Monday, May 22, 2006

Gaius Valerius Catullus

I discovered Catullus as a young man, while studying ancient civilizations at university. I can hardly express the delight with which I first read him! It was incredible to think that someone from such a distant time and place, could talk across the millennia to me more intimately than most of the people I was surrounded by at university. It was certainly an intriguing point, that Catullus had also been let down by false friends--even if the context had been rather different!

Aurelius, father of hungers,
you desire to fuck,
not just these, but whoever my friends
were, or are, or will be in future years.
not secretly: now at the same time as you joke
with one, you try clinging to him on every side
In vain: now my insidious cock
will bugger you first.
And, if you're filled, I'll say nothing:
Now I'm grieving for him: you teach
my boy, mine, to hunger and thirst.
So lay off: while you've any shame,
or you will end up being buggered.

In spite of such homo-erotic poems, most of Catullus' output is heterosexual in content--though the bawdiness often remains.

To Ipsithilla

Please, my sweet Ipsithilla,
my delight, my charmer:
tell me to come to you at siesta.
And if you tell me, help it along,
let no one cover the sign at your threshold,
nor you choose to step out of doors,
but stay at home, and get ready
for nine fucks in succession, with me.
Truly, if you should want it, let me know now:
because lying here, fed, and indolently full,
I'm making a hole in my tunic and cloak.

Not all Catullus' verse is lewd in character, though it's fair to say that lewdness is an intrinsic part of his character and is liable to express itself at any time. However, he is probably most famous for his poems to Lesbia (named for the poetess Sappho, who came from Lesbos). This affair is traced from its beginnings, through to its love making peak and bitter aftermath.

An Imitation of Sappho: to Lesbia

He seems equal to the gods, to me, that man,
if it's possible, more than just divine,
who sitting over against you, endlessly
sees you and hears you
laughing so sweetly, that with fierce pain I'm robbed
of all of my senses: because that moment
I see you, Lesbia, nothing's left of me....
but my tongue is numbed, and through my poor limbs
fires are raging, the echo of your voice
rings in both ears, my eyes are covered
with the dark of night.

"Your idleness is loathsome Catullus:
you delight in idleness, and too much posturing:
idleness ruined the kings and the cities
of former times."

Another exquisite lyric speaks of the poet's return to his home in Sirmio (the modern Lake Garda) after a long period of absence.

Sirmio, jewel of islands, jewel of peninsulas,
jewel of whatever is set in the bright waters
or the great sea, or either ocean,
with what joy, what pleasure I gaze at you,
scarcely believing myself free of Thynia
and the Bithynian fields, seeing you in safety.
O what freedom from care is more joyful
than when the mind lays down its burden,
and weary, back home from foreign toil,
we rest in the bed we longed for?
This one moment's worth all the labour.
Hail, O lovely Sirmio, and rejoice as I rejoice,
and you, O lake of Lydian waters, laugh
with whatever of laughter lives here.

Perhaps at this point I should state the few facts and likely conjectures that we know about the life of Gaius Valerius Catullus. He was born into a rich equestrian family in the modern city of Verona around 84 BC and his father was a personal friend of Julius Caeasar's. It appears that that neither Catullus nor anyone in his set, desired public office and other than spending a year in Bithynia on the Black sea coast (to please his father), Catullus seems to have occupied all his time by writing poetry and making love. The fact that none of his poems are dated after 54 BC or refer to events that took place after that time, lead scholars to assume that he probably died around then: though we have no definite proof of this. In spite of Catullus' close link with Julius Caesar, he was quite prepared to criticise the great man, when he thought it necessary. In particular, Catullus seems to have disliked a friend of Caesar's called Mamurra.

to Caius Julius Caesar

Beautifully matched the perverse buggers,
Mamurra the catamite and Caesar.
No wonder: both equally spotted,
one from Formia, the other the City,
marks that remain, not to be lessened.
diseased the same, both of these twins,
both somewhat skilled in the selfsame couch,
this one no greedier an adulterer than that,
rivals in shared little girls.
Beautifully matched the perverse buggers.

Catullus' verse has had a significant influence on the English lyric. Take a look at these verses to Lesbia and see if they don't remind you of something.

Let's Live and Love: to Lesbia

Let us live, my Lesbia, let us love,
and all the words of the old, and so moral,
may they be worth less than nothing to us!
Suns may set, and suns may rise again:
but when our brief light has set,
night is one long everlasting sleep.
Give me a thousand kisses, a hundred more,
another thousand, and another hundred,
and, when we've counted up the many thousands,
confuse them so as not to know them all,
so that no enemy can cast an evil eye,
by knowing that there were so many kisses.

I expect Ben Jonson's, "Drink to me Only with Thine Eyes" and Marvell's, "To His Coy Mistress" were evoked by the reading. Catullus has been perhaps the third most influential Latin poet after Horace and Virgil. I will finish by quoting the above poem to Lesbia in the original Latin. Anyone who has an ear for the modern romance languages, all derived from Latin, should certainly appreciate something of the exquisite music.

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum seueriorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit breuis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.


Blogger pluto85 said...


1:13 PM  
Blogger Jon Aristides said...


10:00 AM  

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