Patrick J. Burns

Postdoc at the Quantitative Criticism Lab | Formerly ISAW Library | Fordham PhD, Classics | CLTK contributor

The Poet Who Dreamt He Was a Poet: Dream, Text and the Problem of Inspiration in Lucretius

Abstract for paper delivered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison 2012 Classics Graduate Colloquium
October 13, 2012


Lucretius writes in the first book of De rerum natura that he can overcome Epicurus’ well-known objection to poetry as a viable medium for philosophy because of the clarity of his verse: “I write such lucid poetry about obscure material when I touch it all with the Muses’ charm.” (1.933-934) This suggestion solves one problem by creating another. The Muses belong to a model of poetic inspiration in the ancient world that was divine in nature. Furthermore, by Lucretius’ time, divine poetic inspiration was also invested with the idea of possession by an irrational force. The combination of the divine and the irrational makes the ancient model of poetic inspiration incompatible with Epicurean philosophy and consequently appears to increase the tension between Epicurus’ objection and Lucretius’ innovation. In this paper, I will look at how Lucretius rationalizes the traditional model of poetic inspiration and moves toward a model which is more palatable to Epicurean sensibilities. This paper will look at the relationship between dreams and poetic inspiration in Lucretius. Dreams have the advantage for Lucretius as a medium for inspiration because they can be fully explained in terms of Epicurean physics. In a key passage, I will argue that Lucretius describes how dreams can be a workspace for inspiration (4.962-972), that is, a place where the poet can continue his waking activity of philosophical inquiry and receive the inspiration of others, including Epicurus. Moreover, inspirational dreams have a second, and perhaps more important, advantage: Lucretius could point to the precedence of inspirational dreams in earlier poets, most significantly Callimachus in the Aetia and Ennius in the Annales. Ennius, for example, transforms himself into a poet, not just by accepting Homer into his body through metempsychosis, but also simply by bringing Homer into his text. Likewise, through his allusion to poetic dreams, Lucretius brings Callimachus, Ennius and other writers into his poetic work and poetic network, simultaneously establishing legitimacy for his chosen model of non-divine and rational inspiration as well as showing the intertextual consequences of literary transmission.

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