Of the Nature of Things

by Lucretius

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Book IV - Existence and Character of the Images

But since I've taught already of what sort
     The seeds of all things are, and how distinct
     In divers forms they flit of own accord,
     Stirred with a motion everlasting on,
     And in what mode things be from them create,
     And since I've taught what the mind's nature is,
     And of what things 'tis with the body knit
     And thrives in strength, and by what mode uptorn
     That mind returns to its primordials,
     Now will I undertake an argument—
     One for these matters of supreme concern—
     That there exist those somewhats which we call
     The images of things: these, like to films
     Scaled off the utmost outside of the things,
     Flit hither and thither through the atmosphere,
     And the same terrify our intellects,
     Coming upon us waking or in sleep,
     When oft we peer at wonderful strange shapes
     And images of people lorn of light,
     Which oft have horribly roused us when we lay
     In slumber—that haply nevermore may we
     Suppose that souls get loose from Acheron,
     Or shades go floating in among the living,
     Or aught of us is left behind at death,
     When body and mind, destroyed together, each
     Back to its own primordials goes away.

     And thus I say that effigies of things,
     And tenuous shapes from off the things are sent,
     From off the utmost outside of the things,
     Which are like films or may be named a rind,
     Because the image bears like look and form
     With whatso body has shed it fluttering forth—
     A fact thou mayst, however dull thy wits,
     Well learn from this: mainly, because we see
     Even 'mongst visible objects many be
     That send forth bodies, loosely some diffused—
     Like smoke from oaken logs and heat from fires—
     And some more interwoven and condensed—
     As when the locusts in the summertime
     Put off their glossy tunics, or when calves
     At birth drop membranes from their body's surface,
     Or when, again, the slippery serpent doffs
     Its vestments 'mongst the thorns—for oft we see
     The breres augmented with their flying spoils:
     Since such takes place, 'tis likewise certain too
     That tenuous images from things are sent,
     From off the utmost outside of the things.
     For why those kinds should drop and part from things,
     Rather than others tenuous and thin,
     No power has man to open mouth to tell;
     Especially, since on outsides of things
     Are bodies many and minute which could,
     In the same order which they had before,
     And with the figure of their form preserved,
     Be thrown abroad, and much more swiftly too,
     Being less subject to impediments,
     As few in number and placed along the front.
     For truly many things we see discharge
     Their stuff at large, not only from their cores
     Deep-set within, as we have said above,
     But from their surfaces at times no less—
     Their very colours too. And commonly
     The awnings, saffron, red and dusky blue,
     Stretched overhead in mighty theatres,
     Upon their poles and cross-beams fluttering,
     Have such an action quite; for there they dye
     And make to undulate with their every hue
     The circled throng below, and all the stage,
     And rich attire in the patrician seats.
     And ever the more the theatre's dark walls
     Around them shut, the more all things within
     Laugh in the bright suffusion of strange glints,
     The daylight being withdrawn. And therefore, since
     The canvas hangings thus discharge their dye
     From off their surface, things in general must
     Likewise their tenuous effigies discharge,
     Because in either case they are off-thrown
     From off the surface. So there are indeed
     Such certain prints and vestiges of forms
     Which flit around, of subtlest texture made,
     Invisible, when separate, each and one.
     Again, all odour, smoke, and heat, and such
     Streams out of things diffusedly, because,
     Whilst coming from the deeps of body forth
     And rising out, along their bending path
     They're torn asunder, nor have gateways straight
     Wherethrough to mass themselves and struggle abroad.
     But contrariwise, when such a tenuous film
     Of outside colour is thrown off, there's naught
     Can rend it, since 'tis placed along the front
     Ready to hand. Lastly those images
     Which to our eyes in mirrors do appear,
     In water, or in any shining surface,
     Must be, since furnished with like look of things,
     Fashioned from images of things sent out.
     There are, then, tenuous effigies of forms,
     Like unto them, which no one can divine
     When taken singly, which do yet give back,
     When by continued and recurrent discharge
     Expelled, a picture from the mirrors' plane.
     Nor otherwise, it seems, can they be kept
     So well conserved that thus be given back
     Figures so like each object.

                             Now then, learn
     How tenuous is the nature of an image.
     And in the first place, since primordials be
     So far beneath our senses, and much less
     E'en than those objects which begin to grow
     Too small for eyes to note, learn now in few
     How nice are the beginnings of all things—
     That this, too, I may yet confirm in proof:
     First, living creatures are sometimes so small
     That even their third part can nowise be seen;
     Judge, then, the size of any inward organ—
     What of their sphered heart, their eyes, their limbs,
     The skeleton?—How tiny thus they are!
     And what besides of those first particles
     Whence soul and mind must fashioned be?—Seest not
     How nice and how minute? Besides, whatever
     Exhales from out its body a sharp smell—
     The nauseous absinth, or the panacea,
     Strong southernwood, or bitter centaury—
     If never so lightly with thy [fingers] twain
     Perchance [thou touch] a one of them

     Then why not rather know that images
     Flit hither and thither, many, in many modes,
     Bodiless and invisible?

                                      But lest
     Haply thou holdest that those images
     Which come from objects are the sole that flit,
     Others indeed there be of own accord
     Begot, self-formed in earth's aery skies,
     Which, moulded to innumerable shapes,
     Are borne aloft, and, fluid as they are,
     Cease not to change appearance and to turn
     Into new outlines of all sorts of forms;
     As we behold the clouds grow thick on high
     And smirch the serene vision of the world,
     Stroking the air with motions. For oft are seen
     The giants' faces flying far along
     And trailing a spread of shadow; and at times
     The mighty mountains and mountain-sundered rocks
     Going before and crossing on the sun,
     Whereafter a monstrous beast dragging amain
     And leading in the other thunderheads.
     Now [hear] how easy and how swift they be
     Engendered, and perpetually flow off
     From things and gliding pass away....

     For ever every outside streams away
     From off all objects, since discharge they may;
     And when this outside reaches other things,
     As chiefly glass, it passes through; but where
     It reaches the rough rocks or stuff of wood,
     There 'tis so rent that it cannot give back
     An image. But when gleaming objects dense,
     As chiefly mirrors, have been set before it,
     Nothing of this sort happens. For it can't
     Go, as through glass, nor yet be rent—its safety,
     By virtue of that smoothness, being sure.
     'Tis therefore that from them the images
     Stream back to us; and howso suddenly
     Thou place, at any instant, anything
     Before a mirror, there an image shows;
     Proving that ever from a body's surface
     Flow off thin textures and thin shapes of things.
     Thus many images in little time
     Are gendered; so their origin is named
     Rightly a speedy. And even as the sun
     Must send below, in little time, to earth
     So many beams to keep all things so full
     Of light incessant; thus, on grounds the same,
     From things there must be borne, in many modes,
     To every quarter round, upon the moment,
     The many images of things; because
     Unto whatever face of things we turn
     The mirror, things of form and hue the same
     Respond. Besides, though but a moment since
     Serenest was the weather of the sky,
     So fiercely sudden is it foully thick
     That ye might think that round about all murk
     Had parted forth from Acheron and filled
     The mighty vaults of sky—so grievously,
     As gathers thus the storm-clouds' gruesome night,
     Do faces of black horror hang on high—
     Of which how small a part an image is
     There's none to tell or reckon out in words.

     Now come; with what swift motion they are borne,
     These images, and what the speed assigned
     To them across the breezes swimming on—
     So that o'er lengths of space a little hour
     Alone is wasted, toward whatever region
     Each with its divers impulse tends—I'll tell
     In verses sweeter than they many are;
     Even as the swan's slight note is better far
     Than that dispersed clamour of the cranes
     Among the southwind's aery clouds. And first,
     One oft may see that objects which are light
     And made of tiny bodies are the swift;
     In which class is the sun's light and his heat,
     Since made from small primordial elements
     Which, as it were, are forward knocked along
     And through the interspaces of the air
     To pass delay not, urged by blows behind;
     For light by light is instantly supplied
     And gleam by following gleam is spurred and driven.
     Thus likewise must the images have power
     Through unimaginable space to speed
     Within a point of time,—first, since a cause
     Exceeding small there is, which at their back
     Far forward drives them and propels, where, too,
     They're carried with such winged lightness on;
     And, secondly, since furnished, when sent off,
     With texture of such rareness that they can
     Through objects whatsoever penetrate
     And ooze, as 'twere, through intervening air.
     Besides, if those fine particles of things
     Which from so deep within are sent abroad,
     As light and heat of sun, are seen to glide
     And spread themselves through all the space of heaven
     Upon one instant of the day, and fly
     O'er sea and lands and flood the heaven, what then
     Of those which on the outside stand prepared,
     When they're hurled off with not a thing to check
     Their going out? Dost thou not see indeed
     How swifter and how farther must they go
     And speed through manifold the length of space
     In time the same that from the sun the rays
     O'erspread the heaven? This also seems to be
     Example chief and true with what swift speed
     The images of things are borne about:
     That soon as ever under open skies
     Is spread the shining water, all at once,
     If stars be out in heaven, upgleam from earth,
     Serene and radiant in the water there,
     The constellations of the universe—
     Now seest thou not in what a point of time
     An image from the shores of ether falls
     Unto the shores of earth? Wherefore, again,
     And yet again, 'tis needful to confess
     With wondrous...

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