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Ovid — Pythagoras on Change

Metamorphoses, Book 15, lines 176–272

‘Since I’ve embarked upon the mighty ocean of the mind
and spread full sail to catch the wind, hear this:
in all the world nothing endures. Everything flows.
All things are fashioned as mere passing forms
and, like a river, time itself glides on in constant motion;
neither stream nor fleeting hour can halt its onward course.
Wave presses wave and, as one wave is forced
by that behind, and forces that in front,
so time both flees and follows and is always new.
What was before is now left in the past
and what before was not has come to be
and every living moment is original.

You see how nights, once spent, tend toward dawn;
the brilliance of day succeeds the dark.
At midnight, when the weary world’s at rest,
the colour of the sky is not the same
as when bright Lucifer, the morning star,
rides out astride his snow-white horse;
and when Aurora, herald of the dawn,
in preparation for the rising sun,
has stained the eastern sky, it’s different again.
At morning, Phoebus’s round shield itself is red,
arising from beneath the earth,
and red again at evening when it sinks.
But at the zenith it is shining white
because the upper air’s of purer stuff,
far from the earth’s contagious influence.
Nor has Diana, goddess of the night,
a constant form; for in her waxing phase
she’s less today than she will be tomorrow;
greater than tomorrow as she wanes.

The year takes on four guises — don’t you see? —
just like our lives. In spring, it’s fresh and delicate
and juicy with new life. It’s like a child.
Its greenery is young and blooming
and although it yet lacks toughness and solidity
it fills the farmers’ minds with joyful hope.
Then everything’s in blossom, and the fertile fields
put on a dazzling display of brightly coloured flowers,
but their foliage is fragile still.
When spring is over and the year has passed to summer,
it is sturdy, like a powerful young man.
No time is more robust than this,
is richer, warmer or more bountiful.
Then autumn comes; its youthful vigour is no more;
it’s ripe and mellow, at the midway point
between the days of youth and age,
its temples showing sprinkled hints of grey.
At last the winter comes, a shivering old man,
unsteady on his feet. He’s lost his hair
or, if he has some still, it’s turned to white.

And our own bodies undergo relentless change:
what we have been and what we are today
we will not be tomorrow.
There was a time when, nothing more than seeds,
our parents’ fondest hope, we sheltered in our mother’s belly.
But then nature’s cunning handiwork,
unwilling that our bodies should stay hidden,
cramped inside a swollen womb,
evicted us into the open air.
Brought out into the light, the helpless infant lies.
But soon it lifts itself on all four limbs
and gets about as if it were a little animal.
Now, slowly, trembling on weak knees, it stands erect.
It leans on any solid object for support.
Next, swift and strong, it passes through the span of youth
and when its middle life is also spent
it glides downhill along the path of age.
Age undermines, demolishes the strength of former years.
Milon the athlete, now grown old, inspects his arms,
a solid mass of muscle once, like Hercules’;
he weeps to see them hanging there, all limp and flabby.
Helen at her looking glass regards her wrinkles,
signs of age, and weeps; in tears she asks herself
why, twice, her beauty should have caused her ravishment.
Devouring time and envious age, between you
you destroy all things; you gnaw them slowly with your teeth,
at last consuming them in lingering death!

Even those things we call the elements
do not endure. If you will listen,
I’ll reveal the changes they pass through.
The everlasting universe contains
four life-producing substances.
Two of these are heavy: earth and water.
They will sink under their own weight.
The other two are air and fire (which is purer still than air).
These have no weight and they’ll fly upwards if they’re not held down.
Although the elements are each distinct in space,
they nonetheless derive from and resolve into each other.
Earth becomes clear liquid when it loses its solidity;
liquid, further rarefied, turns into wind and air;
air, already very thin and losing weight again,
leaps up to heaven’s highest regions, where is fire.
Then back the elements descend, their order now reversed.
Fire, thickened, passes to close air; air changes into water;
water, forced into a denser mass, solidifies to earth.

Nothing retains a constant outward form,
for nature, which renews all things,
makes new forms by unmaking others.
Nothing in the whole wide world — believe me! — perishes;
things alter and regenerate their state.
What we call being born is to begin
to take another form from that we took before;
to die is but to cease to take that form.
This part of us, perhaps, may be transferred to that
and that to this
but, overall, the total stays the same.

Here’s my conviction: nothing we can see
remains the same for very long.
Just as the golden age has given way to iron,
so places change their physical condition.
I myself have seen once solid land turned into sea
and new land made where once was water.
Seashells you can find far from the ocean
and an ancient anchor was discovered on a mountain top.
Waters, flowing down, have made a valley
where was once a level plain;
floods have washed great hills into the sea.
A place which was a marsh is now dry sand
and ground which suffered thirst becomes a boggy pond.
The force of nature starts new fountains here, there shuts them off,
and rivers, stirred by quakes from deep within the earth,
spring forth, or dry up and subside.’

Ovid — Metamorphoses, Book 15, lines 176–272

‘Et quoniam magno feror aequore plenaque ventis
vela dedi: nihil est toto, quod perstet, in orbe.
cuncta fluunt, omnisque vagans formatur imago;
ipsa quoque adsiduo labuntur tempora motu,
non secus ac flumen; neque enim consistere flumen               
nec levis hora potest: sed ut unda inpellitur unda
urgeturque prior veniente urgetque priorem,
tempora sic fugiunt pariter pariterque sequuntur
et nova sunt semper; nam quod fuit ante, relictum est,
fitque, quod haut fuerat, momentaque cuncta novantur.               

Cernis et emensas in lucem tendere noctes,
et iubar hoc nitidum nigrae succedere nocti;
nec color est idem caelo, cum lassa quiete
cuncta iacent media cumque albo Lucifer exit
clarus equo rursusque alius, cum praevia lucis               
tradendum Phoebo Pallantias inficit orbem.
ipse dei clipeus, terra cum tollitur ima,
mane rubet, terraque rubet cum conditur ima,
candidus in summo est, melior natura quod illic
aetheris est terraeque procul contagia fugit.               
nec par aut eadem nocturnae forma Dianae
esse potest umquam semperque hodierna sequente,
si crescit, minor est, maior, si contrahit orbem.

Quid? non in species succedere quattuor annum
adspicis, aetatis peragentem imitamina nostrae?               
nam tener et lactens puerique simillimus aevo
vere novo est: tunc herba recens et roboris expers
turget et insolida est et spe delectat agrestes;
omnia tunc florent, florumque coloribus almus
ludit ager, neque adhuc virtus in frondibus ulla est.               
transit in aestatem post ver robustior annus
fitque valens iuvenis: neque enim robustior aetas
ulla nec uberior, nec quae magis ardeat, ulla est.
excipit autumnus, posito fervore iuventae
maturus mitisque inter iuvenemque senemque               
temperie medius, sparsus quoque tempora canis.
inde senilis hiems tremulo venit horrida passu,
aut spoliata suos, aut, quos habet, alba capillos.

Nostra quoque ipsorum semper requieque sine ulla
corpora vertuntur, nec quod fuimusve sumusve,               
cras erimus; fuit illa dies, qua semina tantum
spesque hominum primae matris latitavimus alvo:
artifices natura manus admovit et angi
corpora visceribus distentae condita matris
noluit eque domo vacuas emisit in auras.              
editus in lucem iacuit sine viribus infans;
mox quadrupes rituque tulit sua membra ferarum,
paulatimque tremens et nondum poplite firmo
constitit adiutis aliquo conamine nervis.
inde valens veloxque fuit spatiumque iuventae               
transit et emeritis medii quoque temporis annis
labitur occiduae per iter declive senectae.
subruit haec aevi demoliturque prioris
robora: fletque Milon senior, cum spectat inanes
illos, qui fuerant solidorum mole tororum               
Herculeis similes, fluidos pendere lacertos;
flet quoque, ut in speculo rugas adspexit aniles,
Tyndaris et secum, cur sit bis rapta, requirit.
tempus edax rerum, tuque, invidiosa vetustas,
omnia destruitis vitiataque dentibus aevi               
paulatim lenta consumitis omnia morte!

Haec quoque non perstant, quae nos elementa vocamus,
quasque vices peragant, animos adhibete: docebo.
quattuor aeternus genitalia corpora mundus
continet; ex illis duo sunt onerosa suoque              
pondere in inferius, tellus atque unda, feruntur,
et totidem gravitate carent nulloque premente
alta petunt, aer atque aere purior ignis.
quae quamquam spatio distent, tamen omnia fiunt
ex ipsis et in ipsa cadunt: resolutaque tellus               
in liquidas rarescit aquas, tenuatus in auras
aeraque umor abit, dempto quoque pondere rursus
in superos aer tenuissimus emicat ignes;
inde retro redeunt, idemque retexitur ordo.
ignis enim densum spissatus in aera transit,               
hic in aquas, tellus glomerata cogitur unda.

Nec species sua cuique manet, rerumque novatrix
ex aliis alias reparat natura figuras:
nec perit in toto quicquam, mihi credite, mundo,
sed variat faciemque novat, nascique vocatur               
incipere esse aliud, quam quod fuit ante, morique
desinere illud idem. cum sint huc forsitan illa,
haec translata illuc, summa tamen omnia constant.

Nil equidem durare diu sub imagine eadem
crediderim: sic ad ferrum venistis ab auro,               
saecula, sic totiens versa est fortuna locorum.
vidi ego, quod fuerat quondam solidissima tellus,
esse fretum, vidi factas ex aequore terras;
et procul a pelago conchae iacuere marinae,
et vetus inventa est in montibus ancora summis;              
quodque fuit campus, vallem decursus aquarum
fecit, et eluvie mons est deductus in aequor,
eque paludosa siccis humus aret harenis,
quaeque sitim tulerant, stagnata paludibus ument.
hic fontes natura novos emisit, at illic               
clausit, et aut imis commota tremoribus orbis
flumina prosiliunt, aut exsiccata residunt.’