Lucretius the Diver


Things worn out by the lapse of ages tend
Toward the reef, that motley wrecking crew
Of living polyps who, to get ahead,
Climb ruthlessly all over their own dead,
But facts like those Lucretius never knew:
He merely meant we can’t long buck the trend
That winds up hard against a watershed.
Horace had godly names for every breeze.
Ovid himself was stiff with sacred stuff.
Virgil talked turkey just once, about bees.
Of ancient wits Lucretius alone,
Without recourse to supernatural guff,
Uncannily forecast the modern tone –
Viewing the world as miracle enough.
Imagine him in scuba gear, instead
Of whatever kit a Roman poet wore –
To find his fruitful symbol for the grave
Not just inevitable but alive
Would surely suit him down to the sea floor.
Suspended before such a flower bed
He’d bubble with delight beneath the wave.
The reef, a daughter, and the sea, its mother,
In a long, white-lipped rage with one another
Would shout above him as he hung in space
And saw his intuition had been right:
Under a windswept canopy of lace,
Even down there in that froth-filtered light,
The World of Things is clearly the one place –
Death lives, life dies, and no gods intervene.
It’s all so obvious, would be his thought:
But then, it always was, at least to him,
And why the rest of them were quite so dim
On that point is perhaps a theme we ought
To tackle, realizing it could mean
Our chances going in are pretty slim
Of drawing comfort from a Golden Age
So lethally haphazard no one sane
Could contemplate the play of chance was all
There was to life. That took the featherbrain
Lucretius seemed to them, and not the sage
He seems to us, who flinch from his disdain
As he stares seaward at the restless wall
Of ruined waves, the spray that falls like rain.

from The Book of My Enemy (Picador, 2003), © Clive James 2003; Recording from The Artificial Horizon: Poems from the Book of My Enemy, Vol 2 (Macmillan Digital Audio, 2008) used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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