Of the Nature of Things

by Lucretius

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Book V - Origins and Savage Period of Mankind

But mortal man
     Was then far hardier in the old champaign,
     As well he should be, since a hardier earth
     Had him begotten; builded too was he
     Of bigger and more solid bones within,
     And knit with stalwart sinews through the flesh,
     Nor easily seized by either heat or cold,
     Or alien food or any ail or irk.
     And whilst so many lustrums of the sun
     Rolled on across the sky, men led a life
     After the roving habit of wild beasts.
     Not then were sturdy guiders of curved ploughs,
     And none knew then to work the fields with iron,
     Or plant young shoots in holes of delved loam,
     Or lop with hooked knives from off high trees
     The boughs of yester-year. What sun and rains
     To them had given, what earth of own accord
     Created then, was boon enough to glad
     Their simple hearts. Mid acorn-laden oaks
     Would they refresh their bodies for the nonce;
     And the wild berries of the arbute-tree,
     Which now thou seest to ripen purple-red
     In winter time, the old telluric soil
     Would bear then more abundant and more big.
     And many coarse foods, too, in long ago
     The blooming freshness of the rank young world
     Produced, enough for those poor wretches there.
     And rivers and springs would summon them of old
     To slake the thirst, as now from the great hills
     The water's down-rush calls aloud and far
     The thirsty generations of the wild.
     So, too, they sought the grottos of the Nymphs—
     The woodland haunts discovered as they ranged—
     From forth of which they knew that gliding rills
     With gush and splash abounding laved the rocks,
     The dripping rocks, and trickled from above
     Over the verdant moss; and here and there
     Welled up and burst across the open flats.
     As yet they knew not to enkindle fire
     Against the cold, nor hairy pelts to use
     And clothe their bodies with the spoils of beasts;
     But huddled in groves, and mountain-caves, and woods,
     And 'mongst the thickets hid their squalid backs,
     When driven to flee the lashings of the winds
     And the big rains. Nor could they then regard
     The general good, nor did they know to use
     In common any customs, any laws:
     Whatever of booty fortune unto each
     Had proffered, each alone would bear away,
     By instinct trained for self to thrive and live.
     And Venus in the forests then would link
     The lovers' bodies; for the woman yielded
     Either from mutual flame, or from the man's
     Impetuous fury and insatiate lust,
     Or from a bribe—as acorn-nuts, choice pears,
     Or the wild berries of the arbute-tree.
     And trusting wondrous strength of hands and legs,
     They'd chase the forest-wanderers, the beasts;
     And many they'd conquer, but some few they fled,
     A-skulk into their hiding-places...

     With the flung stones and with the ponderous heft
     Of gnarled branch. And by the time of night
     O'ertaken, they would throw, like bristly boars,
     Their wildman's limbs naked upon the earth,
     Rolling themselves in leaves and fronded boughs.
     Nor would they call with lamentations loud
     Around the fields for daylight and the sun,
     Quaking and wand'ring in shadows of the night;
     But, silent and buried in a sleep, they'd wait
     Until the sun with rosy flambeau brought
     The glory to the sky. From childhood wont
     Ever to see the dark and day begot
     In times alternate, never might they be
     Wildered by wild misgiving, lest a night
     Eternal should possess the lands, with light
     Of sun withdrawn forever. But their care
     Was rather that the clans of savage beasts
     Would often make their sleep-time horrible
     For those poor wretches; and, from home y-driven,
     They'd flee their rocky shelters at approach
     Of boar, the spumy-lipped, or lion strong,
     And in the midnight yield with terror up
     To those fierce guests their beds of out-spread leaves.

     And yet in those days not much more than now
     Would generations of mortality
     Leave the sweet light of fading life behind.
     Indeed, in those days here and there a man,
     More oftener snatched upon, and gulped by fangs,
     Afforded the beasts a food that roared alive,
     Echoing through groves and hills and forest-trees,
     Even as he viewed his living flesh entombed
     Within a living grave; whilst those whom flight
     Had saved, with bone and body bitten, shrieked,
     Pressing their quivering palms to loathsome sores,
     With horrible voices for eternal death—
     Until, forlorn of help, and witless what
     Might medicine their wounds, the writhing pangs
     Took them from life. But not in those far times
     Would one lone day give over unto doom
     A soldiery in thousands marching on
     Beneath the battle-banners, nor would then
     The ramping breakers of the main seas dash
     Whole argosies and crews upon the rocks.
     But ocean uprisen would often rave in vain,
     Without all end or outcome, and give up
     Its empty menacings as lightly too;
     Nor soft seductions of a serene sea
     Could lure by laughing billows any man
     Out to disaster: for the science bold
     Of ship-sailing lay dark in those far times.
     Again, 'twas then that lack of food gave o'er
     Men's fainting limbs to dissolution: now
     'Tis plenty overwhelms. Unwary, they
     Oft for themselves themselves would then outpour
     The poison; now, with nicer art, themselves
     They give the drafts to others.

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