Reading Rolfe Humphries’s very fine translation of Lucretius’s ancient epic of physics, philosophy, and Epicurean wisdom, De Rerum Natura (The Way Things Are in Humphries’s rendering), written in the first century BC. In addition to the poet’s didactic and imaginative survey of atomism, the senses, death, sex, the development of the universe, and pestilence — the work ends with an unforgettable evocation of plague-ridden Athens — The Way Things Are exudes a bracing familiarity with the apprehensions of our own age of anxiety. To wit:
Men seem to feel some burden on their souls,
Some heavy weariness; could they but know
Its origin, its cause, they’d never live
The way we see most of them do, each one
Ignorant of what he wants, except a change,
Some other place to lay his burden down.
One leaves his house to take a stroll outdoors
Because the household’s such a deadly bore,
And then comes back, in six or seven minutes-
The street is every bit as bad. Now what?
He has his horses hitched up for him, drives,
Like a man going to a fire, full-speed,
Off to his country-place, and when he gets there
Is scarcely on the driveway, when he yawns,
Falls heavily asleep, oblivious
To everything, or promptly turns around,
Whips back to town again. So each man flees
Himself, or tries to, but of course that pest
Clings to him all the more ungraciously.
The Way Things Are is published by Indiana University Press.