Of the Nature of Things

by Lucretius

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Book V - Origins of Vegetable and Animal Life

And now to what remains!—Since I've resolved
     By what arrangements all things come to pass
     Through the blue regions of the mighty world,—
     How we can know what energy and cause
     Started the various courses of the sun
     And the moon's goings, and by what far means
     They can succumb, the while with thwarted light,
     And veil with shade the unsuspecting lands,
     When, as it were, they blink, and then again
     With open eye survey all regions wide,
     Resplendent with white radiance—I do now
     Return unto the world's primeval age
     And tell what first the soft young fields of earth
     With earliest parturition had decreed
     To raise in air unto the shores of light
     And to entrust unto the wayward winds.
     In the beginning, earth gave forth, around
     The hills and over all the length of plains,
     The race of grasses and the shining green;
     The flowery meadows sparkled all aglow
     With greening colour, and thereafter, lo,
     Unto the divers kinds of trees was given
     An emulous impulse mightily to shoot,
     With a free rein, aloft into the air.
     As feathers and hairs and bristles are begot
     The first on members of the four-foot breeds
     And on the bodies of the strong-y-winged,
     Thus then the new Earth first of all put forth
     Grasses and shrubs, and afterward begat
     The mortal generations, there upsprung—
     Innumerable in modes innumerable—
     After diverging fashions. For from sky
     These breathing-creatures never can have dropped,
     Nor the land-dwellers ever have come up
     Out of sea-pools of salt. How true remains,
     How merited is that adopted name
     Of earth—"The Mother!"—since from out the earth
     Are all begotten. And even now arise
     From out the loams how many living things—
     Concreted by the rains and heat of the sun.
     Wherefore 'tis less a marvel, if they sprang
     In Long Ago more many, and more big,
     Matured of those days in the fresh young years
     Of earth and ether. First of all, the race
     Of the winged ones and parti-coloured birds,
     Hatched out in spring-time, left their eggs behind;
     As now-a-days in summer tree-crickets
     Do leave their shiny husks of own accord,
     Seeking their food and living. Then it was
     This earth of thine first gave unto the day
     The mortal generations; for prevailed
     Among the fields abounding hot and wet.
     And hence, where any fitting spot was given,
     There 'gan to grow womb-cavities, by roots
     Affixed to earth. And when in ripened time
     The age of the young within (that sought the air
     And fled earth's damps) had burst these wombs, O then
     Would Nature thither turn the pores of earth
     And make her spurt from open veins a juice
     Like unto milk; even as a woman now
     Is filled, at child-bearing, with the sweet milk,
     Because all that swift stream of aliment
     Is thither turned unto the mother-breasts.
     There earth would furnish to the children food;
     Warmth was their swaddling cloth, the grass their bed
     Abounding in soft down. Earth's newness then
     Would rouse no dour spells of the bitter cold,
     Nor extreme heats nor winds of mighty powers—
     For all things grow and gather strength through time
     In like proportions; and then earth was young.

     Wherefore, again, again, how merited
     Is that adopted name of Earth—The Mother!—
     Since she herself begat the human race,
     And at one well-nigh fixed time brought forth
     Each breast that ranges raving round about
     Upon the mighty mountains and all birds
     Aerial with many a varied shape.
     But, lo, because her bearing years must end,
     She ceased, like to a woman worn by eld.
     For lapsing aeons change the nature of
     The whole wide world, and all things needs must take
     One status after other, nor aught persists
     Forever like itself. All things depart;
     Nature she changeth all, compelleth all
     To transformation. Lo, this moulders down,
     A-slack with weary eld, and that, again,
     Prospers in glory, issuing from contempt.
     In suchwise, then, the lapsing aeons change
     The nature of the whole wide world, and earth
     Taketh one status after other. And what
     She bore of old, she now can bear no longer,
     And what she never bore, she can to-day.

     In those days also the telluric world
     Strove to beget the monsters that upsprung
     With their astounding visages and limbs—
     The Man-woman—a thing betwixt the twain,
     Yet neither, and from either sex remote—
     Some gruesome Boggles orphaned of the feet,
     Some widowed of the hands, dumb Horrors too
     Without a mouth, or blind Ones of no eye,
     Or Bulks all shackled by their legs and arms
     Cleaving unto the body fore and aft,
     Thuswise, that never could they do or go,
     Nor shun disaster, nor take the good they would.
     And other prodigies and monsters earth
     Was then begetting of this sort—in vain,
     Since Nature banned with horror their increase,
     And powerless were they to reach unto
     The coveted flower of fair maturity,
     Or to find aliment, or to intertwine
     In works of Venus. For we see there must
     Concur in life conditions manifold,
     If life is ever by begetting life
     To forge the generations one by one:
     First, foods must be; and, next, a path whereby
     The seeds of impregnation in the frame
     May ooze, released from the members all;
     Last, the possession of those instruments
     Whereby the male with female can unite,
     The one with other in mutual ravishments.

     And in the ages after monsters died,
     Perforce there perished many a stock, unable
     By propagation to forge a progeny.
     For whatsoever creatures thou beholdest
     Breathing the breath of life, the same have been
     Even from their earliest age preserved alive
     By cunning, or by valour, or at least
     By speed of foot or wing. And many a stock
     Remaineth yet, because of use to man,
     And so committed to man's guardianship.
     Valour hath saved alive fierce lion-breeds
     And many another terrorizing race,
     Cunning the foxes, flight the antlered stags.
     Light-sleeping dogs with faithful heart in breast,
     However, and every kind begot from seed
     Of beasts of draft, as, too, the woolly flocks
     And horned cattle, all, my Memmius,
     Have been committed to guardianship of men.
     For anxiously they fled the savage beasts,
     And peace they sought and their abundant foods,
     Obtained with never labours of their own,
     Which we secure to them as fit rewards
     For their good service. But those beasts to whom
     Nature has granted naught of these same things—
     Beasts quite unfit by own free will to thrive
     And vain for any service unto us
     In thanks for which we should permit their kind
     To feed and be in our protection safe—
     Those, of a truth, were wont to be exposed,
     Enshackled in the gruesome bonds of doom,
     As prey and booty for the rest, until
     Nature reduced that stock to utter death.

     But Centaurs ne'er have been, nor can there be
     Creatures of twofold stock and double frame,
     Compact of members alien in kind,
     Yet formed with equal function, equal force
     In every bodily part—a fact thou mayst,
     However dull thy wits, well learn from this:
     The horse, when his three years have rolled away,
     Flowers in his prime of vigour; but the boy
     Not so, for oft even then he gropes in sleep
     After the milky nipples of the breasts,
     An infant still. And later, when at last
     The lusty powers of horses and stout limbs,
     Now weak through lapsing life, do fail with age,
     Lo, only then doth youth with flowering years
     Begin for boys, and clothe their ruddy cheeks
     With the soft down. So never deem, percase,
     That from a man and from the seed of horse,
     The beast of draft, can Centaurs be composed
     Or e'er exist alive, nor Scyllas be—
     The half-fish bodies girdled with mad dogs—
     Nor others of this sort, in whom we mark
     Members discordant each with each; for ne'er
     At one same time they reach their flower of age
     Or gain and lose full vigour of their frame,
     And never burn with one same lust of love,
     And never in their habits they agree,
     Nor find the same foods equally delightsome—
     Sooth, as one oft may see the bearded goats
     Batten upon the hemlock which to man
     Is violent poison. Once again, since flame
     Is wont to scorch and burn the tawny bulks
     Of the great lions as much as other kinds
     Of flesh and blood existing in the lands,
     How could it be that she, Chimaera lone,
     With triple body—fore, a lion she;
     And aft, a dragon; and betwixt, a goat—
     Might at the mouth from out the body belch
     Infuriate flame? Wherefore, the man who feigns
     Such beings could have been engendered
     When earth was new and the young sky was fresh
     (Basing his empty argument on new)
     May babble with like reason many whims
     Into our ears: he'll say, perhaps, that then
     Rivers of gold through every landscape flowed,
     That trees were wont with precious stones to flower,
     Or that in those far aeons man was born
     With such gigantic length and lift of limbs
     As to be able, based upon his feet,
     Deep oceans to bestride or with his hands
     To whirl the firmament around his head.
     For though in earth were many seeds of things
     In the old time when this telluric world
     First poured the breeds of animals abroad,
     Still that is nothing of a sign that then
     Such hybrid creatures could have been begot
     And limbs of all beasts heterogeneous
     Have been together knit; because, indeed,
     The divers kinds of grasses and the grains
     And the delightsome trees—which even now
     Spring up abounding from within the earth—
     Can still ne'er be begotten with their stems
     Begrafted into one; but each sole thing
     Proceeds according to its proper wont
     And all conserve their own distinctions based
     In nature's fixed decree.

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