Outside & subterranean poems, a mini-anthology in progress (60): Empedocles of Akragas, 'On Nature,' Fragments 1–10



Listen, Pausanias,

                        son of Ankhitos the Sage:




Our bodies are tunneled

                        with myopic sense organs,

stimuli bombard us, pain

                        blunts the mind’s edge.

We glimpse our momentary share of existence


and with lightning doom

                        drift up like smoke and disperse


each one believing

                        only what he’s met in his random encounters

and proudly imagining to have found


                        the Whole.


Well, it can’t be seen

                        not in this way

            can’t be heard

cannot be grasped by the human mind.


And you, on this retreat, will learn

no more than human thought can attain




but shelter it in a silent heart.




They’re mad, O gods,

                        keep their madness from my tongue!

Siphon a pure spring

                        through my sanctified lips,

                                    And you

white-armed virgin whom many would marry

                                    Muse of all

that is lawful for mortals to hear:

Drive me in your chariot with its delicate reins

as far as is lawful from Piety’s side.

Fame’s deathly blossoms

                        could never tempt

                                    you, Goddess,

                        to pluck these flowers

            say out of boldness more than what’s right

or enthrone yourself upon Wisdom’s peaks.


And now: Start using every faculty

                        to see how each thing is clear.

            You have sight, but don’t trust it

                        more than your ears,

            nor booming sound

                        more than the probe of your tongue,

            Don’t check any of your body’s means of perception

            But take constant notice of the clarity of things.




And although inferiors mistrust their masters profoundly

you must attain the knowledge

                                    our Muse attests to and orders

But first

            sift these words through the guts of your being.




Learn first the four roots of all that is:

ZEUS (a white flickering)

                        life-breathing HERA

AIDONEUS (unseen)

                        and NESTIS

            whose tears form mortality’s pool








And I will tell you this:

There is no self-nature

            in anything mortal

            nor any finality

                        in death’s deconstruction

There is only

                        the merging, change

                                    and exchange

            of things that have merged

and their self-nature is only

                        a matter of words




The elements combine and merge

                        from human beast bush or bird

emerging into brilliant air

                        but ‘originate’ is only a word.

And when the elements unsift themselves

                        we speak of ‘death’ and ‘sad fate’,

language not in accordance with Nature, merely

                        a convention, but useful as such, and so




            : Death             the avenger


Translation from Greek by Stanley Lombardo

                   from Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Assemblage of Outside & Subterranean Poetry                           to be published by Black Widow Press in 2014

SOURCE: Stanley Lombardo, Parmenides and Empedocles: The Fragments in Verse Translation, Grey Fox Press, San Francisco, 1979.

“All art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one.” Friedrich Schlegel

(1)  If it’s Plato who hawks the ancient quarrel between philosophy & poetry, there’s no doubt either that his great predecessors among the “pre-Socratics” (Parmendies & Empedocles in particular) were themselves poets of note as much as philosophers & protoscientists, or that the “ancient quarrel” & separation simply didn’t hold – not then, not now.  And while their works survive only in fragments, culled from citations by others, their power as poets was well known & acclaimed as such within their lifetimes.

            Much more than that in fact.  Empedocles’ perceptions & visions carry forward what has been fairly described as a shamanic tradition & a linkup on the future end with an emerging philosophical poetry as a natural fusion of both philosophy & poetry.  Situated in Sicily for most of his life, Empedocles suffered like others for his political actions – anti-authoritarian & democratic by most accounts – that made him for a time (he wrote) “an exile from the gods and a wanderer.”  Writes Stanley Lombardo in the introduction to his workings from Empedocles’s surviving fragments: “Politically active (to the point of exile) in his native city Akragas, he was in touch with the philosophical and religious movements percolating through the larger Greek world and in particular those that emanated from southern Italy, home to Pythagoras and Parmenides and a center of mystic religious activity.  He lived during the Golden Age of Pericles, but spiritually he belonged to an earlier generation; and although he never visited Athens, his reputation as a philosopher-shaman was pan-Hellenic.”  The legend of his death by leaping into the volcanic crater of Mount Etna only adds to his mystique.

(2) Philosophical poetry, as a distinct & fully developed genre in ancient Greece, has been obscured by the lack of complete texts without which the full range & force of the poetry is lost to us.  In the case of Empedocles the score stands at some 150-odd fragments as the remnants of at least two major 3000-line poems, entitled post-facto On Nature and The Purifications.  That these fragments, when numbered & arranged as what Robin Blaser & Jack Spicer once spoke of as “serial poems,” carry a great force into the present, is a testament to the power of word & mind to cross the boundaries set by time & language.  Says Empedocles, addressing a presumed disciple Pausanius, in an accounting of his powers:

            Press these things into
                                                the pit of your stomach
            as you meditate with pure
                                              and compassionate mind ….
            and they will be with you the rest of your life,
            and from them much more, for they grow of themselves
            into the essence,
                                    into the core of each person’s being.
            But if your appetite is for all those other things
            that generate suffering
                                                and blunt human minds
            these powers will leave you in the turning of time
            and out of love for their own
                                                return to the Source.
            For this you must know:
            All things have intelligence, and a share of thought.