Of the Nature of Things

by Lucretius

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Book V - Proem

O WHO can build with puissant breast a song
     Worthy the majesty of these great finds?
     Or who in words so strong that he can frame
     The fit laudations for deserts of him
     Who left us heritors of such vast prizes,
     By his own breast discovered and sought out?—
     There shall be none, methinks, of mortal stock.
     For if must needs be named for him the name
     Demanded by the now known majesty
     Of these high matters, then a god was he,—
     Hear me, illustrious Memmius—a god;
     Who first and chief found out that plan of life
     Which now is called philosophy, and who
     By cunning craft, out of such mighty waves,
     Out of such mighty darkness, moored life
     In havens so serene, in light so clear.
     Compare those old discoveries divine
     Of others: lo, according to the tale,
     Ceres established for mortality
     The grain, and Bacchus juice of vine-born grape,
     Though life might yet without these things abide,
     Even as report saith now some peoples live.
     But man's well-being was impossible
     Without a breast all free. Wherefore the more
     That man doth justly seem to us a god,
     From whom sweet solaces of life, afar
     Distributed o'er populous domains,
     Now soothe the minds of men. But if thou thinkest
     Labours of Hercules excel the same,
     Much farther from true reasoning thou farest.
     For what could hurt us now that mighty maw
     Of Nemeaean Lion, or what the Boar
     Who bristled in Arcadia? Or, again,
     O what could Cretan Bull, or Hydra, pest
     Of Lerna, fenced with vipers venomous?
     Or what the triple-breasted power of her
     The three-fold Geryon...
     The sojourners in the Stymphalian fens
     So dreadfully offend us, or the Steeds
     Of Thracian Diomedes breathing fire
     From out their nostrils off along the zones
     Bistonian and Ismarian? And the Snake,
     The dread fierce gazer, guardian of the golden
     And gleaming apples of the Hesperides,
     Coiled round the tree-trunk with tremendous bulk,
     O what, again, could he inflict on us
     Along the Atlantic shore and wastes of sea?—
     Where neither one of us approacheth nigh
     Nor no barbarian ventures. And the rest
     Of all those monsters slain, even if alive,
     Unconquered still, what injury could they do?
     None, as I guess. For so the glutted earth
     Swarms even now with savage beasts, even now
     Is filled with anxious terrors through the woods
     And mighty mountains and the forest deeps—
     Quarters 'tis ours in general to avoid.
     But lest the breast be purged, what conflicts then,
     What perils, must bosom, in our own despite!
     O then how great and keen the cares of lust
     That split the man distraught! How great the fears!
     And lo, the pride, grim greed, and wantonness—
     How great the slaughters in their train! and lo,
     Debaucheries and every breed of sloth!
     Therefore that man who subjugated these,
     And from the mind expelled, by words indeed,
     Not arms, O shall it not be seemly him
     To dignify by ranking with the gods?—
     And all the more since he was wont to give,
     Concerning the immortal gods themselves,
     Many pronouncements with a tongue divine,
     And to unfold by his pronouncements all
     The nature of the world.
                                 And walking now
     In his own footprints, I do follow through
     His reasonings, and with pronouncements teach
     The covenant whereby all things are framed,
     How under that covenant they must abide
     Nor ever prevail to abrogate the aeons'
     Inexorable decrees,—how (as we've found),
     In class of mortal objects, o'er all else,
     The mind exists of earth-born frame create
     And impotent unscathed to abide
     Across the mighty aeons, and how come
     In sleep those idol-apparitions,
     That so befool intelligence when we
     Do seem to view a man whom life has left.
     Thus far we've gone; the order of my plan
     Hath brought me now unto the point where I
     Must make report how, too, the universe
     Consists of mortal body, born in time,
     And in what modes that congregated stuff
     Established itself as earth and sky,
     Ocean, and stars, and sun, and ball of moon;
     And then what living creatures rose from out
     The old telluric places, and what ones
     Were never born at all; and in what mode
     The human race began to name its things
     And use the varied speech from man to man;
     And in what modes hath bosomed in their breasts
     That awe of gods, which halloweth in all lands
     Fanes, altars, groves, lakes, idols of the gods.
     Also I shall untangle by what power
     The steersman nature guides the sun's courses,
     And the meanderings of the moon, lest we,
     Percase, should fancy that of own free will
     They circle their perennial courses round,
     Timing their motions for increase of crops
     And living creatures, or lest we should think
     They roll along by any plan of gods.
     For even those men who have learned full well
     That godheads lead a long life free of care,
     If yet meanwhile they wonder by what plan
     Things can go on (and chiefly yon high things
     Observed o'erhead on the ethereal coasts),
     Again are hurried back unto the fears
     Of old religion and adopt again
     Harsh masters, deemed almighty,—wretched men,
     Unwitting what can be and what cannot,
     And by what law to each its scope prescribed,
     Its boundary stone that clings so deep in Time.

     But for the rest,—lest we delay thee here
     Longer by empty promises—behold,
     Before all else, the seas, the lands, the sky:
     O Memmius, their threefold nature, lo,
     Their bodies three, three aspects so unlike,
     Three frames so vast, a single day shall give
     Unto annihilation! Then shall crash
     That massive form and fabric of the world
     Sustained so many aeons! Nor do I
     Fail to perceive how strange and marvellous
     This fact must strike the intellect of man,—
     Annihilation of the sky and earth
     That is to be,—and with what toil of words
     'Tis mine to prove the same; as happens oft
     When once ye offer to man's listening ears
     Something before unheard of, but may not
     Subject it to the view of eyes for him
     Nor put it into hand—the sight and touch,
     Whereby the opened highways of belief
     Lead most directly into human breast
     And regions of intelligence. But yet
     I will speak out. The fact itself, perchance,
     Will force belief in these my words, and thou
     Mayst see, in little time, tremendously
     With risen commotions of the lands all things
     Quaking to pieces—which afar from us
     May she, the steersman Nature, guide: and may
     Reason, O rather than the fact itself,
     Persuade us that all things can be o'erthrown
     And sink with awful-sounding breakage down!

     But ere on this I take a step to utter
     Oracles holier and soundlier based
     Than ever the Pythian pronounced for men
     From out the tripod and the Delphian laurel,
     I will unfold for thee with learned words
     Many a consolation, lest perchance,
     Still bridled by religion, thou suppose
     Lands, sun, and sky, sea, constellations, moon,
     Must dure forever, as of frame divine—
     And so conclude that it is just that those,
     (After the manner of the Giants), should all
     Pay the huge penalties for monstrous crime,
     Who by their reasonings do overshake
     The ramparts of the universe and wish
     There to put out the splendid sun of heaven,
     Branding with mortal talk immortal things—
     Though these same things are even so far removed
     From any touch of deity and seem
     So far unworthy of numbering with the gods,
     That well they may be thought to furnish rather
     A goodly instance of the sort of things
     That lack the living motion, living sense.
     For sure 'tis quite beside the mark to think
     That judgment and the nature of the mind
     In any kind of body can exist—
     Just as in ether can't exist a tree,
     Nor clouds in the salt sea, nor in the fields
     Can fishes live, nor blood in timber be,
     Nor sap in boulders: fixed and arranged
     Where everything may grow and have its place.
     Thus nature of mind cannot arise alone
     Without the body, nor have its being far
     From thews and blood. Yet if 'twere possible?—
     Much rather might this very power of mind
     Be in the head, the shoulders, or the heels,
     And, born in any part soever, yet
     In the same man, in the same vessel abide
     But since within this body even of ours
     Stands fixed and appears arranged sure
     Where soul and mind can each exist and grow,
     Deny we must the more that they can dure
     Outside the body and the breathing form
     In rotting clods of earth, in the sun's fire,
     In water, or in ether's skiey coasts.
     Therefore these things no whit are furnished
     With sense divine, since never can they be
     With life-force quickened.

                            Likewise, thou canst ne'er
     Believe the sacred seats of gods are here
     In any regions of this mundane world;
     Indeed, the nature of the gods, so subtle,
     So far removed from these our senses, scarce
     Is seen even by intelligence of mind.
     And since they've ever eluded touch and thrust
     Of human hands, they cannot reach to grasp
     Aught tangible to us. For what may not
     Itself be touched in turn can never touch.
     Wherefore, besides, also their seats must be
     Unlike these seats of ours,—even subtle too,
     As meet for subtle essence—as I'll prove
     Hereafter unto thee with large discourse.
     Further, to say that for the sake of men
     They willed to prepare this world's magnificence,
     And that 'tis therefore duty and behoof
     To praise the work of gods as worthy praise,
     And that 'tis sacrilege for men to shake
     Ever by any force from out their seats
     What hath been stablished by the Forethought old
     To everlasting for races of mankind,
     And that 'tis sacrilege to assault by words
     And overtopple all from base to beam,—
     Memmius, such notions to concoct and pile,
     Is verily—to dote. Our gratefulness,
     O what emoluments could it confer
     Upon Immortals and upon the Blessed
     That they should take a step to manage aught
     For sake of us? Or what new factor could,
     After so long a time, inveigle them—
     The hitherto reposeful—to desire
     To change their former life? For rather he
     Whom old things chafe seems likely to rejoice
     At new; but one that in fore-passed time
     Hath chanced upon no ill, through goodly years,
     O what could ever enkindle in such an one
     Passion for strange experiment? Or what
     The evil for us, if we had ne'er been born?—
     As though, forsooth, in darkling realms and woe
     Our life were lying till should dawn at last
     The day-spring of creation! Whosoever
     Hath been begotten wills perforce to stay
     In life, so long as fond delight detains;
     But whoso ne'er hath tasted love of life,
     And ne'er was in the count of living things,
     What hurts it him that he was never born?
     Whence, further, first was planted in the gods
     The archetype for gendering the world
     And the fore-notion of what man is like,
     So that they knew and pre-conceived with mind
     Just what they wished to make? Or how were known
     Ever the energies of primal germs,
     And what those germs, by interchange of place,
     Could thus produce, if nature's self had not
     Given example for creating all?
     For in such wise primordials of things,
     Many in many modes, astir by blows
     From immemorial aeons, in motion too
     By their own weights, have evermore been wont
     To be so borne along and in all modes
     To meet together and to try all sorts
     Which, by combining one with other, they
     Are powerful to create, that thus it is
     No marvel now, if they have also fallen
     Into arrangements such, and if they've passed
     Into vibrations such, as those whereby
     This sum of things is carried on to-day
     By fixed renewal. But knew I never what
     The seeds primordial were, yet would I dare
     This to affirm, even from deep judgments based
     Upon the ways and conduct of the skies—
     This to maintain by many a fact besides—
     That in no wise the nature of all things
     For us was fashioned by a power divine—
     So great the faults it stands encumbered with.
     First, mark all regions which are overarched
     By the prodigious reaches of the sky:
     One yawning part thereof the mountain-chains
     And forests of the beasts do have and hold;
     And cliffs, and desert fens, and wastes of sea
     (Which sunder afar the beaches of the lands)
     Possess it merely; and, again, thereof
     Well-nigh two-thirds intolerable heat
     And a perpetual fall of frost doth rob
     From mortal kind. And what is left to till,
     Even that the force of nature would o'errun
     With brambles, did not human force oppose,—
     Long wont for livelihood to groan and sweat
     Over the two-pronged mattock and to cleave
     The soil in twain by pressing on the plough.

     Unless, by the ploughshare turning the fruitful clods
     And kneading the mould, we quicken into birth,
     [The crops] spontaneously could not come up
     Into the free bright air. Even then sometimes,
     When things acquired by the sternest toil
     Are now in leaf, are now in blossom all,
     Either the skiey sun with baneful heats
     Parches, or sudden rains or chilling rime
     Destroys, or flaws of winds with furious whirl
     Torment and twist. Beside these matters, why
     Doth nature feed and foster on land and sea
     The dreadful breed of savage beasts, the foes
     Of the human clan? Why do the seasons bring
     Distempers with them? Wherefore stalks at large
     Death, so untimely? Then, again, the babe,
     Like to the castaway of the raging surf,
     Lies naked on the ground, speechless, in want
     Of every help for life, when nature first
     Hath poured him forth upon the shores of light
     With birth-pangs from within the mother's womb,
     And with a plaintive wail he fills the place,—
     As well befitting one for whom remains
     In life a journey through so many ills.
     But all the flocks and herds and all wild beasts
     Come forth and grow, nor need the little rattles,
     Nor must be treated to the humouring nurse's
     Dear, broken chatter; nor seek they divers clothes
     To suit the changing skies; nor need, in fine,
     Nor arms, nor lofty ramparts, wherewithal
     Their own to guard—because the earth herself
     And nature, artificer of the world, bring forth
     Aboundingly all things for all.

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