From Book III of De Rerum Natura of Titus Lucretius Carus
translated by David R. Slavitt
Or worse and more fantastic, he resents that he is mortal
and was born only to die. The plain truth of the matter 780
he will not admit is that he will not be there to look on,
wring his hands, shed tears, and invite the tears of others.
He worries about being mauled by the jaws of savage beasts,
but why is this better than being placed on a hot fire
and cooked to ashes, or even packed in honey and buried
on a marble slab or crushed beneath six feet of earth?
Or he thinks of the life he is leaving and how he will miss the kisses
his wife and his children give him when he gets home in the evening,
thrilling his heart with their sweetness. And his nice house! And his money!
To be robbed of all that? “Poor man! Poor man!” he says. 790
What he forgets is that by the same token he’ll be
relieved of all his earthly cravings, appetites, lusts,
and fears, and he will be finally freed of the sources of all
human misery, reaching a grand and lovely indifference.
In the tranquil sleep of death he will lie at last, excused
from all the troubles we know in this vale of tears, while we,
who have survived him, will weep what tears of grief he may
have deserved as his body turns to ash on the blazing pyre.
Ours is the sadness that time can never entirely heal—
although we, too, could inquire why we mourn the departed 800
whose lot is better than ours. and pine in extravagant sorrow.
You’ve been, no doubt, at those banquets where men in garlands get up,
raise their goblets, and spout convivial nonsense bemoaning
how sweet life is, but short, and how such moments as this
will soon be gone, how tempus surely does fugit. . . The whole
routine! But do you suppose that after death what you’ll want
is wine? Or canapés? Or bowls of fruit and garlands,
for goodness’ sake? What you will not want is this world,
or life, or even yourself. With body and mind asleep
in that everlasting slumber, no craving at all can touch you. 810
You know how it is when you wake at some loud noise in the night
and it takes a moment or two for the atoms of mind to gather
together. Now ask yourself how short the distance must be,
for they are all still in your body! But after death, they are scattered
all over the universe. You need not fear to be wakened,
and death, therefore, can’t threaten. You will not be rudely roused
to the business of life again after that terminal stop.
Nature herself could offer her justified correction,
asking, “What is the trouble? Why do you sorrow at death?
Have you enjoyed your life, and gathered its many blessings 820
into the Danaids’ sieve and been left in the end with nothing?
Why not, like a guest at a banquet, fed to satiety, leave
gracefully, with thanks, and go to your rest in peace?
Or, if your life has been plagued by poverty, ill-luck,
injustice, the scorn of your neighbors, why are you asking for more?
What reason have you to think it ever will get any better?
Ought you not to welcome the end to life and its bitter
trials? This is what there is! I have no way to improve
your plight or that of mankind! Is your body failing you yet?
If not, it probably will. The years will wear out your limbs, 830
your sight will grow dim, and your hearing decrease. Go on and outlive
all your friends and loved ones! Live, forever! But this
is what that life will be, and has always been.” What answer
can you make to Nature then, but to nod in sad agreement?
Note to our readers: This translation will soon be published by the University of California. The numbers in it represent the numbers corresponding to the translation, not the original Latin.
Also, you may notice subtle differences within the text with regard to spacing and alignment. This text does not offer an exact replica of the print, due to issues related to relative screen pixels. We hope that you appreciate the translation and our attempt to preserve the text in electronic form.*
* The Romans were not adept with digital pixels.
Per Contra Poetry - Fall 2006