Saturday, July 24, 2021


Letters of the Alphabet as Analogues for Atoms

Lucretius 1.817-829 (tr. Ronald Latham):
It often makes a big difference in what combinations and positions the selfsame elements occur, and what motions they mutually pass on or take over. For the same elements compose sky, sea and lands, rivers and sun, crops, trees and animals, but they are moving differently and in different combinations. Consider how in my verses, for instance, you see many letters common to many words; yet you must admit that different verses and words differ in substance and in audible sound. So much can be accomplished by letters through mere change of order. But the elements can bring more factors into play so as to create things in all their variety.

atque eadem magni refert primordia saepe
cum quibus et quali positura contineantur
et quos inter se dent motus accipiantque;
namque eadem caelum mare terras flumina solem        820
constituunt, eadem fruges arbusta animantis,
verum aliis alioque modo commixta moventur.
quin etiam passim nostris in versibus ipsis
multa elementa vides multis communia verbis,
cum tamen inter se versus ac verba necessest        825
confiteare et re et sonitu distare sonanti.
tantum elementa queunt permutato ordine solo;
at rerum quae sunt primordia, plura adhibere
possunt unde queant variae res quaeque creari.
I don't have access to Cyril Bailey's commentary on Lucretius, so I'm forced to rely on William Barney Smith's (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1942), who has these observations on this passage (p. 281):
I also don't have access to Wilson H. Shearin, "Saussure's cahiers and Lucretius' elementa: A Reconsideration of the Letters-Atoms Analogy," in Donncha O'Rourke, ed., Approaches to Lucretius: Traditions and Innovations in Reading the De Rerum Natura (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp. 140-156, although I was able to extract this footnote (p. 141, n. 4) from Google Books:

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