The nature of things: an ancient poem's appeal.

Author:Bok, Sissela Ann
Position::The Swerve: How the World Became Modern - Book review
 
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THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern By Stephen Greenblatt, Norton, 356 pp., $26.95

AT THE CENTER of The Swerve is the story of 15th-century book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, "perhaps the greatest in an age obsessed with ferreting out and recovering the heritage of the ancient world."

It is the story, too, of his greatest discovery: the dazzling philosophical poem by Lucretius that he found hidden away in a German monastery and rescued from oblivion--De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of Things, written in the first century BCE.

Literary historian and Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt--himself a book hunter of distinction--tells these stories with verve, beginning with Poggio's horseback journey through Germany in search of old manuscripts. Greenblatt's dramatic account of Poggio's quest--of how he came to undertake it, and of everything that befell him after making his great find--allows readers to experience with him all that he had to go through and his sense of triumph at finally having the book in hand.

Poggio's discovery, Greenblatt writes, meant that he, "without ever intending or realizing it, became a midwife to modernity." This startling claim echoes in the book's subtitle. Whether or not it convinces readers, it will surely draw them into Greenblatt's absorbing narrative of the book's discovery.

Greenblatt's preface conveys his own sense of liberation when, as a student, he first came upon Lucretius's poem. Its message--that the primary source of human unhappiness is the superstitious fear of death--brought to mind the oversize role that fear of death played in his own childhood. His mother's certainty that she would die young and her ceaseless, tearful talk of her impending death placed a huge emotional burden on her children. Greenblatt felt thrilled by Lucretius's condemnation of such fears and grew convinced that people, having rid themselves of such fears and superstitions, should instead seek happiness through the pursuit of pleasure and beauty.

To that book and its teachings, Greenblatt brings both spirited advocacy and close and informed analysis. At his disposal, he has historical, literary, and technological resources beyond the wildest dreams that Poggio could have entertained, yet that build on Poggio's labors and those of his fellow Renaissance humanists. In a chapter appropriately entitled "The Way Things Are," Greenhlatt distills the central views from Lucretius's long, beautiful poem, leaving aside some of its more turgid passages,...

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