Of the Nature of Things

by Lucretius

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Book VI - Proem

'Twas Athens first, the glorious in name,
     That whilom gave to hapless sons of men
     The sheaves of harvest, and re-ordered life,
     And decreed laws; and she the first that gave
     Life its sweet solaces, when she begat
     A man of heart so wise, who whilom poured
     All wisdom forth from his truth-speaking mouth;
     The glory of whom, though dead, is yet to-day,
     Because of those discoveries divine
     Renowned of old, exalted to the sky.
     For when saw he that well-nigh everything
     Which needs of man most urgently require
     Was ready to hand for mortals, and that life,
     As far as might be, was established safe,
     That men were lords in riches, honour, praise,
     And eminent in goodly fame of sons,
     And that they yet, O yet, within the home,
     Still had the anxious heart which vexed life
     Unpausingly with torments of the mind,
     And raved perforce with angry plaints, then he,
     Then he, the master, did perceive that 'twas
     The vessel itself which worked the bane, and all,
     However wholesome, which from here or there
     Was gathered into it, was by that bane
     Spoilt from within,—in part, because he saw
     The vessel so cracked and leaky that nowise
     'T could ever be filled to brim; in part because
     He marked how it polluted with foul taste
     Whate'er it got within itself. So he,
     The master, then by his truth-speaking words,
     Purged the breasts of men, and set the bounds
     Of lust and terror, and exhibited
     The supreme good whither we all endeavour,
     And showed the path whereby we might arrive
     Thereunto by a little cross-cut straight,
     And what of ills in all affairs of mortals
     Upsprang and flitted deviously about
     (Whether by chance or force), since nature thus
     Had destined; and from out what gates a man
     Should sally to each combat. And he proved
     That mostly vainly doth the human race
     Roll in its bosom the grim waves of care.
     For just as children tremble and fear all
     In the viewless dark, so even we at times
     Dread in the light so many things that be
     No whit more fearsome than what children feign,
     Shuddering, will be upon them in the dark.
     This terror then, this darkness of the mind,
     Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
     Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
     But only nature's aspect and her law.
     Wherefore the more will I go on to weave
     In verses this my undertaken task.

     And since I've taught thee that the world's great vaults
     Are mortal and that sky is fashioned
     Of frame e'en born in time, and whatsoe'er
     Therein go on and must perforce go on

     The most I have unravelled; what remains
     Do thou take in, besides; since once for all
     To climb into that chariot' renowned

     Of winds arise; and they appeased are
     So that all things again...

     Which were, are changed now, with fury stilled;
     All other movements through the earth and sky
     Which mortals gaze upon (O anxious oft
     In quaking thoughts!), and which abase their minds
     With dread of deities and press them crushed
     Down to the earth, because their ignorance
     Of cosmic causes forces them to yield
     All things unto the empery of gods
     And to concede the kingly rule to them.
     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.
     Wherefore the more are they borne wandering on
     By blindfold reason. And, Memmius, unless
     From out thy mind thou spuest all of this
     And casteth far from thee all thoughts which be
     Unworthy gods and alien to their peace,
     Then often will the holy majesties
     Of the high gods be harmful unto thee,
     As by thy thought degraded,—not, indeed,
     That essence supreme of gods could be by this
     So outraged as in wrath to thirst to seek
     Revenges keen; but even because thyself
     Thou plaguest with the notion that the gods,
     Even they, the Calm Ones in serene repose,
     Do roll the mighty waves of wrath on wrath;
     Nor wilt thou enter with a serene breast
     Shrines of the gods; nor wilt thou able be
     In tranquil peace of mind to take and know
     Those images which from their holy bodies
     Are carried into intellects of men,
     As the announcers of their form divine.
     What sort of life will follow after this
     'Tis thine to see. But that afar from us
     Veriest reason may drive such life away,
     Much yet remains to be embellished yet
     In polished verses, albeit hath issued forth
     So much from me already; lo, there is
     The law and aspect of the sky to be
     By reason grasped; there are the tempest times
     And the bright lightnings to be hymned now—
     Even what they do and from what cause soe'er
     They're borne along—that thou mayst tremble not,
     Marking off regions of prophetic skies
     For auguries, O foolishly distraught
     Even as to whence the flying flame hath come,
     Or to which half of heaven it turns, or how
     Through walled places it hath wound its way,
     Or, after proving its dominion there,
     How it hath speeded forth from thence amain—
     Whereof nowise the causes do men know,
     And think divinities are working there.
     Do thou, Calliope, ingenious Muse,
     Solace of mortals and delight of gods,
     Point out the course before me, as I race
     On to the white line of the utmost goal,
     That I may get with signal praise the crown,
     With thee my guide!

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