Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve

The SwerveStephen Greenblatt is a professor of literature at Harvard University, bestselling author of the fictionalized biography of Shakespeare Will in the World, and one of the founders of New Historicism – something for which I have yet to forgive him. But unlike many of the disciples of New Historicism, Greenblatt manifestly loves literature, and it is his unique gift to be able to communicate this love to a wider audience. Could any other writer, of any stripe, have written a non-fiction book about the discovery of an obscure Latin poem and, through the alchemy of his words, transform this simple narrative into a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, not to mention weeks atop the New York Times Bestseller List? The Swerve, subtitled How the World Became Modern, recounts the discovery, after nearly one thousand years of dormance in a German monastery, of Lucretius’ De Rarum Natura (On the Nature of Things), by an Italian papal scribe obsessed with recovering ancient works of literature, Poggio Braccioloni, and the effects this incredible and subversive poem had on the world of 15th and 16th century Europe. 

Greenblatt’s thesis is that the discovery of Lucretius’ poem, with its denial of theism and the immortality of the soul, and its staunch advocacy for the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as being the highest good, set in motion a skepticism of faith and a lust for beauty and empirical knowledge that was one of the main causal forces behind the Renaissance. It is a tenuous line, drawn from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose worldview Lucretius so beautifully sets forth in De Rarum Natura, through several centuries of what both Greenblatt and Poggio, in his diares, consider a period of barbarism, to Petrarch, Copernicus, Galileo and Martin Luther, but one that does not fail to convince.

The book itself is written in beautiful prose, illuminating otherwise obscure characters and periods of history and endowing the whole with the vitality of a novelist. Though Greenblatt does his best to remove himself from the book – barring the Preface, there is no first-person narration – his praise and censure seep through nonetheless, inviting us to share in his judgments. Thus, when a particularly outspoken critic of the Catholic Church is finally caught and placed on a pire to burn until his death, the description of the episode is so evocative, so affecting, that we cannot help but feel as if we had witnessed it ourselves. This is Greenblatt’s special talent, marrying his love of literature with his vast knowledge of history to produce a work that, like Will in the World, operates at the boundary between truth and fiction, at once didactic and delightful.