moscow reserves, a merchant prince, two grave Jews, a rising strumpet, three more poets with Lauras to match, a disaffected cicisbeo, a chorus of playwrights, the inevitable envoy of the Fourth Estate, a phalanx of Grafton Street Stürmers and Jemmy Higgins. I dare say these are all hilarious portraits of characters from 1920s literary Dublin.

Love and Lethe (12 pages)

A slightly more comprehensible ‘story’, complete with satirical asides to the reader, in which Belacqua has persuaded the fading 33-year-old Ruby to accompany him in a suicide attempt. They drive out to a hill, climb it, sit to admire the view, drink a whole bottle of spirits, the gun goes off by accident harming neither – at which they fall to urgent rumpy-pumpy in the ling.

Walking Out (10 pages)

‘Walking out’ is the phrase used to describe courting couples back in D.H. Lawrence days (the 1910s and 20s) This is a brutal subversion of the convention. Belacqua is walking in fields when he is caught up by his lady love and fiancée, Lucy, on horseback. An obscure Latin phrase in their conversation somehow conveys to Lucy what we then find out, which is that Belacqua has come this way to spy on a ‘courting couple’ who, apparently, have sex in the nearby woods. She rides off in a huff, and is trotting blind with anger along a narrow country lane when a car driven by a drunken lord hurtles round the corner, kills her horse outright and cripples her for life. Oblivious of all this Belacqua has continued on his way to the gloomy woods where he sneaks about till he finds his (German) couple in flagrente delicto, but steps on a dry branch and the enraged Tanzherr chases him, catches him, and administers a good flogging. Belacqua crawls home. In a cruel postscript we learn that he and the crippled Lucy are now married and regularly play records on the phonogram :).

What a Misfortune (30 pages)

Lucy conveniently dies, two years after her accident, and Belacqua is free to become engaged to Thelma bboggs, younger daughter of Mr and Mrs Otto Olaf bboggs, who has made his pile from toiletries. Beckett’s humour is not… subtle. This is an extended Beckettian satire on all the embarrassments and confusions of a bourgeois marriage, complete with unwilling bride’s father, his wife’s lover, the hairy best man, a crippled nymphomaniac and a drooling cretin. But this makes it sound too comprehensible. It is the usual onomasticon of oneiromancies:

The hyperaesthesia of Hairy was so great that the mere fact of standing on licensed ground, without the least reference to its liberties, was of force sufficient to exhilarate him. Now therefore, under the influence of his situation, he dilated with splendid incoherence on the contradiction involved in the idea of a happy Belacqua and on the impertinence of desiring that he should derogate into such an anomaly. (p.118)

The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux (5 pages)

The shortest section, this is told entirely in the first person, as a letter written by an illiterate German girl who appears to be madly in love with Belacqua, who she refers to as Bel. Presumably, he’s had some kind of affair with her.

[The central importance of women, or a Woman – Only at this point in my reading did I finally realise that every one of these stories revolves around Belacqua’s encounter with a specific woman – Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi in Dante and the Lobster, Winnie in Fingal, the unnamed woman who sells him theatre tickets in Ding-Dong, ‘the’ Alba in Wet Night, Ruby in Love and Lethe, Lucy in Walking Out, Thelma in What a Misfortune and ‘the’ Smeraldina in this story. And that these are presumably the fair to middling women of his unpublished novel, reworked into freestanding stories. It’s hard to see what purpose or meaning to give to their central role except as a plot device, the device being that each of them represents the opposite pole to Belacqua’s well-developed solipsism and self-absorption, each of them yanks our hero out of his seamless subjectivity. And each one of them is then the butt of humour, satire and scorn.]

Yellow (13 pages)

Belacqua is in hospital awaiting an operation on a tumour the size of a brick growing out of his neck. Now that I’ve identified the woman-theme in the previous stories, this one confirmed what I see as the fundamental dynamic of the stories, which is the way Belacqua’s leaden solipsism is punctured and alleviated, lightened, amused or irritated, by the intrusion of women – one per story, generally, but in this one it is a small regiment of nurses, fussing and trimming him. They are quite personable. Some bits – like the nurse bursting out laughing at the ugliness of his toes – are quite funny. In the last few sentences, it appears that Belacqua dies on the operating table.

Draff (13 pages)

This final story reviews, or at least namechecks, all the fair to middling women who featured in its predecessors, before pointing out that Belacqua’s widow was his final amour, no other than ‘the Smerladina’ whose letter we read a few sections earlier. Now she attends to Belacqua’s corpse, laid out in the parlour, and deals with sundry visitors (Nick Malacoda the undertaker, the Church of Ireland padre, friend Capper). She and Hairy dress the burial plot with moss then go through the interment, next day. On the way back Hairy argues with the padre and dumps him in the middle of nowhere. Arriving home, they find Smeraldina and Belacqua’s house in flames. Apparently the gardener ran amok, raped the serving girl and torched it. A policeman points out he is now under arrest. Hairy takes the Smeraldina driving up into the mountains where – I think – they have sex which – I think – she seems to like rather rough. The groundsman back at the cemetery finishes his bottle of stout.

So it goes in the world. (p.173)

So it goes, eh? That immediately makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut, who has the same mocking attitude to human existence, and actually uses the catchphrase ‘so it goes’ throughout his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.


Conclusion

So what do we take from all this? That Beckett:

  1. has swallowed not only an English dictionary of rare and obscure words, but an Italian and French and German dictionary as well
  2. has little new or interesting to say but says it with supernumerary logorrhoea, or with the smart, ironic use of worn-out clichés
    • (‘what a splendid thing it is when all is said and done to be young and vigorous’)
  3. occasionally takes recourse to Catholic theology, but with no feel at all for the numinous
    • (‘He did not know the French for lobster. Fish would do very well. Fish had been good enough for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. It was good enough for Mlle Glain.’)
  4. is not much interested in plot or story
  5. and finds all humans risible, but has a particular itch against old crones – like ‘his lousy old bitch of an aunt’

But most of all, that Beckett’s prose – stitched together from a diverse range of sources and languages – is not sensual. It is certainly variegated – a rackety gallimaufrey of idiolects, langues and locutions – but it is always rather grey.

Belacqua, paying pious suit to the hem of [Ruby’s] garment and gutting his raptures with great complacency at a safe remove, represented precisely the ineffable long-distance paramour to whom as a homesick meteorite abounding in IT she had sacrificed her innumerable gallants. And now, the metal of stars smothered in earth, the IT run dry and the gallants departed, he appeared, like the agent of an ironical Fortune, to put her in mind of what she had missed and rowel her sorrow for what she was missing. Yet she tolerated him in the hope that sooner or later, in a fit of ebriety or of common or garden incontinence, he would so far forget himself as to take her in his arms.

The ghost of Joyce hangs heavily over Beckett. Joyce, a genuine world class genius, wrote sensitively and sensuously with a God-given inhabitation of language. Beckett is trying something similar – deploying an obfuscation of orotundity – but it doesn’t roll or rise. He has all the fandango and fol-de-rol, but no feel.

Clever, but dead. Beckett’s prose is assembled with tweezers. It is like a chemistry set, constructed with a chemist’s detachment. You can see why, later in the 1930s, he began to write in French. The over-clotted English style displayed here was a dead end, as was the entire approach of clotting and cluttering, additioning and complexifying. He had to completely purge his approach and his langue, in order to find his metier as the prophet of paucity.

Stray thoughts

The stories were written between 1931 and 1934, at the same time that Christopher Isherwood (b.1904 and therefore two years older than Beckett, b,1906) was working as an English teacher in Berlin, keeping his diary and working up the stories which were to appear in Mr Norris Changes Trains. There are suggestive points of comparison:

  • Isherwood’s prose is self-consciously crisp and clear and modern, like modernist architecture, completely unlike Beckett’s mongrel, multilingual, playing-with-registers gallimaufrey
  • similarly, Isherwood’s stories are stories in the utterly traditional sense, with characters and plots, although the ‘plots’ are often thin, the obvious working-up of everyday incidents – whereas Beckett has no plots, but instead sequences of trivial incidents on which he can hang his philosophical and linguistic games
  • although many details in both are harsh, they are both, arguably, comic writers
  • and if you consider how totally Isherwood commits himself to describing the foreign city where he was living, and its troubled politics i.e. the rise of Hitler, it makes you realise how, by contrast, Beckett never writes about Paris or the France he lived in, about the rise of fascism or the entire Second World War. Instead his imagination, in all his works, remains utterly rooted in the Dublin streets and pubs and characters and slang and songs of his boyhood. Although he was later hailed as a member of the international post-war avant-garde, a really close reading of Beckett (and hearing, of the radio plays, and watching, of the made-for-TV plays) brings out Beckett’s essential parochialness.

Credit

More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett was published in 1934 by Chatto and Windus, London. All page references are to the 1974 Picador paperback edition.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

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