Monday, April 12, 2010

"O pitiable most was this..."

As I was writing yesterday's post at Turn Outward, I thought about the grim final passage of De rerum natura, which describes the plague of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Lucretius preached rational detachment but he certainly knew how to conjure a horrifying scene. The lines that stay with me, though, are these--not gruesome, but so poignant in their depiction of the human struggle against invincible death:

In those affairs, O awfullest of all,
O pitiable most was this, was this:
Whoso once saw himself in that disease
Entangled, ay, as damned unto death,
Would lie in wanhope, with a sullen heart,
Would, in fore-vision of his funeral,
Give up the ghost, O then and there. For, lo,
At no time did they cease one from another
To catch contagion of the greedy plague,—
As though but woolly flocks and horned herds;
And this in chief would heap the dead on dead:
For who forbore to look to their own sick,
O these (too eager of life, of death afeard)
Would then, soon after, slaughtering Neglect
Visit with vengeance of evil death and base—
Themselves deserted and forlorn of help.
But who had stayed at hand would perish there
By that contagion and the toil which then
A sense of honour and the pleading voice
Of weary watchers, mixed with voice of wail
Of dying folk, forced them to undergo.
This kind of death each nobler soul would meet.
The funerals, uncompanioned, forsaken,
Like rivals contended to be hurried through.

From Book VI, De rerum natura (On the nature of things)

In Ictu Oculi, Juan de Valdés Leal, 1670-72

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