Greenblatt on Lucretius — and our friend Poggio
Lucretius is the name on everyone’s lips at the moment. Not only is there Alison Brown’s slim Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence but also Stephen Greenblatt’s lively and readable The Swerve, with its different sub-titles depending on which side of the Atlantic you live: in the big, brash United States, the tale of the ‘rediscovery’ of Lucretius is about ‘how the world became modern’; among the diffident British for whom periphrasis is a way of life, it is merely ‘how the Renaissance began’.
Merely? Even the British sub-title involves a grand claim. And if we are to associate the Renaissance with one newly popular text, most would not choose the admittedly seductive poetry of Lucretius but the helpful guides to oratory of Quintilian or Cicero, or some of the latter’s speeches. But, then, it seems that Lucretius is seen to speak to our atomised post-po-mo selves, wracked with fears and self-loathing as we struggle to make sense of our place in the shadow of the lost Twin Towers.
With Lucretius, of course, must come reference — if only passing — to the humanist who brought him back into the world, Poggio Bracciolini, with whom I have long acquaintance. What Greenblatt provides is more than a cursory nod: Lucretius is the hero of his book, but Poggio is certainly its main character. His book has been reviewed well, if not kindly, in The Washington Post; I myself am attending a discussion on the book, chaired by David Norbrook, this afternoon. I will be beginning the proceedings, in fact, with a short discussion on ‘Stephen Greenblatt and other English-speaking admirers of Poggio Bracciolini’ — I will not second-guess what I will say, but I will provide you with a copy of my handout.