Provisional poetics in Lucretius' “De Rerum Natura”

Jason S Nethercut, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation offers a reevaluation of many prevailing opinions regarding Lucretian poetics. Arguing first for the fundamental equivalence between form and content in Lucretian thought, this project then shows how this equivalence, if taken seriously and applied systematically throughout the DRN, complicates traditional conceptions of Lucretian poetics in significant ways. Provisional argumentation also plays a fundamental role in Lucretius' exposition of both philosophical and poetic ideas. His procedure is seen most clearly in the image of Venus, who introduces the poem with all the trappings of traditional religion, only ultimately to be laid bare in the light of Epicurean truth as nothing other than the sexual drive in nature (DRN 4.1058). Again, this dissertation assumes that the principle of provisional argumentation is not something that Lucretius employs only occasionally and in a limited way; rather, he uses the same procedure time and again to problematize traditional ideas about poetics. It emerges that the main problems created by careful observance of these two basic principles arise in areas like intertextuality (Chapter 1), genre theory (Chapters 2 and 3) and literary historical affiliation (Chapter 4), all of which have been considered heretofore to be reasonably well understood. Chapter 1 argues that Lucretius uses the conventions of learned poetic allusion to signal to his readers that he is no different than any other allusive poet. It will emerge later (specifically, in Chapter 4) that Lucretius' insistence on the virtual identity of form and content is at odds with a conventional understanding of intertextual artistry. Thus Lucretius exploits his readers' familiarity with traditional allusive gestures, forcing them to revise their understanding of what such gestures mean in the light of his Epicurean teachings. The provisional poetic practice outlined in Chapter 1 is then brought to bear on the concept of genre. Taken together, Chapters 2 and 3 demonstrate that Lucretius has a dichotomous attitude toward genre. Chapter 2 shows that, by the unwritten rules that a doctus poeta would expect his readers to know, the DRN appears to incorporate a significant number of different genres and develops intricate relationships among them. Such a perspective on the poem is perfectly consistent with expectations based on the practice of other Hellenistic and Roman poets. But Chapter 3 argues that there are good grounds for regarding Lucretius as an essentialist when it comes to genre theory, i.e. as someone who believes that literary genres are single things that should not be confused with one another or combined in any way. This flagrantly inconsistent attitude towards genre itself would put him with the majority of Roman poets. But such a gap between philosophy and poetic practice is more difficult to accept in a thinker as systematic as Lucretius. Therefore, the approach to genre outlined in Chapters 2 and 3 is reevaluated in Chapter 4 with respect to what Lucretius has to say about literary tradition—for instance, about the nature of his relationship with important poetic predecessors such as Ennius and Homer. There it is shown that literary historical affiliations as they are traditionally constituted by intertextual allusion are incompatible with Lucretius' conception of the material world and also with what we know about poetic theory from other Epicurean sources. The Conclusion puts forward the main results of this project and canvasses some possible solutions to the genre problem that arises from Chapters 2 and 3. Throughout this dissertation the relationship between Lucretius and his great poetic forbear Ennius is assiduously scrutinized.

Subject Area

Classical studies|Philosophy|Classical Studies

Recommended Citation

Nethercut, Jason S, "Provisional poetics in Lucretius' “De Rerum Natura”" (2012). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3542833.