From Book III of De Rerum Natura of Titus Lucretius Carus
translated by David R. Slavitt
And how do you imagine that Nature would answer the more
extreme complaints she gets from those who are old and feeble,
rich in years and yet crying all the more loudly that death
is staring them in the face? She’d reply, “Ungrateful churl,
stop your ridiculous tears! You have had more than your share
of life’s empty pleasures and now at the end, you complain? 840
You want what you can’t have, and what you have had you do not
appreciate. Your many decades you’ve taken for granted.
And now that Death stands beside you, holding the open door,
you don’t want to leave the party. At your age, you act like a baby!
Pretend to be a grown-up. Be dignified, if you can!”
And there, too, she’d be right, for the old order passes
to make way for the new that will now be created afresh.
Tartarus’ pit is a dream, a myth. You don’t go there.
For the matter of which you are made, there’s a need here in this world
that the next generations may come into being and grow and thrive. 850
None of us owns his life, but rather we’re all renters
with only a brief leasehold. Those generations before us
suffered, but we do not suffer their pains. Nonetheless,
we can learn from them that they all have passed away,
as we shall, too. Only look into Nature’s mirror and see
how the world is. Not gloomy. Not horrible. But peaceful,
as our long sleep shall be when the time for it has arrived.
Those terrible things the poets describe in the underworld
all exist here, in this life, where wretched men may suffer
Tantalus’ famous torments, with that rock looming above him 860
to terrify him. That fear is what we have here in this life,
and the fear of the gods whose oppression, with or without good reason,
like that huge rock overhead, may fall at any moment.
In the real world, this one, Tityos need not feel dread of vultures
gnawing at his liver, for the atoms of his body
are scattered about and spread all over the golden globe.
He cannot feel pain nor provide any grisly bird food.
It is only here with the living, that Tityos is torn
by metaphorical birds, as he suffers in love or in doubt
or the anguish of some fateful decision he fears to make. 870
And Sisyphus, too, is here in this world for all to see,
eager for power’s symbols, always plotting and scheming,
smiling, and shaking hands, the candidate always trying
and always defeated. What is that pointless life he leads
but the most arduous toil, pushing a rock up a hill,
and then, when it and his hopes are nearing the top, it rolls down
to the plain below where he must begin all over again?
Where, after all, do you think these poets get their ideas?
How many of us work hard to satisfy their ungrateful
minds’ endless cravings for all the sweet things of life? 880
No matter how much we have, are we ever satisfied?
We are the Danaids, endlessly pouring the sweet spring water
into our trick-shop urns with holes in the bottoms and sides
that we know perfectly well can never be filled, but we
seem to be unaware and we scurry and labor forever.
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