Reflections of Lucretius in Late Antique and Early Modern Biblical and Scientific Poetry: Providence and the Sublime

  • Philip Hardie
Part of the The New Antiquity book series (NANT)


My topic is a part of a history that goes back to Virgil, that of the reaction of writers and thinkers who adhere to providentialist and transcendental models of reality to the materialist and anti-providentialist poem of Lucretius.1 As such it might seem to have no place in a book on Lucretius and modernity, if by modernity is understood rationalism, free-thinking, libertinism, and a scientific and anti-deist understanding of the world. There was, of course, a time when modernity was Christianity, and the church fathers’ attacks on Epicurean atheism were intended to confirm their readers’ belief in the new dispensation. But I shall be dealing with texts that, on the surface at least, are confident that they are speaking from a position of established truth. Questions nevertheless remain. Why do accounts of a biblical creation and world order look to Lucretius’s poem on the nature of the universe? Is it the case that these texts safely contain the Lucretian message, or is there a surplus that threatens Christian orthodoxy? What degree of anxiety, or indeed illicit sense of liberation, is involved in imitating Lucretius’s gospel of rationalist materialism?


Mother Earth Paradise Lost Church Father Poetical Work Human Word 
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  1. 1.
    For the text of Lucretius, I use the Oxford Classical Text of De Rerum Natura, ed. Cyril Bailey, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922); hereafter abbreviated Lucr. My translations of Lucretius are adapted from those of H. A. J. Munro, trans., T. Lucreti Cari De rerum natura libri sex, 4th ed., 3 vols. (Cambridge: Deighton Bell, 1886); other translations are my own.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    In general, see Frank E. Robbins, The Hexaemeral Literature: A Study of the Greek and Latin Commentaries on Genesis (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1912); J. Martin Evans, Paradise Lost and the Genesis Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968).Google Scholar
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    See Karl Gronau, Poseidonius, eine Quelle für Basilos’ Hexahemeros (Braunschweig, 1912).Google Scholar
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    Ovid, P. Ovidi Nasonis Metamorphoses, ed. Richard J. Tarrant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); hereafter abbreviated Met. and cited by book and line number.Google Scholar
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    On the interpretatio Ovidiana of Genesis, see Michael Roberts, “Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Latin Poets of Late Antiquity,” Arethusa 35 (2002): 403–15; indigesta moles applied to the Genesis story: A. B. Chambers, “Chaos in Paradise Lost,” Journal of the History of Ideas 24 (1963): 61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Marco Girolamo Vida, Christiad, ed. and trans. James Gardner (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2009).Google Scholar
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    See also Vida, Christiad, 1.605 nec mora uix coeli extuderat septemplicis orbem [immediately he had forged the circle of the sevenfold heavens] (God creates the heavens) with Virgil, Aeneid, 8.448–49 septenosque orbibus orbis ∣ impediunt [they bind together the seven circular layers of the shield] (the making of the Shield of Aeneas); 12.925 clipei extremos septemplicis orbis [the outermost circles of the sevenfold shield] (of Turnus). Citations of Virgil’s Aeneid and Georgics are taken from P. Vergilii Maronis Opera, ed. R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).Google Scholar
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    Philip Hardie, Virgil’s Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 360–61.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Genesis 3: 8, abscondit se Adam et uxor eius a facie Domini Dei in medio ligni paradisi [Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden]; see Biblia Sacra Vulgata, ed. Bonifatius Fischer et al., 3rd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1984).Google Scholar
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    Dracontius: Louanges de Dieu, livres I et II, ed. Claude Moussy and Colette Camus (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1985).Google Scholar
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    On Milton and the hexaemeral tradition, see Mary I. Corcoran, Milton’s Paradise with Reference to the Hexameral Background (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1945). References to Paradise Lost are from The Poems of John Milton, ed. John Carey and Alastair Fowler (London and New York: Longman, 1968).Google Scholar
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    Enzo Giudici, ed., Maurice Scève: Microcosme (Cassino and Paris: Vrin, 1976), 85–88; with Microcosme 2.101–4. See also Lucr. 5.925–87 on the life of primitive man. On Lucretius in sixteenth-century France, see Simone Fraisse, L’Influence de Lucrèce en France au seizième siècle: Une conquête du rationalisme (Paris: A. G. Nizet, 1962); Philip Ford, “Lucretius in Early Modern France,” ed. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 227–41.Google Scholar
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    Don P. Fowler, Lucretius on Atomic Motion: A Commentary on Lucretius De Rerum Natura 2.1–332 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), ad loc.Google Scholar
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    See Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, & Memory in Early Modern Britain & Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 379–83 on the physical appearance of earth as a direct consequence of human sinfulness, both the Fall and the Flood; a key text is Thomas Burnet’s Telluris theoria sacra (London, 1681); English version, The Sacred Theory of the Earth (London, 1684).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    In the edition of Susan Snyder, ed., The Divine Weeks and Works of Guillaume de Saluste Sieur Du Bartas, translated by Josuah Sylvester, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). For the French text, see Urban T. Holmes, John C. Lyons, Robert W. Linker, eds. The Works of Guillaume de Salluste, Sieur du Bartas, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935–40). On Du Bartas and Lucretius, see V. K. Whitaker, “Du Bartas’ Use of Lucretius,” Studies in Philology 33 (1936): 134–46; J. Kany-Turpin, “Une Reinvention de Lucrèce par Guillaume du Bartas,” in La Littérature et ses avatars: Discredits, deformations et rehabilitations dans l’histoire de la littérature, ed. Y. Bellenger (Paris: Aux Amateurs de Livres, 1991), 31–39; S. Lamacz, “La Construction du savoir et la réécriture du De Rerum Natura dans La Sepmaine de Du Bartas,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 64 (2002): 617–38.Google Scholar
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    Stanislas Gamber, Le Livre de la ‘Genèse’ dans la poésie latine au cinquième siècle (Paris, 1899), 62–63. References to Victor are to Claudius Marius Victorius, Claudii Marii Victorii Alethia, ed. P. F. Hovingh, Corpus Christianorum, series Latina 128 (Turnholt: Brepols 1960).Google Scholar
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    Contrasting Lucretian sublimities: Philip Hardie, Lucretian Receptions: History, The Sublime, Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 76.Google Scholar
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    See David Quint, “Fear of Falling: Icarus, Phaethon, and Lucretius in Paradise Lost,” Renaissance Quarterly 57 (2004): 875 for Milton’s revision here of Du Bartas. In general on Milton’s use of Du Bartas, see George C. Taylor, Milton’s Use of DuBartas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934).Google Scholar
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    The Poems of Andrew Marvell, ed. Nigel Smith (Harlow: Pearson/Longman, 2003).Google Scholar
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    Both passages are cited in Anne L. Prescott, “The Reception of Du Bartas in England,” Studies in the Renaissance 15 (1968): 155. For the originals, see Giles and Phineas Fletcher, Poetical Works, ed. F. S. Boas, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1908–09); Joseph Hall, “To Mr Josuah Sylvester, of his Bartas Metaphrased,” in Bartas His Devine Weekes and Werkes, trans. Josuah Sylvester (London, 1608), sig. B5v.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Thomas Gray and William Collins, Poetical Works, ed. Roger H. Lonsdale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).Google Scholar
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    Patricia Fara and David Money, “Isaac Newton and Augustan Anglo-Latin Poetry,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 35 (2004): 549–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The Complete Poetical Works of James Thomson, ed. J. Logie Robertson (London: Oxford University Press, 1908).Google Scholar

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© Philip Hardie 2016

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  • Philip Hardie

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