Verse > John Dryden > Poems
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John Dryden (1631–1700).  The Poems of John Dryden.  1913.
 
Translations
The Latter Part of the Third Book of Lucretius; against the Fear of Death
 
WHAT has this Bugbear Death to frighten Man,
If Souls can die, as well as Bodies can?
For, as before our Birth we felt no Pain,
When Punique arms infested Land and Main,
When Heaven and Earth were in confusion hurl’d,        5
For the debated Empire of the World,
Which aw’d with dreadful expectation lay,
Sure to be Slaves, uncertain who shou’d sway:
So, when our mortal frame shall be disjoyn’d,
The lifeless Lump uncoupled from the mind,        10
From sense of grief and pain we shall be free;
We shall not feel, because we shall not Be.
Though Earth in Seas, and Seas in Heav’n were lost,
We shou’d not move, we only shou’d be tost.
Nay, ev’n suppose when we have suffer’d Fate,        15
The Soul cou’d feel, in her divided state,
What’s that to us? for we are only we
While Souls and Bodies in one frame agree.
Nay, tho’ our Atoms shou’d revolve by chance,
And matter leape into the former dance;        20
Tho’ time our life and motion cou’d restore,
And make our Bodies what they were before,
What gain to us wou’d all this bustle bring?
The new-made Man wou’d be another thing;
When once an interrupting pause is made,        25
That individual Being is decay’d.
We, who are dead and gone, shall bear no part
In all the pleasures, nor shall feel the smart,
Which to that other Mortal shall accrew,
Whom, of our Matter Time shall mould anew.        30
For backward if you look, on that long space
Of Ages past, and view the changing face
Of Matter, tost and variously combin’d
In sundry shapes, ’tis easie for the mind
From thence t’ infer, that Seeds of things have been        35
In the same order as they now are seen:
Which yet our dark remembrance cannot trace,
Because a pause of Life, a gaping space,
Has come betwixt, where memory lies dead,
And all the wandring motions from the sense are fled.        40
For whosoe’re shall in misfortunes live,
Must Be, when those misfortunes shall arrive;
And since the Man who Is not, feels not woe,
(For death exempts him and wards off the blow,
Which we, the living, only feel and bear)        45
What is there left for us in Death to fear?
When once that pause of life has come between,
’Tis just the same as we had never been.
And therefore if a Man bemoan his lot,
That after death his mouldring limbs shall rot,        50
Or flames, or jaws, of Beasts devour his Mass,
Know, he’s an unsincere, unthinking Ass.
A secret Sting remains within his mind,
The fool is to his own cast offals kind.
He boasts no sense can after death remain;        55
Yet makes himself a part of life again;
As if some other He could feel the pain.
If, while he live, this Thought molest his head,
What Wolf or Vulture shall devour me dead,
He wasts his days in idle grief, nor can        60
Distinguish ’twixt the Body and the Man;
But thinks himself can still himself survive:
And what when dead he feels not, feels alive.
Then he repines that he was born to die,
Nor knows in death there is no other He,        65
No living He remains his grief to vent,
And o’re his senseless Carcass to lament.
If after death ’tis painful to be torn
By Birds and Beasts, then why not so to burn,
Or drench’d in floods of honey to be soak’d,        70
Imbalm’d to be at once preserv’d and choak’d;
Or on an ayery Mountains top to lie,
Expos’d to cold and Heav’ns inclemency;
Or crowded in a Tomb to be opprest
With Monumental Marble on thy breast?        75
But to be snatch’d from all the household joys,
From thy Chast Wife, and thy dear prattling Boys,
Whose little arms about thy Legs are cast,
And climbing for a Kiss prevent their Mothers hast,
Inspiring secret pleasure thro’ thy Breast,        80
All these shall be no more: Thy Friends opprest
Thy Care and Courage now no more shall free;
Ah Wretch! thou cry’st, ah! miserable me;
One woful day sweeps children, friends, and wife,
And all the brittle blessings of my life!        85
Add one thing more, and all thou say’st is true;
Thy want and wish of them is vanish’d too:
Which, well consider’d, were a quick relief,
To all thy vain imaginary grief.
For thou shalt sleep, and never wake again,        90
And, quitting life, shalt quit thy living pain.
But we, thy friends, shall all those sorrows find,
Which in forgetful death thou leav’st behind;
No time shall dry our tears, nor drive thee from our mind.
The worst that can befall thee, measur’d right,        95
Is a sound slumber, and a long good night.
Yet thus the Fools, that would be thought the Wits,
Disturb their mirth with melancholy fits:
When healths go round, and kindly brimmers flow,
’Till the fresh Garlands on their foreheads glow,        100
They whine, and cry, Let us make haste to live,
Short are the joys that humane Life can give.
Eternal Preachers, that corrupt the draught,
And pall the God, that never thinks, with thought;
Ideots with all that Thought, to whom the worst        105
Of death is want of drink, and endless thirst,
Or any fond desire as vain as these.
For, e’en in sleep, the body, wrapt in ease,
Supinely lies, as in the peaceful grave,
And wanting nothing, nothing can it crave.        110
Were that sound sleep eternal, it were death;
Yet the first Atoms then, the seeds of breath,
Are moving near to sense; we do but shake
And rouze that sense, and straight we are awake.
Then death to us, and deaths anxiety,        115
Is less than nothing, if a less could be.
For then our Atoms, which in order lay,
Are scatter’d from their heap, and puff’d away,
And never can return into their place,
When once the pause of Life has left an empty space.        120
And last, suppose Great Natures Voice shou’d call
To thee, or me, or any of us all,
What dost thou mean, ungrateful Wretch, thou vain,
Thou mortal thing, thus idly to complain,
And sigh and sob, that thou shalt be no more?        125
For if thy Life were pleasant heretofore,
If all the bounteous Blessings, I cou’d give,
Thou hast enjoy’d, if thou hast known to live,
And Pleasure not leak’d through thee like a Seive,
Why dost thou not give thanks as at a plenteous feast,        130
Cram’d to the throat with life, and rise and take thy rest?
But if my blessings thou hast thrown away,
If indigested joys pass’d thro’, and wou’d not stay,
Why dost thou wish for more to squander still?
If Life be grown a load, a real ill,        135
And I wou’d all thy cares and labours end,
Lay down thy burden fool, and know thy friend.
To please thee, I have empti’d all my store,
I can invent, and can supply no more;
But run the round again, the round I ran before.        140
Suppose thou art not broken yet with years,
Yet still the self same Scene of things appears,
And wou’d be ever, coud’st thou ever live;
For Life is still but Life, there’s nothing new to give.
What can we plead against so just a Bill?        145
We stand convicted, and our cause goes ill.
But if a wretch, a man opprest by fate,
Shou’d beg of Nature to prolong his date,
She speaks aloud to him with more disdain,
Be still, thou Martyr fool, thou covetous of pain.        150
But if an old decrepit Sot lament;
What thou (She cryes) who hast outliv’d content!
Dost thou complain, who hast enjoy’d my store?
But this is still th’ effect of wishing more.
Unsatisfy’d with all that Nature brings;        155
Loathing the present, liking absent things;
From hence it comes, thy vain desires, at strife
Within themselves, have tantaliz’d thy Life.
And ghastly death appear’d before thy sight,
E’re thou hadst gorg’d thy Soul & Senses with delight.        160
Now leave those joys, unsuiting to thy age,
To a fresh Comer, and resign the Stage;
Is Nature to be blam’d if thus she chide?
No sure; for ’tis her business to provide
Against this ever-changing Frames decay,        165
New things to come, and old to pass away.
One Being, worn, another Being makes;
Chang’d, but not lost; for Nature gives and takes:
New Matter must be found for things to come,
And these must waste like those, and follow Natures doom.        170
All things, like thee, have time to rise and rot;
And from each other’s ruin are begot:
For Life is not confin’d to him or thee:
’Tis giv’n to all for use, to none for Property.
Consider former Ages past and gone,        175
Whose Circles ended long ere thine begun,
Then tell me Fool, what part in them thou hast?
Thus may’st thou judge the future by the past.
What horrour seest thou in that quiet state,
What Bugbear Dreams to fright thee after Fate?        180
No Ghost, no Gobblins, that still passage keep;
But all is there serene, in that eternal Sleep.
For all the dismal Tales that Poets tell,
Are verify’d on Earth, and not in Hell.
No Tantalus looks up with fearful eye,        185
Or dreads th’ impending Rock to crush him from on high:
But fear of Chance on earth disturbs our easie hours,
Or vain imagin’d wrath of vain imagin’d Pow’rs.
No Tityus torn by Vultures lies in Hell;
Nor cou’d the Lobes of his rank liver swell        190
To that prodigious Mass, for their eternal meal:
Not tho’ his monstrous Bulk had cover’d o’re
Nine spreading Acres, or nine thousand more;
Not tho’ the Globe of earth had been the Gyants floor
Nor in eternal torments could he lie:        195
Nor could his Corps sufficient food supply.
But he’s the Tityus, who by love opprest,
Or Tyrant Passion preying on his breast,
And ever anxious Thoughts, is robb’d of rest.
The Sisiphus is he, whom noise and strife        200
Seduce from all the soft retreats of life,
To vex the Government, disturb the Laws:
Drunk with the Fumes of popular Applause,
He courts the giddy Crowd to make him great,
And sweats & toils in vain, to mount the sovereign Seat.        205
For still to aim at Pow’r and still to fail,
Ever to strive, and never to prevail,
What is it, but, in reason’s true account
To heave the Stone against the rising Mount?
Which urg’d, and labour’d, and forc’d up with pain,        210
Recoils, & rowls impetuous down, and smoaks along the plain.
Then still to treat thy ever-craving mind
With ev’ry blessing, and of ev’ry kind,
Yet never fill thy rav’ning appetite;
Though years and seasons vary thy delight,        215
Yet nothing to be seen of all the store,
But still the Wolf within thee barks for more;
This is the Fables Moral, which they tell
Of fifty foolish Virgins damn’d in Hell
To leaky Vessels, which the Liquor spill;        220
To Vessels of their Sex, which none cou’d ever fill.
As for the Dog, the Furies, and their Snakes
The gloomy Caverns, and the burning Lakes,
And all the vain infernal trumpery,
They neither are, nor were, nor e’re can be.        225
But here on Earth, the guilty have in view
The mighty Pains to mighty mischiefs due;
Racks, Prisons, Poisons, the Tarpeian Rock,
Stripes, Hangmen, Pitch, and suffocating Smoak;
And last, and most, if these were cast behind,        230
Th’ avenging horrour of a Conscious mind,
Whose deadly fear anticipates the blow,
And sees no end of Punishment and woe;
But looks for more, at the last gasp of breath:
This makes an Hell on Earth, and Life a death.        235
Mean time when thoughts of death disturb thy head;
Consider, Ancus great and good is dead;
Ancus thy better far, was born to die;
And thou, dost thou bewail mortality?
So many Monarchs with their mighty State,        240
Who rul’d the World, were over-rul’d by fate.
That haughty King, who lorded o’re the Main,
And whose stupendous Bridge did the wild Waves restrain,
(In vain they foam’d, in vain they threatned wreck,
While his proud Legions march’d upon their back:)        245
Him death, a greater Monarch, overcame;
Nor spar’d his guards the more, for their immortal name.
The Roman chief, the Carthaginian dread,
Scipio, the Thunder Bolt of War, is dead,
And like a common Slave, by fate in triumph led.        250
The Founders of invented Arts are lost;
And Wits who made Eternity their boast.
Where now is Homer, who possest the Throne?
Th’ immortal Work remains, the mortal 1 Author’s gone.
Democritus, perceiving age invade,        255
His Body weakn’d, and his mind decay’d,
Obey’d the summons with a cheerful face;
Made hast to welcom death, and met him half the race.
That stroke ev’n Epicurus cou’d not bar,
Though he in Wit surpass’d Mankind, as far        260
As does the midday Sun the midnight Star.
And thou, dost thou disdain to yield thy breath,
Whose very Life is little more than Death?
More than one half by Lazy sleep possest;
And when awake, thy Soul but nods at best,        265
Day-Dreams and sickly thoughts revolving in thy breast.
Eternal troubles haunt thy anxious mind,
Whose cause and cure thou never hop’st to find;
But still uncertain, with thyself at strife,
Thou wander’st in the Labyrinth of Life.        270
O! if the foolish race of man, who find
A weight of cares still pressing on their mind,
Cou’d find as well the cause of this unrest,
And all this burden lodg’d within the breast;
Sure they wou’d change their course, nor live as now,        275
Uncertain what to wish or what to vow.
Uneasie both in Countrey and in Town,
They search a place to lay their burden down.
One, restless in his Palace, walks abroad,
And vainly thinks to leave behind the load:        280
But straight returns; for he’s as restless there:
And finds there’s no relief in open Air.
Another to his Villa wou’d retire,
And spurs as hard as if it were on fire
No sooner enter’d at his Country door,        285
But he begins to stretch, and yawn, and snore;
Or seeks the City which he left before.
Thus every man o’re works his weary Will,
To shun himself, and to shake off his ill:
The shaking Fit returns, and hangs upon him still.        290
No prospect of repose, nor hope of ease;
The Wretch is ignorant of his disease;
Which known wou’d all his fruitless trouble spare;
For he wou’d know the World not worth his care;
Then wou’d he search more deeply for the cause;        295
And study Nature well, and Natures Laws:
For in this moment lies not the debate,
But on our future, fix’d Eternal State;
That never changing state, which all must keep,
Whom Death has doom’d to everlasting sleep.        300
Why are we then so fond of mortal Life,
Beset with dangers, and maintain’d with strife?
A Life, which all our care can never save;
One Fate attends us; and one common Grave.
Besides, we tread but a perpetual round;        305
We ne’re strike out, but beat the former ground,
And the same Maukish joyes in the same track are found.
For still we think an absent blessing best,
Which cloys, and is no blessing when possest;
A new arising wish expells it from the Breast.        310
The Feav’rish thirst of Life increases still;
We call for more and more, and never have our fill;
Yet know not what to-morrow we shall try,
What dregs of life in the last draught may lie:
Nor, by the longest life we can attain,        315
One moment from the length of death we gain;
For all behind belongs to his Eternal reign.
When once the Fates have cut the mortal Thred,
The Man as much to all intents is dead,
Who dyes to day, and will as long be so,        320
As he who dy’d a thousand years ago.
 
Note 1. mortal] By a most absurd error the English editors change this into immortal. [back]
 
 
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