The Cup Runneth Over

Charles Bernstein
“The swerve of verse: Lucretius’ ‘Of Things’ Nature’ and the necessity of poetic form”

Lucretius’s own explanation for choosing verse is that it is the spoonful of sugar that makes the truth of the real go down:

For as with children, when the doctors try
To give them loathsome wormwood, first they smear
Sweet yellow honey on the goblet’s rim,

With the delicious honey of the Muses;
So in this way perchance my poetry
Can hold your mind, while you attempt to grasp
The great design and pattern of its making.

[Ronald Melville, translation]

It is a figure that Bernstein picks up again later:

For Epicurians, religion is the poison cup rimmed with honey that dispels fear of death at the cost of the appreciation of life as it is.

The displacement is telling. The turn to mortality is also a turn to morality. Bernstein continues: “Of Things’s Nature dispels not fear but unnecessary fears, and that is a bitter bill [sic] to swallow. The virtue of its verse is that it embodies reason, directing, in rime, your eyes on thing’s nature?” His clumsy renaming of the book De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) makes it seem stranger, more remote and daunting. Bernstein goes well beyond his remit. He set out to demonstrate that the verse “is there to ensnare, to pull readers into an aesthetic/conceptual experience that cannot be put into prose.” A fair point that is tangled into multiplying questions about reason’s appeal.

Does Lucretius offer a bait and switch: my songs can be as sweet as your myths –– but no bull? Can truth ever be beautiful as superstition? Does truth need to put on luring make-up just to get noticed at the party? Does reason rim us with perverse pleasure? Or is Lurcetius [sic] just tipping us off to how it works?

He has us scurrying for the definition of the verb to rim in both its slang and sports acceptance. Perverse pleasure indeed. Full to the brim and over.

And so for day 2658

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