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.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 8, on page 36
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