Ode to Work (287–411)
Bad’s had for the taking, woes galore,
The road is smooth and short—She lives next door.
The strait and narrow path the gods have set
To Virtue is steep and long and paved with sweat.
It’s hard going at first, but by the time
You reach the peak, it seems an easy climb
Uphill as it is.
That man is best
Who thinks for himself, and puts all to the test,
Weighing the ends and outcomes. It will suffice
Even to heed another’s good advice.
But he who can’t think for himself, nor once
Learn from another is a useless dunce.
Perses! Heroes’ blood runs through your veins!
Take what I’ve said to heart. Start taking pains—
Work keeps the wolf of famine from the door;
Revered Demeter smiles and fills your store.
But famine dogs the heels of those who shirk,
And gods and men shun him who will not work.
He’s like blunt-bottomed drones who take their ease
While gobbling up the labor of the bees.
Look to your work, order your chores with reason,
So that barns groan with harvest in due season.
It’s work that prospers men, and makes them rich
In heads of livestock, and it’s working which
Endears you to the immortals. There’s no shame
In working, but in shirking, much to blame.
And if you work, the man who twiddles his thumbs
Is quick to envy you grown rich. Wealth comes
With fame and honor in her retinue.
With work, you better what’s allotted you.
Don’t covet the possessions of your neighbor:
Turn your foolish heart. Look to your labor,
Secure your living; as I bid you, heed.
Shame’s no provider for the man in need,
Shame who can harm a man or make him grand:
For Shame and poverty go hand in hand;
Bold goes with riches. Property should not
Be up for grabs. God-given’s better got.
For if somebody seizes some great prize
By force of arms, or burgles with his lies,
As often happens when greed tricks the mind
And brazen Shamelessness leaves Shame behind,
With ease, the gods obscure him: all he reaps
Is a dwindled house; wealth isn’t his for keeps.
The same for him who wrongs a guest or harms
A suppliant, or takes into his arms
His brother’s wife behind his brother’s back,
Indecent deed! or him who in his lack
Of scruples swindles orphans, or in rage
At his father on the cruel sill of age
Hurls bruising words at him. This man incurs
The wrath of Zeus, and gets what he deserves.
But turn your witless mind from all such vice.
According to your means, make sacrifice
With a clean, right spirit, to the gods, and burn
Bright thigh-bones on the altar, and in turn
Give votives and libations, both at night
And at the first return of holy light,
So heaven smiles on you and your affairs,
And none bids for your land, but you for theirs.
Invite a friend but not a foe to feast—
Invite the man close by not last nor least;
If something bad should happen on your farm,
Neighbors arrive half-dressed at the alarm;
Kinsmen, belted. A bad neighbor’s a curse,
As a good one is a dream—quite the reverse.
Who has a trusty neighbor, you’ll allow,
Has a share in something precious. Nary a cow
Would be lost, but for bad neighbors. Keep good track
When you measure from your neighbor, pay him back
Good measure too; better, if in your power;
You’ll find him steadfast in a needful hour.
Don’t profit wickedly. Ill-gotten gains
Amount to nothing more than woes and banes.
Befriend a friend, meet compromise half-way.
Give to a giver, but to a tight-fist, nay.
Give begets gift; grasp, grudge. For Give is breath
While Seize is Evil, and her wages, death.
Who gives with open hands, though great the gift,
Rejoices in it and his spirits lift.
But he who steals, trusting in brazen vice,
Though small the theft, congeals his heart to ice.
Deposit even small amounts, but do
It often, and you’ll find that they accrue.
He wards off sun-burnt famine who can add
To what he has. To store at home’s not bad;
Outside is risky. To take from what you’ve got
Is fine, to be in need of what you’ve not
Is woe to the spirit. Mind you, that’s how things are.
Drink deeply from new-broached or near-drained jar.
Thrift’s for half-way; thrift’s stingy at the end.
Ensure the settled payment for a friend;
Smile on a brother, but have a witness, when
Trust and mistrust alike have ruined men.
Don’t let a woman mystify your mind
With sweet talk and the sway of her behind—
She’s just after your barn. He who believes
A woman is a man who trusts in thieves.
May an only son shore up his father’s walls,
For that’s how wealth amasses in the halls.
May he die full of years and leave one son
Behind in turn. (Though it were easily done
For Zeus to bestow untold wealth on more—
More hands, more chores done, and a fuller store.)
But if it’s wealth you long for in your chest,
Then do this: work on work and never rest.
When Atlas’ daughters rise, the Pleiades,
Start harvesting, plough at their setting. These
Are hidden forty days and forty nights,
But as the year goes round, once more their lights
Appear, when it’s time to hone the iron tool.
On the plains and for men near the sea, one rule
Applies, also for everyone who dwells
Far from the shore, among the glens and dells,
Rich country: naked sow, and naked plough,
And reap your harvest naked. This is how
You’ll gather all Demeter’s works in season
Ripe in due time, so there will be no reason
For you to beg in vain from door to door
As you’ve come to me now. I’ll give no more,
No extra. Foolish Perses—work! again,
Work at the work gods have marked out for men,
Lest sick at heart, with wife and kids, you find
You beg from neighbors and they pay no mind.
It might work twice or thrice; you’ll waste your breath
However, if you pester them to death,
Your words broadcast in vain. I’d urge you heed:
Think how to clear debts and not starve. You’ll need
A woman and an ox to start a life:
A ploughing ox; bondswoman, not a wife,
One who can follow oxen, and prepare
The household’s needs and management with care,
Lest you go begging and be turned away,
And fruits of your labor dwindle day by day.
Don’t put off till tomorrow or till later—
No barn is filled by a procrastinator.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 8, on page 36
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