Aetatis numerus (n.d.)

While most of Melville's corpus is addressed to a specific person, issue or event, this poem is unusual as a reflective, and light-hearted, piece on the ages of man. Melville uses the concept of 'lustrum', a sacrificial rite of purification carried out by the censors in ancient Rome every five years, as a way to mark out the passing of time. Metre: elegiac couplets.

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Aetatis numerus

1Primis septem annis niveos puer edere dentes
cœptat dum tener est, membraque pube carent.
Quando alios septem Deus illi adjunxerit annos,
puberis hinc aevi signa reculsa patent.
5Barba genas decorat cum tertia creverit aetas,
mutaturque rubens flore cadente color.
Quarta dabit vires cum vir sit factus, et almae
virtutis specimen praebeat ipse suae.
Septem lustra virum vinclo sociare jugali
10suadent et sobolem lege creare novam.
Sexta aetate viro vis mentis acumine pollet,
nec facinus post hac vile patrare studet.
Septima si octavae jungantur linguaque, mensque,
consilio haec solers, illa loquendo viget.
15Ad novies septem valet utraque, verum ubi clara
res est cœpta geri, membraque mensque labant.
Ad decimum si quis cursum consederit aevi,
18tunc maturus erit mortis adire loca.

Link to an image of this page  [p116]

A reckoning of ages

In his first seven years a boy begins to put forth snow-white teeth while he is young, and his limbs lack the signs of manhood. After God has added another seven years to him, from that point on the revealed signs of his full adulthood are manifest. A beard adorns his cheeks by the time he has grown into his third age, and his ruddy complexion is changed by the falling bloom. a The fourth age confers strength when the man has been completed, and he makes evident the proof of his own cherished virtue. Seven fives b persuade the man to unite to the bond of a spouse and to beget new lawful offspring. c For the man in his sixth age, the power of his mind grows potent with keenness, and after this he does not trouble himself to perform trifling deeds. d If seven sevens are adjoined to an eighth, on one hand his tongue becomes expert, and on the other his mind flourishes with advice that deserves to be spoken. And both will be sound until a ninth seven, when it is well known that a man begins to be carried, and both limbs and mind become weak. If someone will have lasted the course of age to a tenth, then he will be ready to go to the places of death.



a: Of youth.

b: A 'lustrum' here is a period of five years.

c: Literally 'within the law' of holy matrimony.

d: i.e., being mature, he will give himself over to great and important works.