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Long-lost Lucretius Poem Still Resonates

Central Docents, Central Library,
Exterior view of the Flower street entrance of the library

If you've taken one of our free library tours, we've probably pointed out the quotation over the Flower Street entrance from Lucretius: “Like runners they bear on the lamp of life."

Seems like an old-fashioned chestnut, right? But the story of the poem's journey from antiquity to present day is full of mystery and modern controversy.

Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus was born in 99 BC and died in 55 BC. The torch quote comes from his epic philosophical poem "De Rerum Natura,” which is usually translated as "On the Nature of Things,” The longer quote reads:

Thus the sum of things is ever being reviewed, and mortals dependent one upon another. Some nations increase, others diminish, and in a short space the generations of living creatures are changed and like runners pass on the torch of life.

Lucretius's epic poem was lost for nearly a millennium, until former papal secretary and book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, rediscovered it while digging through documents in the dusty rooms of a German monastery in 1417. Scholars have been fascinated with the philosophy and ideas contained in Lucretius's work ever since.

Among those scholars was Hartley Burr Alexander, the philosophy professor who collaborated with architect Bertram Goodhue on the inscriptions and iconography for the 1926 Central Library and chose to feature the quote and illustrate it with the beautiful art deco torch runner bas-relief by sculptor Lee Lawrie.

Almost a century later, “On the Nature of Things” caught the attention of Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, who focuses a significant portion of his 2011 book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, on Lucretius's work.

According to Lucretius, all phenomena come into being as a result of the unpredictable “swerve” of elementary particles, the idea contained in Greenblatt's title, The Swerve.

The Swerve details Poggio's rediscovery of the old manuscript, and analyzes the poem's subsequent impact on the emergence of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and modern science. Greenblatt won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Swerve.

Among the radical ideas Lucretius presents in his poem are: everything is made of invisible, eternal particles; the universe has no creator or designer; all organized religions are superstitious delusions; there are no angels, demons, or ghosts; there is no afterlife, and understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder. It's not surprising that Greenblatt's book came under attack as an “anti-religious diatribe.”

Lucretius believed that even if an individual’s life does not continue after death, each life has meaning, as part of something greater. This is the idea that caught the eye of Hartley Burr Alexander when he chose Lucretius's poem fragment to symbolize the continuity of human knowledge contained in the library.

To learn more about the art and architecture of the library, join us for a tour Monday-Friday 12:30p, Saturday at 11a and 2p, Sundays at 2p. To arrange a custom or group tour, contact Joyce Ung, jung@lapl.org. Our Art-in-the Garden tour is Saturday at 12:30p. Follow us on Twitter @DTLALibrary or on Facebook at LAPL Docents.