Of the Nature of Things

by Lucretius

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Book VI - The Plague Athens

'Twas such a manner of disease, 'twas such
     Mortal miasma in Cecropian lands
     Whilom reduced the plains to dead men's bones,
     Unpeopled the highways, drained of citizens
     The Athenian town. For coming from afar,
     Rising in lands of Aegypt, traversing
     Reaches of air and floating fields of foam,
     At last on all Pandion's folk it swooped;
     Whereat by troops unto disease and death
     Were they o'er-given. At first, they'd bear about
     A skull on fire with heat, and eyeballs twain
     Red with suffusion of blank glare. Their throats,
     Black on the inside, sweated oozy blood;
     And the walled pathway of the voice of man
     Was clogged with ulcers; and the very tongue,
     The mind's interpreter, would trickle gore,
     Weakened by torments, tardy, rough to touch.
     Next when that Influence of bane had chocked,
     Down through the throat, the breast, and streamed had
     E'en into sullen heart of those sick folk,
     Then, verily, all the fences of man's life
     Began to topple. From the mouth the breath
     Would roll a noisome stink, as stink to heaven
     Rotting cadavers flung unburied out.
     And, lo, thereafter, all the body's strength
     And every power of mind would languish, now
     In very doorway of destruction.
     And anxious anguish and ululation (mixed
     With many a groan) companioned alway
     The intolerable torments. Night and day,
     Recurrent spasms of vomiting would rack
     Alway their thews and members, breaking down
     With sheer exhaustion men already spent.
     And yet on no one's body couldst thou mark
     The skin with o'er-much heat to burn aglow,
     But rather the body unto touch of hands
     Would offer a warmish feeling, and thereby
     Show red all over, with ulcers, so to say,
     Inbranded, like the "sacred fires" o'erspread
     Along the members. The inward parts of men,
     In truth, would blaze unto the very bones;
     A flame, like flame in furnaces, would blaze
     Within the stomach. Nor couldst aught apply
     Unto their members light enough and thin
     For shift of aid—but coolness and a breeze
     Ever and ever. Some would plunge those limbs
     On fire with bane into the icy streams,
     Hurling the body naked into the waves;
     Many would headlong fling them deeply down
     The water-pits, tumbling with eager mouth
     Already agape. The insatiable thirst
     That whelmed their parched bodies, lo, would make
     A goodly shower seem like to scanty drops.
     Respite of torment was there none. Their frames
     Forspent lay prone. With silent lips of fear
     Would Medicine mumble low, the while she saw
     So many a time men roll their eyeballs round,
     Staring wide-open, unvisited of sleep,
     The heralds of old death. And in those months
     Was given many another sign of death:
     The intellect of mind by sorrow and dread
     Deranged, the sad brow, the countenance
     Fierce and delirious, the tormented ears
     Beset with ringings, the breath quick and short
     Or huge and intermittent, soaking sweat
     A-glisten on neck, the spittle in fine gouts
     Tainted with colour of crocus and so salt,
     The cough scarce wheezing through the rattling throat.
     Aye, and the sinews in the fingered hands
     Were sure to contract, and sure the jointed frame
     To shiver, and up from feet the cold to mount
     Inch after inch: and toward the supreme hour
     At last the pinched nostrils, nose's tip
     A very point, eyes sunken, temples hollow,
     Skin cold and hard, the shuddering grimace,
     The pulled and puffy flesh above the brows!—
     O not long after would their frames lie prone
     In rigid death. And by about the eighth
     Resplendent light of sun, or at the most
     On the ninth flaming of his flambeau, they
     Would render up the life. If any then
     Had 'scaped the doom of that destruction, yet
     Him there awaited in the after days
     A wasting and a death from ulcers vile
     And black discharges of the belly, or else
     Through the clogged nostrils would there ooze along
     Much fouled blood, oft with an aching head:
     Hither would stream a man's whole strength and flesh.
     And whoso had survived that virulent flow
     Of the vile blood, yet into thews of him
     And into his joints and very genitals
     Would pass the old disease. And some there were,
     Dreading the doorways of destruction
     So much, lived on, deprived by the knife
     Of the male member; not a few, though lopped
     Of hands and feet, would yet persist in life,
     And some there were who lost their eyeballs: O
     So fierce a fear of death had fallen on them!
     And some, besides, were by oblivion
     Of all things seized, that even themselves they knew
     No longer. And though corpse on corpse lay piled
     Unburied on ground, the race of birds and beasts
     Would or spring back, scurrying to escape
     The virulent stench, or, if they'd tasted there,
     Would languish in approaching death. But yet
     Hardly at all during those many suns
     Appeared a fowl, nor from the woods went forth
     The sullen generations of wild beasts—
     They languished with disease and died and died.
     In chief, the faithful dogs, in all the streets
     Outstretched, would yield their breath distressfully
     For so that Influence of bane would twist
     Life from their members. Nor was found one sure
     And universal principle of cure:
     For what to one had given the power to take
     The vital winds of air into his mouth,
     And to gaze upward at the vaults of sky,
     The same to others was their death and doom.

     In those affairs, O awfullest of all,
     O pitiable most was this, was this:
     Whoso once saw himself in that disease
     Entangled, ay, as damned unto death,
     Would lie in wanhope, with a sullen heart,
     Would, in fore-vision of his funeral,
     Give up the ghost, O then and there. For, lo,
     At no time did they cease one from another
     To catch contagion of the greedy plague,—
     As though but woolly flocks and horned herds;
     And this in chief would heap the dead on dead:
     For who forbore to look to their own sick,
     O these (too eager of life, of death afeard)
     Would then, soon after, slaughtering Neglect
     Visit with vengeance of evil death and base—
     Themselves deserted and forlorn of help.
     But who had stayed at hand would perish there
     By that contagion and the toil which then
     A sense of honour and the pleading voice
     Of weary watchers, mixed with voice of wail
     Of dying folk, forced them to undergo.
     This kind of death each nobler soul would meet.
     The funerals, uncompanioned, forsaken,
     Like rivals contended to be hurried through.

     And men contending to ensepulchre
     Pile upon pile the throng of their own dead:
     And weary with woe and weeping wandered home;
     And then the most would take to bed from grief.
     Nor could be found not one, whom nor disease
     Nor death, nor woe had not in those dread times

     By now the shepherds and neatherds all,
     Yea, even the sturdy guiders of curved ploughs,
     Began to sicken, and their bodies would lie
     Huddled within back-corners of their huts,
     Delivered by squalor and disease to death.
     O often and often couldst thou then have seen
     On lifeless children lifeless parents prone,
     Or offspring on their fathers', mothers' corpse
     Yielding the life. And into the city poured
     O not in least part from the countryside
     That tribulation, which the peasantry
     Sick, sick, brought thither, thronging from every quarter,
     Plague-stricken mob. All places would they crowd,
     All buildings too; whereby the more would death
     Up-pile a-heap the folk so crammed in town.
     Ah, many a body thirst had dragged and rolled
     Along the highways there was lying strewn
     Besides Silenus-headed water-fountains,—
     The life-breath choked from that too dear desire
     Of pleasant waters. Ah, everywhere along
     The open places of the populace,
     And along the highways, O thou mightest see
     Of many a half-dead body the sagged limbs,
     Rough with squalor, wrapped around with rags,
     Perish from very nastiness, with naught
     But skin upon the bones, well-nigh already
     Buried—in ulcers vile and obscene filth.
     All holy temples, too, of deities
     Had Death becrammed with the carcasses;
     And stood each fane of the Celestial Ones
     Laden with stark cadavers everywhere—
     Places which warders of the shrines had crowded
     With many a guest. For now no longer men
     Did mightily esteem the old Divine,
     The worship of the gods: the woe at hand
     Did over-master. Nor in the city then
     Remained those rites of sepulture, with which
     That pious folk had evermore been wont
     To buried be. For it was wildered all
     In wild alarms, and each and every one
     With sullen sorrow would bury his own dead,
     As present shift allowed. And sudden stress
     And poverty to many an awful act
     Impelled; and with a monstrous screaming they
     Would, on the frames of alien funeral pyres,
     Place their own kin, and thrust the torch beneath
     Oft brawling with much bloodshed round about
     Rather than quit dead bodies loved in life.

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