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from its own poison, the fierce pestilence
appeared to leap from moulding carcases
of all the brute creation, till it struck
the wretched tillers of the soil, and then
extended its dominion over all
this mighty city.
“Always it began
as if the patient's bowels were scorched with flames;
red blotches on the body next appeared,
and sharp pains in the lungs prevented breath.
The swollen tongue would presently loll out,
rough and discolored from the gaping mouth,
wide-gasping to inhale the noxious air—
and show red throbbing veins. The softest bed.
And richest covering gave to none relief;
but rather, the diseased would bare himself
to cool his burning breast upon the ground,
only to heat the earth—and no relief
returned. And no physician could be found;
for those who ministered among the sick
were first to suffer from the dread disease—
the cruel malady broke out upon
the very ones who offered remedies.
The hallowed art of medicine became
a deadly snare to those who knew it best.
“The only safety was in flight; and those
who were the nearest to the stricken ones,
and who most faithfully observed their wants,
were always first to suffer as their wards.
“And many, certain of approaching death,
indulged their wicked passions—recklessly
abandoned and without the sense of shame,
promiscuously huddled by the wells,
and rivers and cool fountains; but their thirst
no water could assuage, and death alone
was able to extinguish their desire.
Too weak to rise, they die in water they
pollute, while others drink its death.
“A madness seizing on them made their beds
become most irksome to their tortured nerves.
Demented they could not endure the pain,
and leaped insanely forth. Or if too weak,
the wretches rolled their bodies on the ground,
insistent to escape from hated homes—
imagined sources of calamity;
for, since the cause was hidden and unknown,
the horrible locality was blamed.
Suspicion seizes on each frail presence
as proof of what can never be resolved.
“And many half-dead wretches staggered out
on sultry roads as long as they could stand;
and others weeping, stretched out on the ground,
died in convulsions, as their rolling eyes
gazed upwards at the overhanging clouds;
under the sad stars they breathed out their souls.
“And oh, the deep despair that seized on me,
the sovereign of that wretched people! I
was tortured with a passionate desire
to die the same death—And I hated life.
“No matter where my shrinking eyes were turned,
I saw a multitude of gruesome forms
in ghastly attitudes bestrew the ground,
scattered as rotten apples that have dropped
from moving branches, or as acorns thick
around a gnarled oak.
“Lift up your eyes!
Behold that holy temple! unto Jove
long dedicated!—What availed the prayers
of frightened multitudes, or incense burned
on those devoted altars?—In the midst
of his most fervent supplications,
the husband as he pled for his dear wife,
or the fond father for his stricken son,
would suddenly, before a word prevailed,
die clutching at the altars of his Gods,
while holding in his stiffened hand, a spray
of frankincense still waiting for the fire.
How often sacrificial bulls have been
brought to those temples, and while white-robed priest
was pouring offered wine between their horns,
have fallen without waiting for the stroke.
“While I prepared a sacrifice to Jove,
for my behalf, my country and three sons,
the victim, ever moaning dismal sounds,
before a blow was struck, fell suddenly
beside the altar; and his scanty blood
ran thinly from the knives that slaughtered him.
His entrails, wanting all the marks of truth
were so diseased, the warnings of the Gods
could not be read—the baneful malady
had penetrated to the heart of life.
“And I have seen the carcases of men
lie rotting at the sacred temple gates,
or by the very altars, where they fell,
making death odious to the living Gods.
And often I have seen some desperate man
end life by his own halter, and so cheat
by voluntary death his fear of death,
in mad haste to outrun approaching fate.
“The bodies of the dead, indecently
were cast forth, lacking sacred funeral rites
as hitherto the custom. All the gates
were crowded with processions of the dead.
Unburied, they might lie upon the ground,
or else, deserted, on their lofty pyres
with no one to lament their dismal end,
dissolve in their dishonored ashes. All
restraint forgotten, a mad rabble fought
and took possession of the burning pyres,
and even the dead were ravished of their rest.—
And who should mourn them wanting, all the souls
of sons and husbands, and of old and young,
must wander unlamented: and the land
sufficed not for the crowded sepulchers:
and the dense forest was denuded of all trees.
“Heart-broken at the sight of this great woe,
I wailed, ‘O Jupiter! if truth were told
of your sweet comfort in Aegina's arms,
if you were not ashamed of me, your son,
restore my people, or entomb my corpse,
that I may suffer as the ones I love.’—
Great lightning flashed around me, and the sound
of thunder proved that my complaint was heard.
Accepting it, I cried, ‘Let these, Great Jove,
the happy signs of your assent, be shown
good omens given as a sacred pledge.’
“Near by, a sacred oak tree grown from seed
brought thither from Dodona, spread abroad
its branches thinly covered with green leaves;
and creeping as an army, on the tree
we saw a train of ants that carried grain,
half-hidden in the deep and wrinkled bark.
And while I wondered at the endless line
I said, ‘Good father, give me citizens
of equal number for my empty walls.’
Soon as I said those words, though not a wind
was moving nor a breeze,—the lofty tree
began to tremble, and I heard a sound
of motion in its branches. Wonder not
that sudden fear possessed me; and my hair
began to rise; and I could hardly stand
for so my weak knees tottered!—As I made
obeisance to the soil and sacred tree,
perhaps I cherished in my heart a thought,
that, not acknowledged, cheered me with some hope.
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