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Unit information: World Processors: Scientific and Medical Poetry from Parmenides to Padel in 2018/19

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Unit name World Processors: Scientific and Medical Poetry from Parmenides to Padel
Unit code CLAS10031
Credit points 20
Level of study C/4
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Haskell
Open unit status Open




School/department Department of Classics & Ancient History
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Science, medicine and poetry may seem strange bedfellows today, but the project of natural philosophical and/or medical poetry, already challenged by Aristotle, has been an unusually tenacious one in the Classical Tradition. The Presocratics Parmenides and Empedocles committed their natural philosophies to verse; the Roman cosmological poet, Lucretius, was rediscovered and widely imitated in and since the Renaissance, influencing modern writers from James Clark Maxwell to Marx. In the early modern period, poets of the Roman Catholic Jesuit order produced reams of Latin verse on subjects from the medicinal benefits of chocolate to electricity, and Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, was only one of many scientific poets writing in English in the eighteenth century. Why was the genre so popular and why has it declined? Is it due for a revival..? This unit explores both scientific and/or medical poems in the Classical Tradition and perennial debates over the literary status of a ‘poetry of things’, the relationship of scientific didactic poetry to descriptive poetry and science fiction – always with a focus on how and where the reception of ancient literature has been critical.


  1. To introduce students to the genre of philosophical/ scientific/ medical poetry in the Classical Tradition and to perennial challenges to the genre since Aristotle’s Poetics.
  2. To introduce students to key texts (in translation) in the tradition of philosophical/ scientific/ medical poetry in the Classical Tradition from antiquity to the present, and their reception, with attention to wider literary and historical contexts.
  3. To develop critical interaction with primary and secondary materials.
  4. To develop academic and creative writing and oral presentation skills through course assessment.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, students will:

  1. be able to explain and discuss with sophistication literary-critical debates about the definition and purpose of poetry, and the concept of a ‘poetry of things’, from Aristotle to the present.
  2. be able to describe and explain a major genre of poetry in the Classical Tradition and its reception in the early modern and modern periods.
  3. be able to apply literary-critical techniques to specific poems within the genre;
  4. be able to demonstrate skills in critical thinking, oral communication, academic and creative writing, appropriate to year level.

Teaching details

1 x 2hr lecture and 1 x 2hr workshop

Assessment Details

1) One literary-historical commentary exercise of 750 words (20%);

2) One creative exercise of 300 words, accompanied by a short reflective essay of 750 words (30%).

3) One exam of 90 minutes (50%)

All elements will assess ILOs 1-4.

Reading and References

Aristotle, Poetics

P. Hardie and S. Gillespie (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (Cambridge, 2011)

D. Norbrook, S. Harrison, and P. Hardie (eds), Lucretius and the Early Modern, ed. David Norbrook, Stephen Harrison (Oxford, 2015)

Y. Haskell, Loyola’s Bees: Ideology and Industry in Jesuit Latin Didactic Poetry (Oxford, 2003)

A. Brown, The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (Harvard, 2010)

G. Passanante, The Lucretian Renaissance (Chicago, 2011)

D. Brown, The Poetry of Victorian Scientists: Style, Science and Nonsense (Cambridge, 2013)

W.R. Johnson, Lucretius in the Modern World (London, 2000)

M. Serres, The Birth of Physics ([Paris, 1977], 2000)

D. Kennedy, Rethinking Reality (Michigan, 2002)