Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Poem on the Lisbon Disaster (1756)

The whole of Europe was stirred by the news of the disaster. There was an outpouring of scientific and religious controversy over it (mixed with prophecies of general doom). And in the weeks following the earthquake Voltaire was fired to write his famous Poem on the Lisbon Disaster or an Examination of the Axiom ‘All is well’ (his ‘sermon’, as he called it to friends) in which he used the disaster as conclusive argument against what he saw as the shallow optimism of Pope’s ‘Whatever is, is right’.

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"?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.

See the complete poem here.

Voltaire, Poèmes sur le Dèsastre de Lisbonne et sur La Loi Naturelle avec des Prefaces, des Notes etc., Genève, n.d. [1756]. Reprinted from Selected Works of Voltaire, edited and translated by Joseph McCabe, Watts and Co., London, 1911.



Post a Comment

<< Home