Thursday, May 8, 2008

Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, 1759

On November 1, 1755, the first massive earthquake to shake modern Europe destroyed the city of Lisbon, then the fourth largest city in the Western World. Lisbon was a rich, pious city, with many churches, one of the centers of the Inquisition. The quake and resultant fire and tsunami was said to kill over 70,000 people. The priests and philosophers of the time grappled with how such wanton destruction could happen in a world supposedly run by a beneficent God.

One of the most famous responses came from a leader of the European Enlightenment, François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire. His reaction to the disaster came in the form of a poem, "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, or: An Examination of that Axiom 'All Is Well". The following selections from this long work are from a 1912 translation by Joseph McCabe:

Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, “All’s well,”
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: “You do but illustrate
The iron laws that chain the will of God”?

Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.

"’T is pride,” ye say—“the pride of rebel heart,
To think we might fare better than we do.”
Go, tell it to the Tagus’ stricken banks;
Search in the ruins of that bloody shock;
Ask of the dying in that house of grief,
Whether ’t is pride that calls on heaven for help
And pity for the sufferings of men.
“All’s well,” ye say, “and all is necessary.”
Think ye this universe had been the worse
Without this hellish gulf in Portugal?
Are ye so sure the great eternal cause,
That knows all things, and for itself creates,
Could not have placed us in this dreary clime
Without volcanoes seething ’neath our feet?
Set you this limit to the power supreme?
Would you forbid it use its clemency?
Are not the means of the great artisan
Unlimited for shaping his designs?

Nay, press not on my agitated heart
These iron and irrevocable laws,
This rigid chain of bodies, minds, and worlds.
Dreams of the bloodless thinker are such thoughts.
God holds the chain: is not himself enchained;
By his indulgent choice is all arranged;
Implacable he’s not, but free and just.

Why suffer we, then, under one so just?
There is the knot your thinkers should undo.

The vulture fastens on his timid prey,
And stabs with bloody beak the quivering limbs:
All ’s well, it seems, for it. But in a while
An eagle tears the vulture into shreds;
The eagle is transfixed by shaft of man;
The man, prone in the dust of battlefield,
Mingling his blood with dying fellow-men,
Becomes in turn the food of ravenous birds.
Thus the whole world in every member groans:
All born for torment and for mutual death.
And o’er this ghastly chaos you would say
The ills of each make up the good of all!
What blessedness! And as, with quaking voice,
Mortal and pitiful, ye cry, “All ’s well,”
The universe belies you, and your heart
Refutes a hundred times your mind’s conceit.

All dead and living things are locked in strife.
Confess it freely—evil stalks the land,
Its secret principle unknown to us.
Can it be from the author of all good?

He sinks beneath the ruin he has wrought.
What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.
But thinking atoms, whose far-seeing eyes,
Guided by thought, have measured the faint stars,
Our being mingles with the infinite;
Ourselves we never see, or come to know.

The hand of pleasure wipes away our tears;
But pleasure passes like a fleeting shade,
And leaves a legacy of pain and loss.
The past for us is but a fond regret,
The present grim, unless the future’s clear.
If thought must end in darkness of the tomb,
All will be well one day—so runs our hope.
All now is well, is but an idle dream.
The wise deceive me: God alone is right.
With lowly sighing, subject in my pain,
I do not fling myself ’gainst Providence.
Once did I sing, in less lugubrious tone,
The sunny ways of pleasure’s genial rule;
The times have changed, and, taught by growing age,
And sharing of the frailty of mankind,
Seeking a light amid the deepening gloom,
I can but suffer, and will not repine.

A caliph once, when his last hour had come,
This prayer addressed to him he reverenced:
“To thee, sole and all-powerful king, I bear
What thou dost lack in thy immensity –
Evil and ignorance, distress and sin.”
He might have added one thing further—hope.
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