The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Abi Buglass
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I almost want to say Virgil’s Georgics, his ‘farming’ poem , which I have recently begun to appreciate more and more, but I must say Lucretius’ epic poem the De Rerum Natura, which is often known as ‘On the Nature of the Universe’.
When did you first come across this text?
When I was 17 or 18 my teacher Alison Howard wanted to stretch me, and gave me the amazing and terrible passage describing the sacrifice of the young girl Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon. She asked me to write an essay on the passage and what it means for the message of Lucretius in general. The passage is one of the most famous in the poem and arguably in Latin literature, culminating in the famous line tantum religio potuit suadere malorum: ‘this is the evil that religion can cause’. I was astounded to read some Latin poetry that seemed to have such a radical and modern message, and even more to read an author who seemed to so fervently believe what he was selling. I later chose to study Lucretius every chance I had; I took two courses on the De Rerum Natura during my undergraduate Classics degree at Edinburgh. I feel very fortunate that my daily life now includes research on Lucretius, other poets like him, and their later reception.
Can you tell me a bit about this poem and its context?
The poem was written during the first century BC, during the later days of the Roman republic. It is seen by many as a poetic rendition of the prose teachings of the Greek Philosopher Epicurus. But while Lucretius shows himself in the De Rerum Natura to be a faithful follower of Epicurus, he is also an original thinker in his own right. His poem would go on to be read by some amazing poets and thinkers, who were undoubtedly enthralled: Virgil, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Albert Camus, Caryl Churchill.
What is it about this work that appeals to you most?
The De Rerum Natura is one of the most captivating works of literature I have ever read. I think what appeals to me most is that Lucretius seems to believe that with this poem he can actually change the world. Some have seen pessimism in the poem but I think this is quite wrong: someone who has such faith in the power of poetry would more rightly be described as an optimist. He teaches, in thorough (and at times painstaking!) ways, atomistic physics, describing our world and our place in it down to the last atom, and telling how every phenomenon and act is down to the movements and swerves of the tiniest parts of the universe. For Lucretius, Physics is the key to happiness: if you understand the atomistic makeup of the world, you needn’t be afraid of anything: gods, lightning, wolves, death.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I do yoga, and knit. Not at the same time.
Abi Buglass is a Departmental Lecturer in Latin at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. Her research is centered on didactic poetry and its reception from antiquity through to modernity. She is currently working on a book which explores the remarkable repetitions in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and how they ultimately swirl together to reflect the atomistic universe that Lucretius wants to describe. Abi is also translating extracts of the De Rerum Natura for Sad Press in a volume called Particles.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.