Christian Brady translates Titus Lucretius

Selections from De Rerum Natura, The Nature of Things, Book V

EDEN (V. 772 – 877)

This remains:                since throughout the cerulean places of the great world
I have unraveled with reason                 those things which come to be whatever
can so that the varied courses of the sun                     meanderings of the moon
we can know                   what force and cause summons
how they can: perish like stars six feet under                               their light
blocked shadows cover              the unsuspecting lands
just as when they squint their eyes                       now the aperture opens
inspect all places                          bright with brilliant light
now I return to the novelty of the world                           the soft fields   
of earth what in the next litter they had in mind                          at first to
raise to the shores of light         to commit to the uncertain winds

In the beginning                           the family of grasses and green splendor
earth gave around the hills                       through all fields
meadows flickered                        in bloom greening
a great contest                               was given to the trees
to grow through the breezes                   reins loose
just as now feathers                      and first hairs and bristles are
created for limbs of four-leggers                        the frame of
then the new earth                        first raised the grasses bushes
next created                     the mortal generations
many things arose in many ways                            with their own
philosophies couldn’t: animals fell out of the sky
land-lubbers sprung                 from salty lagoons
true: the earth earned the name   
Mother since from the earth     she created all
even now animals mushroom                  from rain-swept
lands curdle      in the sun’s humidity
no less shocking                           if greater more fertile things arose
made adult by a new                   world and sky

In the beginning the family of wings                 a medley of things in flight
left their eggs                 hatched by springtime
just as now cicadas                      abandon their smooth
cocoons instinctively pursuing                           food and life
then the earth gave to you                        the mortal
generations heat and moisture the victors of ploughland
when some place offered itself                            a suitable region
wombs grew                fixed to the earth with roots
when time                dilated them full
infant fish lungs                       fled seeking the air
nature translated                     the earth’s openings
turned them                like horses ships moonpaths

forced sap in her open veins                  to flow
very much like milk just as now                        a woman
after she’s pregnant                   stores within herself sweet
milk which every impulse to feed                     translates to her
breasts the earth           food for boys mist clothing grass a bed
she gave many things                overflowing with soft stubble
like that of a young man’s                       first beard
the novel world was not used to summoning.     harsh cold spells
too long droughts                      winds of great might
all things grow equally                           take their strength at the same time   

The earth earned the name Mother              she made the family
of man and flooded the great mountains                     with every lunatic
animal she filled the sky           with wings
since everything should have an end            for fruitfulness
she stopped just like                  a woman tired in old age
time changes the nature of                     the whole world
one state should take all its parts                       from the last
nor should any thing remain similar to itself                 all things leave return
nature changes all things                           forces them to
shift something rots weak       grows tired with age
something grows up from under                       escapes from hated
circumstances time changes the nature          of the whole world
one state takes all its parts from                        the last
its bears what it could not before                      could bear what it has not before

Many were the miracles                        the world tried to
make every face and limb       a wonder:
a woman who’s a man not in between                              or both far
from either some animals missing their feet     some blind
some with all their limbs                                   tangled tucked into their bodies   
they couldn’t: do anything                                 go
anywhere avoid evil               take what they needed
nature reaped them                             the great pruner
they couldn’t: touch the bloom                                        of old age longed
for find food join in the              (austere and lonely) offices of love
for we see many things must happen just                      right in many ways
so that through children we might                     forge a legacy   
first: food then: that fluid starting point                         hidden away like fire in flint
which drips from our arching frames                like sweat blood honey
a woman can be joined with another                  they possess shared bliss
who exchange it between one another

Back then the mass destruction of many generations                              of the living was
unavoidable since they could not through children                                   forge a legacy
everything you see                      feeding on the living air
is there either by lying or courage                       or speed
from the very beginning                          each one his brother’s keeper
many are here pledged to us                   entrusted to our protection by their utility
in the beginning                        the fierce family of lions savage
generations courage protected lying foxes and flight deer
but the light sleeping minds                  of loyal-hearted dogs
every race born of                          pack animal lineage
wool-bearing flocks                       horned herds
all these were pledged                                 to the protection of
mankind eagerly fled    beasts sought peace
multiplied with scarce food                       great labor
things we gave as prizes                             for the sake of their usefulness
those for whom nature                               allotted nothing
who were unable on their own                                to live or to prove to
us any usefulness                        why we should suffer
their family to be fed by our protection                            to be
safe surely these lay as prizes                 profit for others
every one trammeled                by mortal chains
until nature reduced that family                       to extinction

THE MYTH OF YESTERDAY (V. 925 – 1010)    

But that kind of man in the fields                     before was
hardier than you’d expect                      because the hard earth crafted
them with larger          more powerful bones within
built fitted with strong                          muscles in their
flesh the sort not easily             caught fever or cold
not by the novelty of food                       or any bodily illness
for many solar cycles                 twisting round the sky
they traced their lives                in the manner of wide-wandering beasts
no strong someone was                            the tamer of the curved plough

no one knew how:                        to soften the earth with
metal to bury young plants       into the earth up above
to cut down old tree branches with shears                      like my grandfather
because the sun and rain had given                     because the earth had crafted
on her own a gift that                  used to soothe hearts enough
many used to preen one another                           among the acorn-bearing oaks
those arbutes you see now                        in wintertime

growing ripe                       scarlet
then the earth bore                         even more abundantly
heavier so the blooming                newness of the world
gave way too much hardy fare                                                fitting for 
wretched mortals but rivers and fountains were                           calling out          to 
settle thirst just as now waterfalls                                         from great mountains
brightly invoke                              the thirsty clans of beasts
then they made footholds                          in wooded regions of nymphs known
from wanderings                                          where they knew flowing water
washed the slippery wet rocks                               overflowing beyond the brim
wet rocks dripping from above                              from green moss some
which gushes in the floodplains                                            some breaks forth into the fields

Things they did not know:            how to wield fire how to use
pelts how to clothe their bodies                 in the corpses of beasts
made their homes in groves          and mountain caves and woods
buried their dirty bodies                 among the apple trees
driven by the rain                avoiding the pounding wind
how to see the common good          know
customs                            or use laws
each one took                                only what chance gave
learned to live                                on her own

in the woods Love                         joined the bodies of lovers
arranged them either by                           mutual consent
or the violence of the man                        his destructive want
or an exchange: acorns                              strawberries pears

Depending as one does                                on youth friends intelligence sword
they depend on the wonderful virtue                    of their hands and feet
pursuing                          the woodland clans of beasts
with stone slings                           the heavy weight of a club
they vanquished                            many vanished from some in hiding places
caught by the night                      they gave their naked woodland limbs 
like bristling boars                        to the ground
nesting themselves with leaves                           branches
never sought in nightshade                       palewandering
daylight the sun in the fields                     no great cry
but silently they waited                              buried in dream
while the rosy firebrand sun                     raised his eyes to the sky

Ever since they were little                          they saw
sunrise nightfall                              one after the other
never                 miraculous
they did not fear                              everlasting night
more of a consideration than light were                            the clans of beasts
making sleep                   so often hostile to those insomniacs
thrown from their homes they                              fled their stone roofs
at the arrival of a boar or a strong lion                              foaming like a rip curl
they yielded in the dead of night                           their beds
laid with branches                      shivering at their savage guests

Not too much more then                         than now were the mortal
generations departing the sweet lights          of life with tears
when one of them                         was caught 
she provided a still squirming                                meal for beasts slurped through teeth groves and mountains and woods she                                filled with shrieking
seeing living flesh                       buried in a living tomb
and those who saved themselves from                            digestion
holding their trembling hands                               over filthy gashes
begged in terrible tones                            for death
while ulcers robbed them of a savage                                 life
deprived of assistance                            not knowing what their wounds want
not yet               were thousands of boys sent over there
Baghdad Fallujah Mosul Sadr City
now Sarmada Raqqa Palmyra al-Bab Ildib
to their Dunkirks their Cannaes their Birnam Woods
their Children’s Crusade
not yet was one day giving them to destruction                         nor was the mutinous
seaskin dashing the ships                       against the rocks and men
by chance no purpose uselessly                            the sea rose often
raging—like panthers enraged birds                  like lunatic poison
coursing through the veins                    like winds like love—
lightly placing empty threats                as a high roller places
bets the quiet sea’s charm         could not charm anyone
into a costly mistake while                      the waves snickered
the wicked skill of sailing                         lay secret still
then the scarcity of food                          gave weary limbs to death
while now we are drowned in                             an abundance of stuff
those who once poisoned themselves                             unknowingly now
turn their venom on others                   with skill   


After they obtained homes                     and pelts and fire
and women joined to partners                            yielded to one…
(much is to be desired here                                  some clarification on the
hegemony of the union the battles won and lost                     sex is in between the
lines) knew how to see their legacy                    created from themselves
at which point hardy mankind                             began to soften
they cared for their hearths                      since not even now
can they bear the cold on their chilly bodies                    under the vault of heaven
Venus shrunk their strength                 children
easily shattered their parents’ proud                 dispositions with their
cuteness then willing neighbors           began to form friendships
not to harm or                               to be harmed   
they entrusted children and womankind                       into their care
with words and gestures                         they stutteringly signify
that it is right to respect all those                         who are vulnerable
not in every way could                              harmony come to be
a good and great part of humankind                   kept their promises
unbroken might have been destroyed already then
might not have forged a legacy                           through children

Nature forced the varied                         sounds of tongue
to broadcast their usefulness                 minted the names of things
lack of language                             draws boys and girls to gestures
forces them pointing to show                 what’s standing right in front of them
each soul feels the weight                        of itself:
before a young bull’s horns                      are born on his
forehead in anger they attack rivals thrust with them
cubs of leopards                          whelps of lions
with claws and paws they play at fighting                       even then with
bites when scarcely their teeth and nails             have grown
every generation of birds                         we see
trusts in their wings                     seeks featherquaking aid   
but it is ridiculous to then                      extrapolate that somebody
has distributed all the names to things                             taught all
men vocabulary                from the start

Why was this man                         above all others able
to trademark the diverse sounds of language                   to broadcast his voice
and at the same time others are not considered                             able to have done this?
if others did not also                    use their voices
among themselves before                           from where was knowledge of this usefulness
sown like seeds buried like a treasure chest                     from where was the first power given
so that they could know and see in their mind’s eye                                  what they wanted to do
just so one man was not able to force many                 to master the vanquished   

so that they would want to learn                          the names of things
to teach with any logic                               to tell the wind
what work must be done is no easy task                           for they could not allow
they would not bear too long                 for any reason
indecipherable noises of voice                             to thump their ears
uselessly what would be so surprising              in this matter
if the human race in whom                     voice and language
thrives should mark experiences           with diverse sounds
each according to                        a different feeling?
just as the mute flocks                             the generations of beasts
are accustomed to summon                   sounds different and mutable   
when they are afraid or aggrieved                       or when they
swell like firestorms or waves                with joy
surely it’s possible to understand this phenomenon                after some examples

When provoked the soft                           wide mouths
of Molossian hounds growl                      baring hard teeth
their throats tuned far from any other sound                  as they threaten
enraged they howl           fill the world with their voice
or when they try to lick their pups                      with cooing language
toss them                         attacking with their paws and nips
play at devouring gently                            their lips drawn back
fawn over them with another agreement of sound                     yelping   
or when abandoned in the house                          they whine or
crying their downcast bodies                avoid their master’s heavy
hand it seems not so different               from whinnies
when among mares                    one colt of flowering youth
rages struck by the spurs                         of wing-bearing Desire
gives out a neigh to arms                          from flared nostrils
and when elsewise his limbs                    are struck he
whinnies finally                                           the race of flight and wings
vultures                            bone breakers divers
hunting for food and life                           in the waves of the salt sea   
let forth                             certain sounds at certain times
when they vie for food                                when their food fights back
at times they change their hoarse-sounding songs                       as
one in storms                   just as the long lived generations of crows
and murders of ravens                               when they are said to invoke wet weather
rain to call winds          breezes
even if different emotions                          act upon animals
although they are senseless                       they give voice to different sounds
how much more likely is it                          for mortal men to have been able
to designate                    different sounds for different feelings   

CB is shown, before a heavy, dark wooden door set in a white wall. CB has dark hair parted at the side, and a very short dark beard and mustache. CB wears roundrimmed eyeglasses, a grey jacket with notched lapels, a white collared shirt, and a dark grey or black necktie. CB is blowing a sizeable bubble of silver or white chewing gum.

CB Brady is a writer and translator from Hawaii, based in the Bay Area. He writes poetry about dead things, especially languages. He produced a limited-run podcast about the crossroads of classical and American pop culture. He writes for CBR about comics and movies.


Detail from an engraving of a bust of Lucretius; Lucretius has curly hair and beard, thin eyebrows, and large almondshape eyes, in which the pupils are only slightly visible.

An early Christian scholar from the 4th c. CE writes of Lucretius’s life as such: “94 BCE … The poet Titus Lucretius is born. He was later driven mad by a love philtre and, having composed between bouts of insanity several books (which Cicero afterwards corrected), committed suicide at the age of 44.”