Yeats on Dryden's translation of Lucretius's 'De rerum natura'  

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W. B. Yeats called John Dryden's translation of the fourth book of Lucretius's De rerum natura “the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written.”

Here is a much-cited excerpt from that translation by Dryden:

So love with phantoms cheats our longing eyes,
Which hourly seeing never satisfies;
Our hands pull nothing from the parts they strain,
But wander o’er the lovely limbs in vain:
Nor when the youthful pair more closely join,
When hands in hands they lock, and thighs in thighs they twine,
Just in the raging foam of full desire,
When both press on, both murmur, both expire,
They gripe, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart,
As each would force their way to t’other’s heart –
In vain; they only cruise about the coast,
For bodies cannot pierce, nor be in bodies lost.

Dryden himself was aware of the controversial nature of the verses and his "luscious English" version.

The source of Yeats's comment comes by way of John Sparrow to whom Dryden told in 1931: "The finest description of sexual intercourse ever written was in Dryden's translation of Lucretius, and it was justified; it was introduced to illustrate the difficulty of two becoming a unity: "The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul."[1]

Excerpt from the original Latin:

"adfigunt avide corpus junguntque salivas" [...]

Translation by William Ellery Leonard:

The lovers. Nor they cannot sate their lust
By merely gazing on the bodies, nor
They cannot with their palms and fingers rub
Aught from each tender limb, the while they stray
Uncertain over all the body. Then,
At last, with members intertwined, when they
Enjoy the flower of their age, when now
Their bodies have sweet presage of keen joys,
And Venus is about to sow the fields
Of woman, greedily their frames they lock,
And mingle the slaver of their mouths, and breathe
Into each other, pressing teeth on mouths-
Yet to no purpose, since they're powerless
To rub off aught, or penetrate and pass
With body entire into body- for oft
They seem to strive and struggle thus to do;
So eagerly they cling in Venus' bonds,
Whilst melt away their members, overcome
By violence of delight. But when at last
Lust, gathered in the thews, hath spent itself,
There come a brief pause in the raging heat-

See also

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