18 AUGUST 2001, Page 38

Lucretius the Diver

Things worn out by the lapse of ages tend Toward the reef, that motley wrecking crew Of living polyps who, to get ahead, Climb ruthlessly all over their own dead, But facts like those Lucretius never knew: He merely meant we can't long buck the trend That winds up hard against a watershed.

Horace had godly names for every breeze. Ovid himself was stiff with sacred stuff. Virgil talked turkey just once, about bees. Of ancient wits Lucretius alone, Without recourse to supernatural guff, Uncannily forecast the modern tone — Viewing the world as miracle enough.

Imagine him in scuba gear, instead Of whatever kit a Roman poet wore — To find his fruitful symbol for the grave Not just inevitable but alive Would surely suit him down to the sea floor.

Suspended before such a flower-bed He'd bubble with delight beneath the wave.

The reef, a daughter, and the sea, its mother, In a long, white-lipped rage with one another Would shout above him as he hung in space And saw his intuition had been right: Under a windswept canopy of lace, Even down there in that froth-filtered light, The World of Things is clearly the one place — Death lives, life dies, and no gods intervene. It's all so obvious, would be his thought: But then, it always was, at least to him, And why the rest of them were quite so dim On that point is perhaps a theme we ought To tackle, realising it could mean Our chances going in are pretty slim Of drawing comfort from a Golden Age So lethally haphazard no one sane Could contemplate the play of chance was all There was to life. That took the featherbrain Lucretius seemed to them, and not the sage He seems to us, who flinch from his disdain As he stares seaward at the restless wall Of ruined waves, the spray that falls like rain.