Sunday Poem

From the greatest science poem ever written, Lucretius’ The Nature of Things. The first stanza sets up the second, Lucretius’ rationale for doing, if you’ll forgive me the anachronism, science.

Sooner of later, you will seek to break away from me,
Won over by doomsayer-prophets. They can, certainly
Conjure up for you enough of nightmares to capsize
Life’s order, and churn all your fortunes with anxieties.
No wonder. For if men saw that there was an end in sight
To trials and tribulations, they would find the power to fight
Against the superstitions and the threats of priests. But now
They have no power to resist, no way to reason how,
For after death there looms the dread of punishment for the whole
Of eternity, since we don’t know the nature of the soul:
Is the soul born? Or does it enter us at our first breath?
And does it die with us, and is it broken down at death?
Or does it haunt the murk of Orcus and his vasty halls?
Does it slither by some magic into other animals? –
So Ennius declares, the first among us to bring down
From fair Mount Helicon an evergreen and leafy crown,
Thus making his name famous throughout all of Italy;
Yet even so, he sets forth in his deathless poetry
That realms of Acheron exist – there really is a Hell –
And there we neither in the flesh nor in the spirit dwell
But, rather, something wraithlike of us lingers, wan and weird.
And it is from these same infernal regions there appeared
The shade of never-fading Homer, who, the poet sings,
Began to shed salt tears and to unfold the Nature of Things.

Therefore we must consider well celestial happenings,
And by what principle the sun and moon run their courses,
And all phenomena upon the earth, and governing forces.
And then especially, we must nose into, with sharp wits,
What makes up the soul, and what the nature of it is;
What do we meet when we’re awake, delirious with fever,
That terrifies the mind, or when we’re sepulchred in slumber,
So that we think we see and hear such persons, face to face,
Who have encountered death, and whose bones lie in Earth’s embrace?

Translated by A.E. Stallings, Penguin Classics (2007)

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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