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"... [captures] the relentless urgency of Lucretius’ didacticism, his passionate conviction and proselytizing fervour.’ —The Classical Review
Indiana University Press
Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered oceans, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence—all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.
For you that sweet artificer, the earth,
Submits her flowers, and for you the deep
Of ocean smiles, and the calm heaven shines
With shoreless light.
Ah, goddess, when the spring
Makes clear its daytime, and a warmer wind
Stirs from the west, a procreative air,
High in the sky the happy-hearted birds,
Responsive to your coming, call and cry,
The cattle, tame no longer, swim across
The rush of river-torrents, or skip and bound
In joyous meadows; where your brightness leads,
They follow, gladly taken in the drive,
The urge, of love to come. So, on you move
Over the seas and mountains, over streams
Whose ways are fierce, over the greening leas,
Over the leafy tenements of birds,
So moving that in all the ardor burns
For generation and their kind's increase,
Since you alone control the way things are.
Since without you no thing has ever come
Into the radiant boundaries of light,
Since without you nothing is ever glad,
And nothing ever lovable, I need,
I need you with me, goddess, in the poem
I try to write here, on The Way Things Are.
This book will be for Memmius, a man
Your blessing has endowed with excellence
All ways, and always. Therefore, all the more,
Give to our book a radiance, a grace,
Brightness and candor; over land and sea,
Meanwhile, to soldiery's fierce duty bring
A slumber, an implacable repose—
Since you alone can help with tranquil peace
The human race, and Mars, the governor
Of war's fierce duty, more than once has come,
Gentled by love's eternal wound, to you,
Forgetful of his office, head bent back,
No more the roughneck, gazing up at you,
Gazing and gaping, all agog for love,
His every breath dependent on your lips.
Ah, goddess, pour yourself around him, bend
With all your body's holiness, above
His supine meekness, drown him in persuasion,
Imploring, for the Romans, blessed peace.
For this is something that I cannot do
With mind untroubled, in this troubled time,
Nor can a son of Memmius' noble house
Falter at such a crisis, or betray
The common weal.
For what ensues, my friend,
Listen with ears attentive and a mind
Cleared of anxiety; hear the reasoned truth
And do not without understanding treat
My gifts with scorn, my gifts, disposed for you
With loyal industry. I shall begin
With a discussion of the scheme of things
As it regards the heaven and powers above,
Then I shall state the origin of things,
The seeds from which nature creates all things,
Bids them increase and multiply; in turn,
How she resolves them to their elements
After their course is run. These things we call
Matter, the life-motes, or the seeds of things,
(If we must find, in schools, a name for them),
Firstlings, we well might say, since every thing
Follows from these beginnings.
When human life, all too conspicuous,
Lay foully grovelling on earth, weighed down
By grim Religion looming from the skies,
Horribly threatening mortal men, a man,
A Greek, first raised his mortal eyes
Bravely against this menace. No report
Of gods, no lightning-flash, no thunder-peal
Made this man cower, but drove him all the more
With passionate manliness of mind and will
To be the first to spring the tight-barred gates
Of Nature's hold asunder. So his force,
His vital force of mind, a conqueror
Beyond the flaming ramparts of the world
Explored the vast immensities of space
With wit and wisdom, and came back to us
Triumphant, bringing news of what can be
And what cannot, limits and boundaries,
The borderline, the bench mark, set forever.
Religion, so, is trampled underfoot,
And by his victory we reach the stars.
I fear that, in these matters, you may think
You're entering upon a path of crime,
The A B C's of godlessness. Not so.
The opposite is true. Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness.
Recall how once at Aulis, when the Greeks,
Those chosen peers, the very first of men,
Defiled, with a girl's blood, the altar-stone
Sacred to Artemis. The princess stood
Wearing the sacred fillets or a veil,
And sensed but could not see the king her father,
Agamemnon, standing sorrowful
Beside the altar, and the priests near-by
Hiding the knife-blade, and the folk in tears
At what they saw. She knelt, she spoke no word,
She was afraid, poor thing. Much good it did her
At such a time to have been the very first
To give the king that other title, Father!
Raised by men's hands and trembling she was led
Toward the altar, not to join in song
After the ritual of sacrifice
To the bright god of marriage. No; she fell
A victim by the sacrificing stroke
Her father gave, to shed her virgin blood—
Not the way virgins shed it—but in death,
To bring the fleet a happy exodus!
A mighty counselor, Religion stood
With all that power for wickedness.
Yourself, some time or other, feel like turning
Away from my instruction, terrified
By priestly rant. How many fantasies
They can invent to overturn your sense
Of logic, muddle your estates by fear!
And rightly so, for if we ever saw
A limit to our troubles, we'd be strong,
Resisters of religion, rant and cant,
But as things are, we have no chance at all
With all their everlasting punishments
Waiting us after death.
We do not know
The nature of the soul: is it something born
By, of, and for itself? Does it find its way
Into our selves when we are being born,
To die when we do? Or does it, after our death,
Tour Hell's tremendous emptiness and shadow?
Or does it, by divine commandment, find
Abode in lower beasts, as we are told
By Roman Ennius, the first of us
Chapleted with the green of Helicon,
Bright-shining through the realms of Italy?
But still, he also tells us, in his verse,
Immortal as it is, that Acheron
Has reaches where no souls or bodies dwell,
But only phantoms, pale in wondrous wise,
And that from there immortal Homer's image
(So Ennius says) transferred itself to him,
And wept, and talked about all kinds of things.
So, we had better have some principle
In our discussion of celestial ways,
Under what system both the sun and moon
Wheel in their courses, and what impulse moves
Events on earth; and, more than that, we must
See that our principle is shrewd and sound
When we consider what the spirit is,
Wherein the nature of the mind consists,
What fantasy it is that strikes our wits
With terror in our waking hours or sickness
Or in sleep's sepulcher, so that we see,
Or think we do, and hear, most audible,
Those whose dead bones earth holds in her enfolding.
I am well aware how very hard it is
To bring to light by means of Latin verse
The dark discoveries of the Greeks. I know
New terms must be invented, since our tongue
Is poor, and this material is new.
But I'm persuaded by your excellence
And by our friendship's dear expectancy
To suffer any toil, to keep my watch
Through the still nights, seeking the words, the song
Whereby to bring your mind that splendid light
By which you can see darkly hidden things.
Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine's rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation. So
Our starting-point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods' will. Ah, but men's minds are frightened
Because they see, on earth and in the heaven,
Many events whose causes are to them
Impossible to fix; so, they suppose,
The gods' will is the reason. As for us,
Once we have seen that Nothing comes from nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no "gods' will" about it.
Now, if things come from nothing, all things could
Produce all kinds of things; nothing would need
Seed of its own. Men would burst out of the sea,
And fish and birds from earth, and, wild or tame,
All kinds of beasts, of dubious origin,
Inhabit deserts and the greener fields,
Nor would the same trees bear, in constancy,
The same fruit always, but, as like as not,
Oranges would appear on apple-boughs.
If things were not produced after their kind,
Each from its own determined particles,
How could we trace the substance to the source?
But now, since all created things have come
From their own definite kinds of seed, they move
From their beginnings toward the shores of light
Out of their primal motes. Impossible
That all things issue every whence; each kind
Of substance has its own inherent power,
Its own capacity. Does not the rose
Blossom in spring, the wheat come ripe in summer,
The grape burst forth at autumn's urge? There must be
A proper meeting of their seeds in time
For us to see them at maturity
Grown by their season's favor, living earth
Bringing them safely to the shores of light.
But if they came from nothing, they might spring
To birth at any unpropitious time,—
Who could predict?—since there would be no seeds
Whose charatcer rules out untimely union.
Thirdly, if things could come from nothing, time
Would not be of the essence, for their growth,
Their ripening to full maturity.
Babies would be young men, in the blink of an eye,
And full-grown forests come leaping out from the ground.
Ridiculous! We know that all things grow
Little by little, as indeed they must
From their essential nature.
A further point—
At certain times of year earth needs the rain
For happy harvest, and both beasts and men
Need nature's bounty for their lives' increase,
A mutual dependence, of the sort
That words need letters for. Do not believe
In any world without its A B C's.
Moreover, why could nature not bring forth
Men huge enough to wade the deepest oceans,
Split mountains with their hands, and outlive time?
The answer is, that limits have been set
Fixing the bounds of all material,
Its character, its growth. And, finally,
Since we observe that cultivated soil
Excels untended land, gives better yield,
It must be obvious that earth contains
Life-giving particles we bring to birth
In breaking clods, in turning surface under,
If there were no such particles, our toil
Would be ridiculous, for things would grow
Better and better of their own accord,
But—nothing comes from nothing. This we must
Acknowledge, all things have to have the seed
Which gives them impulse toward the gentle air.
Our second axiom is this, that nature
Resolves each object to its basic atoms
But does not ever utterly destroy it.
If anything could perish absolutely,
It might be suddenly taken from our sight,
There would be no need of any force to smash it,
Disrupt and shatter all its fastenings,
But as it is, since everything coheres
Because of its eternal seed, its essence,
Until some force is strong enough to break it
By violent impact, or to penetrate
Its void interstices, and so dissolve it,
Nature permits no visible destruction
Besides, if time destroys
Completely what it banishes from sight
With the procession of the passing years,
Out of what source does Venus bring again
The race of animals, each after its kind,
To the light of life? and how, being restored,
Is each thing fed, sustained and given increase
By our miraculous contriving earth?
And what supplies the seas, the native springs,
The far-off rivers? And what feeds the stars?
By rights, if things can perish, infinite time
And ages past should have consumed them all,
But if, throughout this history, there have been
Renewals, and the sum of things can stay,
Beyond all doubt, there must be things possessed
Of an immortal essence. Nothing can
Disintegrate entirely into nothing.
An indiscriminate common violence
Would finish everything, except for this—
Matter is indestructible; it holds
All things together, though the fastenings
Vary in tightness. Otherwise, a touch,
The merest touch, would be a cause of death,
A force sufficient to dissolve in air
Textures of mortal substance. But here's the fact—
The elements are held, are bound together
In different degrees, but the basic stuff
Is indestructible, so things remain
Intact, unharmed, until a force is found
Proportionate to their texture, to effect
Reversion to their primal elements,
But never to complete annihilation.
Finally, when the fathering air has poured
His rainfall into mother earth, the drops
Seem to have gone, but look!—bright harvests rise,
Boughs on the trees bring greenery and growth
And are weighed down by fruit, by which, in turn,
Our race is fed, and so are animals,
And we see happy cities, flowering
With children, and we hear the music rise
As new birds sing all through the leafy woods.
Fat cows lie down to rest their weary sides
In welcome pastures, and the milk drops white
Out of distended udders; and the calves
Romp over the tender grass, or wobble, drunk
On that pure vintage, more than strong enough
For any such experience as theirs.
To sum it up: no visible object dies;
Nature from one thing brings another forth,
And out of death new life is born.
I have shown that things can never be created
From nothing, and that no created thing
Can ever be called back to nothingness.
You may, perhaps, begin to doubt my lessons
Since atoms are too small to see, but listen,—
You must admit that there are other bodies
Existing but invisible.
Beats ocean with its violence, overwhelms
Great ships, sends the clouds flying, or at times
Sweeps over land with a tornado's fury,
Strewing the plains with trees, and beating mountains
With forest-shattering blasts; its roaring howls
Aloud and wild, and even its mutter threatens.
Surely, most surely, the winds are unseen bodies,
Sweepers of earth and sea and sky, and whirlers
Of sudden hurricane. They flow, they flood,
They breed destruction just the way a river
Of gentle nature swells to a great deluge
By the increase of rainfall from the mountains,
Commingling in ruin broken brush and trees.
Strong bridges cannot hold the sudden fury
Of water coming on; the river, darkened
By the great rain, dashes against the piles
With mighty force, and with a mighty sound
Roars on, destroying; under its current it rollsv Tremendous rocks; it sweeps away whatever
Resists its surge. So the wind's blast must also
Be a strong river, a fall of devastation
Wherever it goes, shoving some things before it,
Attacking over and over, in eddy and whirl,
Having its way, seizing and carrying things.
I tell you again and again, the winds are bodies
Invisible, they are rivals of great rivers
In what they do and are, though rivers, of course,
Are something we can see.
And what of odors?
We sense them, but we never see them coming
Toward our nostrils; we do not look at heat,
Apprehend cold with our eyes, we are not accustomed
To witness voices. Yet all these things, by nature,
Must be material, since they strike our senses.
Nothing can touch or be touched, excepting matter.
Then, too—if you spread your clothes along a shore
Where waves are breaking, they'll get wet, but they'll dry
If you hang them in the sun. Have we ever watched
The moisture settle in, or the way it flees
In warmth? It must disperse, must be fragmented
In particles too fine for our eyes to see.
Also, as years go through their revolutions
A ring wears thin under the finger's touch,
The drip of water hollows the stone, the plough
With its curving iron slowly wastes away
In the field it works; the footsteps of the people
We see wear out the paving-stones of rock
In the city streets, and at the city gates
Bronze statues show their right hands, thinner and thinner
From the touch of passers-by, through years of greeting.
We see these things worn down, diminished, only
After long lapse of time; nature denies us
The sight we need for any given moment.
And finally: what nature adds to things,
Little by little, forcing them to growth,
No marshalled tenseness of our gaze can see.
When things corrode with leanness and old age,
When tiny salt eats into great sea cliffs,
You cannot see the process of the loss
At any given moment. Nature's work
Is done by means of particles unseen.
But not all bodily matter is tight-packed
By nature's law, for there's a void in things.
This knowledge will be useful to you often,
Will keep you from the path of doubt, from asking
Too many questions on the sum of things,
From losing confidence in what I tell you.
By void I mean vacant and empty space,
Something you cannot touch. Were this not so,
Things could not move. The property of matter,
Its most outstanding trait, is to stand firm,
Its office to oppose; and everything
Would always be immovable, since matter
Never gives way. But with our eyes we see
Many things moving, in their wondrous ways,
Their marvelous means, through sea and land and sky.
Were there no void, they would not only lack
This restlessness of motion altogether,
But more than that—they never could have been
Quickened to life from that tight-packed quiescence.
Besides, however solid things appear,
Let me show you proof that even these are porous:
In a cave of rocks the seep of moisture trickles
And the whole place weeps its fat blobs of tears.
Food is dispersed all through a creature's body;
Young trees grow tall and yield their fruit in season,
Drawing their sustenance from the lowest roots
Through trunks and branches; voices penetrate
Walls and closed doors; the seep of stiffening cold
Permeates bone. Phenomena like these
Would be impossible but for empty spaces
Where particles can pass. And finally,
Why do we see that some things outweigh others
Which are every bit as large? If a ball of wool
Has the same substance as a ball of lead,
(Assuming the dimensions are the same)
They both should weigh as much, since matter tends
To exercise a constant downward pressure.
But void lacks weight. So, when two objects bulk
The same, but one is obviously lighter,
It clearly states its greater share of void,
And, on the other hand, the heavier thing
Proclaims it has less void and greater substance.
Certainly, therefore, what we're looking for
By logical deduction, does exist,
Is mixed with solid, and we call it void.
I must anticipate a little here
Lest you succumb to some folks' foolishness.
They claim that water opens a clear path
To the nosing fish, because the latter leave
Spaces behind them into which the waves
Can flow together again, and others things,
Likewise, can move, in reciprocity
Exchanging places, though every place is taken.
What nonsense! What direction can the fish
Find for their progress, unless the water yields,
And to what place will the water be enabled
To find its way again, if fish can't move?
All bodies, then, must lack the power of movement,
Or you must grant that there's a void in things
From which each one derives its motive impulse.
Finally, if you see two good-sized bodies
Bounce off each other quickly, after contact,
Then surely air must occupy the space
Which they have left, and though it rushes in
With utmost speed, it cannot all at once
Fill the whole area, but "First things first!",
"One at a time!", till all the space is filled.
Someone may think that bodies leap apart
Because the air that lies between them thickens.
That's a mistake: for that there'd have to be
A void, not there before, and a filled-up space
That formerly was void. In no such way
Can atmosphere condense; it must have void.
For all your "Yes, but—" dragging of the heels,
You'll have to come at last to this admission,—
Void does exist. I could mention many things,
Pile up a heap of argument-building proof,
But why? You have some sense, and these few hints
Ought to suffice. You can find out for yourself.
As mountain-ranging hounds smell out a lair,
An animal's covert, hidden under brush,
Once they are certain of its track, so you,
All by yourself, in matters such as these,
Can see one thing from another, find your way
To the dark burrows and bring truth to light.
But if you lag or shrink, even a little,
Memmius, this I promise you for sure:
My honeyed tongue from my rich heart will pour
Such inexhaustible potions from its sources
That slow old age, I fear, will penetrate
Our limbs, loosen our life-bonds, and the deluge
Of my argument in verse still flood your ears
Over one item only.
Now to repeat:
The nature of everything is dual—matter
And void; or particles and space, wherein
The former rest or move. We have our senses
To tell us matter exists. Denying this,
We cannot, searching after hidden things,
Find any base of reason whatsoever.
Next, if there is no place, or space, our so-called void,
Bodies could nowhere be, and nowhere move.
I proved this not so long ago, remember.
Also, there's nothing else which you can call
Distinct alike from matter and from void,
Some kind of, maybe, third alternative.
No. What exists is something in itself,
Susceptible to touch, however frail,
However tiny, and capable of growth,
Of increase after its fashion. But a something
Touch cannot reach, a thing that cannot keep
Another thing from simply passing through it,
This kind of thing must be our so-called void.
Besides, if something has its own existence,
It will either act itself, or, being passive,
Will suffer other things to act upon it,
Or yield a space where things can be, or happen,
But nothing without substance has the power
To act, or to be acted on, and nothing
Can proffer space except the void and empty.
Therefore, except for void and substance, nothing,
No third alternative, no other nature
Can possibly exist in the sum of things,
Perceptible to any of our senses
Or apprehended by the reasoning mind.
Excerpted from Lucretius The Way Things Are by Rolfe Humphries. Copyright © 1968 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A Foreword by the Translator
Text of the Poem
Synopses and Notes
Indiana University Press
Posted November 19, 2011
I must have read some of this as an undergraduate, but all was long forgotten -- after reading the Swerve, I wanted to get a little deeper into Epicurianism, thus the Humphries De Rerum. My classics professor daughter (Ph.D., Princeton, 2008, sorry, can't help bragging) recommended this translation.
Anyone disturbed by the march of aggressive ignorance expressed as religious fundamentalism should be encouraged by the wisdom derived from this classical philosophy, and anyone bemused (and who isn't?) by the discovery in the last century of the subatomic universe and quantum mechanics will be heartened by the amazing derivation of what appears to be the fundamental structure of matter through deductive logic.
The take away from a few hours with Lucretius is a reaffirmation of why freedom of thought and expression is an age-old value which continues to repay the effort of sustaining it.
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