Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Erasmus on Old Age

Erasmus (1466-1536), "Poem on Old Age," lines 7-53 (tr. Clarence H. Miller):
But then no medicines can stave off or drive away hideous old age, that monstrous disease. Indeed, she rises up suddenly to drink up the juices of the body and blunt the powers of the mind, surrounded on all sides by a host of afflictions, through which she snatches away one by one and wears down all the benefits which growing up brought with it: beauty, posture, colouring, the part of the mind which remembers, understanding, eyesight, sleep, strength, enthusiasm. She pinches the little flame which is the source of our life and dries up the moisture which nourishes it. She robs us of the vital spirits, of blood and body, of laughter, wit, charm. In a word, bit by bit she steals the whole man away from himself and finally leaves behind nothing of what he was except a name and an empty inscription, such as we see everywhere in the epitaphs carved on marble tombs. I ask you, should we call her old age or rather death long drawn out?

The Fates are envious and enormously malicious: they choose to give immense speed to the thinning thread of our declining time of life and to make it glide toward us on swift wings, while they make the thread of flourishing youth slide away with such untoward and headlong speed that before we are really aware of its advantages they have fled away, leaving us behind, and before we fully realize that we are alive we are suddenly enfeebled and cease to live. Yet the swift stag and the chattering crow live for so many centuries with full vigour, but man alone, after three and a half decades, and those hardly lived out at all, is thenceworth worn out and deprived of bodily strength by withered old age. Nor is that enough, but before his fleeting years have finished the fifth decade, old age does not hesitate to assail the immortal part of a man, the part descended from the heavens; even this he boldly challenges and has no fear of assaulting the sacred sinews of his inner nature — if we give credence to the esteemed Aristotle.

                              Teterrima porro
      Senecta, morbus ingens,
Nullis arcerive potest pellive medelis
      Quin derepente oborta      10
Corporis epotet succos animique vigorem
      Hebetet, simul trecentis
Hinc atque hinc stipata malis; quibus omnia carptim
      Vellitque deteritque
Commoda quae secum subolescens vexerit aetas:      15
      Formam, statum, colorem,
Partem animi memorem cum pectore, lumina, somnos,
      Vires, alacritatem,
Autorem vitae igniculum decerpit, et huius
      Nutricium liquorem.      20
Vitales adimit flatus, cum sanguine corpus,
      Risus, iocos, lepores.
Denique totum hominem paulatim surripit ipsi,
      Neque de priore tandem
Praeterquam nomen titulumque relinquit inanem,      25
      Cuiusmodi tuemur
Passim marmoreis insculpta vocabula bustis.
      Utrum haec senecta, quaeso,
An mors lenta magis dicenda est? Invida fata et
      Impendio maligna!      30
Ut quae deteriora labantis stamina vitae
      Pernicitate tanta
Accelerare velint, rapidisque allabier alis,
      At floridam iuventam
Usque adeo male praecipiti decurrere filo      35
      Ut illius priusquam
Cognita sat bona sint iam nos fugitiva relinquant,
      Et citius atque nosmet
Plane vivere senserimus, iam vivere fracti
      Repente desinamus.      40
At cervi volucres et cornix garrula vivunt
      Tot saeculis vigentque,
Uni porro homini post septima protinus idque
      Vixdum peracta lustra
Corporeum robur cariosa senecta fatigat.      45
      Neque id satis, sed ante
Quam decimum lustrum volitans absolverit aetas
      Tentare non veretur
Immortalem hominis ductamque ex aethere partem,
      Et hanc lacessit audax,      50
Nec timet ingenii sacros incessere nervos,
      Sua si fides probato
Constat Aristoteli.

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