Of the Nature of Things

by Lucretius

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Book V - Beginnings of Civilization

     When huts they had procured and pelts and fire,
     And when the woman, joined unto the man,
     Withdrew with him into one dwelling place,

     Were known; and when they saw an offspring born
     From out themselves, then first the human race
     Began to soften. For 'twas now that fire
     Rendered their shivering frames less staunch to bear,
     Under the canopy of the sky, the cold;
     And Love reduced their shaggy hardiness;
     And children, with the prattle and the kiss,
     Soon broke the parents' haughty temper down.
     Then, too, did neighbours 'gin to league as friends,
     Eager to wrong no more or suffer wrong,
     And urged for children and the womankind
     Mercy, of fathers, whilst with cries and gestures
     They stammered hints how meet it was that all
     Should have compassion on the weak. And still,
     Though concord not in every wise could then
     Begotten be, a good, a goodly part
     Kept faith inviolate—or else mankind
     Long since had been unutterably cut off,
     And propagation never could have brought
     The species down the ages.

                            Lest, perchance,
     Concerning these affairs thou ponderest
     In silent meditation, let me say
     'Twas lightning brought primevally to earth
     The fire for mortals, and from thence hath spread
     O'er all the lands the flames of heat. For thus
     Even now we see so many objects, touched
     By the celestial flames, to flash aglow,
     When thunderbolt has dowered them with heat.
     Yet also when a many-branched tree,
     Beaten by winds, writhes swaying to and fro,
     Pressing 'gainst branches of a neighbour tree,
     There by the power of mighty rub and rub
     Is fire engendered; and at times out-flares
     The scorching heat of flame, when boughs do chafe
     Against the trunks. And of these causes, either
     May well have given to mortal men the fire.
     Next, food to cook and soften in the flame
     The sun instructed, since so oft they saw
     How objects mellowed, when subdued by warmth
     And by the raining blows of fiery beams,
     Through all the fields.

                          And more and more each day
     Would men more strong in sense, more wise in heart,
     Teach them to change their earlier mode and life
     By fire and new devices. Kings began
     Cities to found and citadels to set,
     As strongholds and asylums for themselves,
     And flocks and fields to portion for each man
     After the beauty, strength, and sense of each—
     For beauty then imported much, and strength
     Had its own rights supreme. Thereafter, wealth
     Discovered was, and gold was brought to light,
     Which soon of honour stripped both strong and fair;
     For men, however beautiful in form
     Or valorous, will follow in the main
     The rich man's party. Yet were man to steer
     His life by sounder reasoning, he'd own
     Abounding riches, if with mind content
     He lived by thrift; for never, as I guess,
     Is there a lack of little in the world.
     But men wished glory for themselves and power
     Even that their fortunes on foundations firm
     Might rest forever, and that they themselves,
     The opulent, might pass a quiet life—
     In vain, in vain; since, in the strife to climb
     On to the heights of honour, men do make
     Their pathway terrible; and even when once
     They reach them, envy like the thunderbolt
     At times will smite, O hurling headlong down
     To murkiest Tartarus, in scorn; for, lo,
     All summits, all regions loftier than the rest,
     Smoke, blasted as by envy's thunderbolts;
     So better far in quiet to obey,
     Than to desire chief mastery of affairs
     And ownership of empires. Be it so;
     And let the weary sweat their life-blood out
     All to no end, battling in hate along
     The narrow path of man's ambition;
     Since all their wisdom is from others' lips,
     And all they seek is known from what they've heard
     And less from what they've thought. Nor is this folly
     Greater to-day, nor greater soon to be,
     Than' twas of old.

                     And therefore kings were slain,
     And pristine majesty of golden thrones
     And haughty sceptres lay o'erturned in dust;
     And crowns, so splendid on the sovereign heads,
     Soon bloody under the proletarian feet,
     Groaned for their glories gone—for erst o'er-much
     Dreaded, thereafter with more greedy zest
     Trampled beneath the rabble heel. Thus things
     Down to the vilest lees of brawling mobs
     Succumbed, whilst each man sought unto himself
     Dominion and supremacy. So next
     Some wiser heads instructed men to found
     The magisterial office, and did frame
     Codes that they might consent to follow laws.
     For humankind, o'er wearied with a life
     Fostered by force, was ailing from its feuds;
     And so the sooner of its own free will
     Yielded to laws and strictest codes. For since
     Each hand made ready in its wrath to take
     A vengeance fiercer than by man's fair laws
     Is now conceded, men on this account
     Loathed the old life fostered by force. 'Tis thence
     That fear of punishments defiles each prize
     Of wicked days; for force and fraud ensnare
     Each man around, and in the main recoil
     On him from whence they sprung. Not easy 'tis
     For one who violates by ugly deeds
     The bonds of common peace to pass a life
     Composed and tranquil. For albeit he 'scape
     The race of gods and men, he yet must dread
     'Twill not be hid forever—since, indeed,
     So many, oft babbling on amid their dreams
     Or raving in sickness, have betrayed themselves
     (As stories tell) and published at last
     Old secrets and the sins.

                              But nature 'twas
     Urged men to utter various sounds of tongue
     And need and use did mould the names of things,
     About in same wise as the lack-speech years
     Compel young children unto gesturings,
     Making them point with finger here and there
     At what's before them. For each creature feels
     By instinct to what use to put his powers.
     Ere yet the bull-calf's scarce begotten horns
     Project above his brows, with them he 'gins
     Enraged to butt and savagely to thrust.
     But whelps of panthers and the lion's cubs
     With claws and paws and bites are at the fray
     Already, when their teeth and claws be scarce
     As yet engendered. So again, we see
     All breeds of winged creatures trust to wings
     And from their fledgling pinions seek to get
     A fluttering assistance. Thus, to think
     That in those days some man apportioned round
     To things their names, and that from him men learned
     Their first nomenclature, is foolery.
     For why could he mark everything by words
     And utter the various sounds of tongue, what time
     The rest may be supposed powerless
     To do the same? And, if the rest had not
     Already one with other used words,
     Whence was implanted in the teacher, then,
     Fore-knowledge of their use, and whence was given
     To him alone primordial faculty
     To know and see in mind what 'twas he willed?
     Besides, one only man could scarce subdue
     An overmastered multitude to choose
     To get by heart his names of things. A task
     Not easy 'tis in any wise to teach
     And to persuade the deaf concerning what
     'Tis needful for to do. For ne'er would they
     Allow, nor ne'er in anywise endure
     Perpetual vain dingdong in their ears
     Of spoken sounds unheard before. And what,
     At last, in this affair so wondrous is,
     That human race (in whom a voice and tongue
     Were now in vigour) should by divers words
     Denote its objects, as each divers sense
     Might prompt?—since even the speechless herds, aye, since
     The very generations of wild beasts
     Are wont dissimilar and divers sounds
     To rouse from in them, when there's fear or pain,
     And when they burst with joys. And this, forsooth,
     'Tis thine to know from plainest facts: when first
     Huge flabby jowls of mad Molossian hounds,
     Baring their hard white teeth, begin to snarl,
     They threaten, with infuriate lips peeled back,
     In sounds far other than with which they bark
     And fill with voices all the regions round.
     And when with fondling tongue they start to lick
     Their puppies, or do toss them round with paws,
     Feigning with gentle bites to gape and snap,
     They fawn with yelps of voice far other then
     Than when, alone within the house, they bay,
     Or whimpering slink with cringing sides from blows.
     Again the neighing of the horse, is that
     Not seen to differ likewise, when the stud
     In buoyant flower of his young years raves,
     Goaded by winged Love, amongst the mares,
     And when with widening nostrils out he snorts
     The call to battle, and when haply he
     Whinnies at times with terror-quaking limbs?
     Lastly, the flying race, the dappled birds,
     Hawks, ospreys, sea-gulls, searching food and life
     Amid the ocean billows in the brine,
     Utter at other times far other cries
     Than when they fight for food, or with their prey
     Struggle and strain. And birds there are which change
     With changing weather their own raucous songs—
     As long-lived generations of the crows
     Or flocks of rooks, when they be said to cry
     For rain and water and to call at times
     For winds and gales. Ergo, if divers moods
     Compel the brutes, though speechless evermore,
     To send forth divers sounds, O truly then
     How much more likely 'twere that mortal men
     In those days could with many a different sound
     Denote each separate thing.

                               And now what cause
     Hath spread divinities of gods abroad
     Through mighty nations, and filled the cities full
     Of the high altars, and led to practices
     Of solemn rites in season—rites which still
     Flourish in midst of great affairs of state
     And midst great centres of man's civic life,
     The rites whence still a poor mortality
     Is grafted that quaking awe which rears aloft
     Still the new temples of gods from land to land
     And drives mankind to visit them in throngs
     On holy days—'tis not so hard to give
     Reason thereof in speech. Because, in sooth,
     Even in those days would the race of man
     Be seeing excelling visages of gods
     With mind awake; and in his sleeps, yet more—
     Bodies of wondrous growth. And, thus, to these
     Would men attribute sense, because they seemed
     To move their limbs and speak pronouncements high,
     Befitting glorious visage and vast powers.
     And men would give them an eternal life,
     Because their visages forevermore
     Were there before them, and their shapes remained,
     And chiefly, however, because men would not think
     Beings augmented with such mighty powers
     Could well by any force o'ermastered be.
     And men would think them in their happiness
     Excelling far, because the fear of death
     Vexed no one of them at all, and since
     At same time in men's sleeps men saw them do
     So many wonders, and yet feel therefrom
     Themselves no weariness. Besides, men marked
     How in a fixed order rolled around
     The systems of the sky, and changed times
     Of annual seasons, nor were able then
     To know thereof the causes. Therefore 'twas
     Men would take refuge in consigning all
     Unto divinities, and in feigning all
     Was guided by their nod. And in the sky
     They set the seats and vaults of gods, because
     Across the sky night and the moon are seen
     To roll along—moon, day, and night, and night's
     Old awesome constellations evermore,
     And the night-wandering fireballs of the sky,
     And flying flames, clouds, and the sun, the rains,
     Snow and the winds, the lightnings, and the hail,
     And the swift rumblings, and the hollow roar
     Of mighty menacings forevermore.

     O humankind unhappy!—when it ascribed
     Unto divinities such awesome deeds,
     And coupled thereto rigours of fierce wrath!
     What groans did men on that sad day beget
     Even for themselves, and O what wounds for us,
     What tears for our children's children! Nor, O man,
     Is thy true piety in this: with head
     Under the veil, still to be seen to turn
     Fronting a stone, and ever to approach
     Unto all altars; nor so prone on earth
     Forward to fall, to spread upturned palms
     Before the shrines of gods, nor yet to dew
     Altars with profuse blood of four-foot beasts,
     Nor vows with vows to link. But rather this:
     To look on all things with a master eye
     And mind at peace. For when we gaze aloft
     Upon the skiey vaults of yon great world
     And ether, fixed high o'er twinkling stars,
     And into our thought there come the journeyings
     Of sun and moon, O then into our breasts,
     O'erburdened already with their other ills,
     Begins forthwith to rear its sudden head
     One more misgiving: lest o'er us, percase,
     It be the gods' immeasurable power
     That rolls, with varied motion, round and round
     The far white constellations. For the lack
     Of aught of reasons tries the puzzled mind:
     Whether was ever a birth-time of the world,
     And whether, likewise, any end shall be
     How far the ramparts of the world can still
     Outstand this strain of ever-roused motion,
     Or whether, divinely with eternal weal
     Endowed, they can through endless tracts of age
     Glide on, defying the o'er-mighty powers
     Of the immeasurable ages. Lo,
     What man is there whose mind with dread of gods
     Cringes not close, whose limbs with terror-spell
     Crouch not together, when the parched earth
     Quakes with the horrible thunderbolt amain,
     And across the mighty sky the rumblings run?
     Do not the peoples and the nations shake,
     And haughty kings do they not hug their limbs,
     Strook through with fear of the divinities,
     Lest for aught foully done or madly said
     The heavy time be now at hand to pay?
     When, too, fierce force of fury-winds at sea
     Sweepeth a navy's admiral down the main
     With his stout legions and his elephants,
     Doth he not seek the peace of gods with vows,
     And beg in prayer, a-tremble, lulled winds
     And friendly gales?—in vain, since, often up-caught
     In fury-cyclones, is he borne along,
     For all his mouthings, to the shoals of doom.
     Ah, so irrevocably some hidden power
     Betramples forevermore affairs of men,
     And visibly grindeth with its heel in mire
     The lictors' glorious rods and axes dire,
     Having them in derision! Again, when earth
     From end to end is rocking under foot,
     And shaken cities ruin down, or threaten
     Upon the verge, what wonder is it then
     That mortal generations abase themselves,
     And unto gods in all affairs of earth
     Assign as last resort almighty powers
     And wondrous energies to govern all?

     Now for the rest: copper and gold and iron
     Discovered were, and with them silver's weight
     And power of lead, when with prodigious heat
     The conflagrations burned the forest trees
     Among the mighty mountains, by a bolt
     Of lightning from the sky, or else because
     Men, warring in the woodlands, on their foes
     Had hurled fire to frighten and dismay,
     Or yet because, by goodness of the soil
     Invited, men desired to clear rich fields
     And turn the countryside to pasture-lands,
     Or slay the wild and thrive upon the spoils.
     (For hunting by pit-fall and by fire arose
     Before the art of hedging the covert round
     With net or stirring it with dogs of chase.)
     Howso the fact, and from what cause soever
     The flamy heat with awful crack and roar
     Had there devoured to their deepest roots
     The forest trees and baked the earth with fire,
     Then from the boiling veins began to ooze
     O rivulets of silver and of gold,
     Of lead and copper too, collecting soon
     Into the hollow places of the ground.
     And when men saw the cooled lumps anon
     To shine with splendour-sheen upon the ground,
     Much taken with that lustrous smooth delight,
     They 'gan to pry them out, and saw how each
     Had got a shape like to its earthy mould.
     Then would it enter their heads how these same lumps,
     If melted by heat, could into any form
     Or figure of things be run, and how, again,
     If hammered out, they could be nicely drawn
     To sharpest points or finest edge, and thus
     Yield to the forgers tools and give them power
     To chop the forest down, to hew the logs,
     To shave the beams and planks, besides to bore
     And punch and drill. And men began such work
     At first as much with tools of silver and gold
     As with the impetuous strength of the stout copper;
     But vainly—since their over-mastered power
     Would soon give way, unable to endure,
     Like copper, such hard labour. In those days
     Copper it was that was the thing of price;
     And gold lay useless, blunted with dull edge.
     Now lies the copper low, and gold hath come
     Unto the loftiest honours. Thus it is
     That rolling ages change the times of things:
     What erst was of a price, becomes at last
     A discard of no honour; whilst another
     Succeeds to glory, issuing from contempt,
     And day by day is sought for more and more,
     And, when 'tis found, doth flower in men's praise,
     Objects of wondrous honour.

                                Now, Memmius,
     How nature of iron discovered was, thou mayst
     Of thine own self divine. Man's ancient arms
     Were hands, and nails and teeth, stones too and boughs—
     Breakage of forest trees—and flame and fire,
     As soon as known. Thereafter force of iron
     And copper discovered was; and copper's use
     Was known ere iron's, since more tractable
     Its nature is and its abundance more.
     With copper men to work the soil began,
     With copper to rouse the hurly waves of war,
     To straw the monstrous wounds, and seize away
     Another's flocks and fields. For unto them,
     Thus armed, all things naked of defence
     Readily yielded. Then by slow degrees
     The sword of iron succeeded, and the shape
     Of brazen sickle into scorn was turned:
     With iron to cleave the soil of earth they 'gan,
     And the contentions of uncertain war
     Were rendered equal.

                        And, lo, man was wont
     Armed to mount upon the ribs of horse
     And guide him with the rein, and play about
     With right hand free, oft times before he tried
     Perils of war in yoked chariot;
     And yoked pairs abreast came earlier
     Than yokes of four, or scythed chariots
     Whereinto clomb the men-at-arms. And next
     The Punic folk did train the elephants—
     Those curst Lucanian oxen, hideous,
     The serpent-handed, with turrets on their bulks—
     To dure the wounds of war and panic-strike
     The mighty troops of Mars. Thus Discord sad
     Begat the one Thing after other, to be
     The terror of the nations under arms,
     And day by day to horrors of old war
     She added an increase.

                         Bulls, too, they tried
     In war's grim business; and essayed to send
     Outrageous boars against the foes. And some
     Sent on before their ranks puissant lions
     With armed trainers and with masters fierce
     To guide and hold in chains—and yet in vain,
     Since fleshed with pell-mell slaughter, fierce they flew,
     And blindly through the squadrons havoc wrought,
     Shaking the frightful crests upon their heads,
     Now here, now there. Nor could the horsemen calm
     Their horses, panic-breasted at the roar,
     And rein them round to front the foe. With spring
     The infuriate she-lions would up-leap
     Now here, now there; and whoso came apace
     Against them, these they'd rend across the face;
     And others unwitting from behind they'd tear
     Down from their mounts, and twining round them, bring
     Tumbling to earth, o'ermastered by the wound,
     And with those powerful fangs and hooked claws
     Fasten upon them. Bulls would toss their friends,
     And trample under foot, and from beneath
     Rip flanks and bellies of horses with their horns,
     And with a threat'ning forehead jam the sod;
     And boars would gore with stout tusks their allies,
     Splashing in fury their own blood on spears
     Splintered in their own bodies, and would fell
     In rout and ruin infantry and horse.
     For there the beasts-of-saddle tried to scape
     The savage thrusts of tusk by shying off,
     Or rearing up with hoofs a-paw in air.
     In vain—since there thou mightest see them sink,
     Their sinews severed, and with heavy fall
     Bestrew the ground. And such of these as men
     Supposed well-trained long ago at home,
     Were in the thick of action seen to foam
     In fury, from the wounds, the shrieks, the flight,
     The panic, and the tumult; nor could men
     Aught of their numbers rally. For each breed
     And various of the wild beasts fled apart
     Hither or thither, as often in wars to-day
     Flee those Lucanian oxen, by the steel
     Grievously mangled, after they have wrought
     Upon their friends so many a dreadful doom.
     (If 'twas, indeed, that thus they did at all:
     But scarcely I'll believe that men could not
     With mind foreknow and see, as sure to come,
     Such foul and general disaster.—This
     We, then, may hold as true in the great All,
     In divers worlds on divers plan create,—
     Somewhere afar more likely than upon
     One certain earth.) But men chose this to do
     Less in the hope of conquering than to give
     Their enemies a goodly cause of woe,
     Even though thereby they perished themselves,
     Since weak in numbers and since wanting arms.

     Now, clothes of roughly inter-plaited strands
     Were earlier than loom-wove coverings;
     The loom-wove later than man's iron is,
     Since iron is needful in the weaving art,
     Nor by no other means can there be wrought
     Such polished tools—the treadles, spindles, shuttles,
     And sounding yarn-beams. And nature forced the men,
     Before the woman kind, to work the wool:
     For all the male kind far excels in skill,
     And cleverer is by much—until at last
     The rugged farmer folk jeered at such tasks,
     And so were eager soon to give them o'er
     To women's hands, and in more hardy toil
     To harden arms and hands.

                         But nature herself,
     Mother of things, was the first seed-sower
     And primal grafter; since the berries and acorns,
     Dropping from off the trees, would there beneath
     Put forth in season swarms of little shoots;
     Hence too men's fondness for ingrafting slips
     Upon the boughs and setting out in holes
     The young shrubs o'er the fields. Then would they try
     Ever new modes of tilling their loved crofts,
     And mark they would how earth improved the taste
     Of the wild fruits by fond and fostering care.
     And day by day they'd force the woods to move
     Still higher up the mountain, and to yield
     The place below for tilth, that there they might,
     On plains and uplands, have their meadow-plats,
     Cisterns and runnels, crops of standing grain,
     And happy vineyards, and that all along
     O'er hillocks, intervales, and plains might run
     The silvery-green belt of olive-trees,
     Marking the plotted landscape; even as now
     Thou seest so marked with varied loveliness
     All the terrain which men adorn and plant
     With rows of goodly fruit-trees and hedge round
     With thriving shrubberies sown.

                                   But by the mouth
     To imitate the liquid notes of birds
     Was earlier far 'mongst men than power to make,
     By measured song, melodious verse and give
     Delight to ears. And whistlings of the wind
     Athrough the hollows of the reeds first taught
     The peasantry to blow into the stalks
     Of hollow hemlock-herb. Then bit by bit
     They learned sweet plainings, such as pipe out-pours,
     Beaten by finger-tips of singing men,
     When heard through unpathed groves and forest deeps
     And woodsy meadows, through the untrod haunts
     Of shepherd folk and spots divinely still.
     Thus time draws forward each and everything
     Little by little unto the midst of men,
     And reason uplifts it to the shores of light.
     These tunes would soothe and glad the minds of mortals
     When sated with food,—for songs are welcome then.
     And often, lounging with friends in the soft grass
     Beside a river of water, underneath
     A big tree's branches, merrily they'd refresh
     Their frames, with no vast outlay—most of all
     If the weather were smiling and the times of the year
     Were painting the green of the grass around with flowers.
     Then jokes, then talk, then peals of jollity
     Would circle round; for then the rustic muse
     Was in her glory; then would antic Mirth
     Prompt them to garland head and shoulders about
     With chaplets of intertwined flowers and leaves,
     And to dance onward, out of tune, with limbs
     Clownishly swaying, and with clownish foot
     To beat our mother earth—from whence arose
     Laughter and peals of jollity, for, lo,
     Such frolic acts were in their glory then,
     Being more new and strange. And wakeful men
     Found solaces for their unsleeping hours
     In drawing forth variety of notes,
     In modulating melodies, in running
     With puckered lips along the tuned reeds,
     Whence, even in our day do the watchmen guard
     These old traditions, and have learned well
     To keep true measure. And yet they no whit
     Do get a larger fruit of gladsomeness
     Than got the woodland aborigines
     In olden times. For what we have at hand—
     If theretofore naught sweeter we have known—
     That chiefly pleases and seems best of all;
     But then some later, likely better, find
     Destroys its worth and changes our desires
     Regarding good of yesterday.

                                  And thus
     Began the loathing of the acorn; thus
     Abandoned were those beds with grasses strewn
     And with the leaves beladen. Thus, again,
     Fell into new contempt the pelts of beasts—
     Erstwhile a robe of honour, which, I guess,
     Aroused in those days envy so malign
     That the first wearer went to woeful death
     By ambuscades,—and yet that hairy prize,
     Rent into rags by greedy foemen there
     And splashed by blood, was ruined utterly
     Beyond all use or vantage. Thus of old
     'Twas pelts, and of to-day 'tis purple and gold
     That cark men's lives with cares and weary with war.
     Wherefore, methinks, resides the greater blame
     With us vain men to-day: for cold would rack,
     Without their pelts, the naked sons of earth;
     But us it nothing hurts to do without
     The purple vestment, broidered with gold
     And with imposing figures, if we still
     Make shift with some mean garment of the Plebs.
     So man in vain futilities toils on
     Forever and wastes in idle cares his years—
     Because, of very truth, he hath not learnt
     What the true end of getting is, nor yet
     At all how far true pleasure may increase.
     And 'tis desire for better and for more
     Hath carried by degrees mortality
     Out onward to the deep, and roused up
     From the far bottom mighty waves of war.

     But sun and moon, those watchmen of the world,
     With their own lanterns traversing around
     The mighty, the revolving vault, have taught
     Unto mankind that seasons of the years
     Return again, and that the Thing takes place
     After a fixed plan and order fixed.

     Already would they pass their life, hedged round
     By the strong towers; and cultivate an earth
     All portioned out and boundaried; already
     Would the sea flower and sail-winged ships;
     Already men had, under treaty pacts,
     Confederates and allies, when poets began
     To hand heroic actions down in verse;
     Nor long ere this had letters been devised—
     Hence is our age unable to look back
     On what has gone before, except where reason
     Shows us a footprint.

                          Sailings on the seas,
     Tillings of fields, walls, laws, and arms, and roads,
     Dress and the like, all prizes, all delights
     Of finer life, poems, pictures, chiselled shapes
     Of polished sculptures—all these arts were learned
     By practice and the mind's experience,
     As men walked forward step by eager step.
     Thus time draws forward each and everything
     Little by little into the midst of men,
     And reason uplifts it to the shores of light.
     For one thing after other did men see
     Grow clear by intellect, till with their arts
     They've now achieved the supreme pinnacle.

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