Sparrow, favorite of my girl,
with whom she is accustomed to play,
whom she is accustomed to hold in her lap,
for whom, seeking greedily,
she is accustomed to give her index finger
and to provoke sharp bites.
When it is pleasing for my shining desire
to make some kind of joke
and a relief of her grief.
I believe, so that her heavy passion may become quiet.
If only I were able to play with you yourself, and
to lighten the sad cares of your mind.
It is as pleasing to me as they say
The golden apple to have been to that swift girl,
Which untied that long-bound girdle.
Mourn, oh Cupids and Venuses,
and whatever there is of rather pleasing men:
the sparrow of my girlfriend has died,
the sparrow, delight of my girl,
whom she loved more than her own eyes.
For it was honey-sweet and it had known its
mistress as well as a girl knew her mother,
nor did it move itself from her lap,
but jumping around now here now there
he used to chirp continually to his mistress alone:
who now goes through that gloomy journey
from whence they denied anyone returns.
But may it go badly for you, bad darkness
of Orcus, you who devour all beautiful things:
and so beautiful a bird you have taken away from me
O bad deed! O miserable sparrow!
Now on account of your work my girl’s
slightly swollen little eyes are red from weeping.
Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us judge all the rumors of the old men
to be worth just one penny!
The suns are able to fall and rise:
When that brief light has fallen for us,
we must sleep a never ending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them all up so that we don’t know,
and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.
You ask, my Lesbia, how many of your kisses
are enough and more than enough for me.
As big a number as the Libyan grains of sand
that lie at silphium producing Cyrene
between the oracle of Sultry Jupiter
and the sacred tomb of old Battus;
Or as many stars that see the secret love affairs of men,
when the night is silent.
So many kisses are enough
and more than enough for mad Catullus to kiss you,
these kisses which neither the inquisitive are able to count
nor an evil tongue bewitch.
Break off fallen Catullus, time to cut losses,
bright days shone once, you followed a girl here and there,
loved her as no other perhaps shall be loved.
That was a time of such happy scenes,
your desire matching her will.
Bright days shone on both of you.
Now, she wants you no more.
Follow suit, weak as you are: no chasing of mirages,
no fallen love, but a clean break,
stand your ground against the past.
Not again Lesbia. No more. Catullus is clear.
He won’t miss you. He is done craving. It is cold.
But you will cry that you are ruined.
What will your life be? Who will visit your room?
Who will uncover that beauty? Whom will you love?
Whose girl will you be? Whom kiss? whose lips bite?
Enough! Break, Catullus, against the past.
Surely a lioness from the African mountains
or barking Scylla didn’t beget you from the lowest part of her loins,
you of such pitiless, vile spirit that you hold in contempt
the voice of a supplicant in his last and final despair,
ah, you of too cruel heart?
My woman says to me that there is none
With whom she’d rather spend her days than I,
Should even Jove himself ask her to wed.
So she says, but women often lie,
What a woman says to a desirous lover,
This he ought to write in the wind and rapid water.
You used to say that you knew only Catullus,
Lesbia, neither did you wish to know Jupiter instead of me.
At that time I loved you not as the common crowd of men love a girlfriend
but as a father loves his sons and sons in law.
Now I know you: wherefore even if I burn the worse,
you are cheaper and of less meaning to me.
You say how can this be? Because a hurt of such a kind
forces a lover to love more, but to wish her less well.
A mind dragged down to this point by your fault Lesbia,
a mind destroyed by dint of its own devotion:
though you may now come clothed in all your excellences –
I cannot think tenderly of you:
though you may sink to whatever acts you dare –
Nor could I ever cut this love.
If evocations of past kindness shed
ease in the mind of one of rectitude,
or broke bond inviolate witnessed by god,
or led men intentionally to harm,
such, as life lasts, must Catullus shed
effect of joy from disregarded love.
For what by man can of goodness in act or word
be done to others, it has by me been done
but having been entrusted to an unregarding heart,
all that has perished.
Why protract this pain? Why not resist
yourself in mind; from this point inclining
yourself back, breaking this fallen love
counter to what the gods desire of men?
Hard suddenly to lose love of long use,
hard precondition of your sanity
refained. Possible or not, this last
conquest is for you to make, Catullus.
May the pitying gods who bring
help to the needy at the point of death
look towards me and, if my life were clean,
remove this malign plague out from my body
where, a paralysis, it creeps from limb to limb
driving all former happiness from the heart.
I do not now expect – or want – my love returned,
nor cry for the impossible, for Lesbia to be chaste:
only that the gods cure me of this disease
and, as I once was whole, make me now whole again.
I hate and I love. Wherefore would I do this, perhaps you ask?
I do not know. But I feel that it happens and I am tormented.
No woman can truthfully say she was so much loved,
as my Lesbia was loved by me.
No such big trust was ever kept in any commitment before
as, on my side, my love for you was kept.
Lesbia loads me night and day with her curses
‘Catullus’ always on her lips.
Yet I know that she loves me.
How? I equally spend myself night and day
in assiduous execration
knowing too well my hopeless love.
If anything happened to one who is desirous and hopeful, yet unexpecting,
this is especially pleasing to the soul.
Therefore, this is pleasing, and dearer than gold to me,
because you, Lesbia, have restored yourself to desirous me.
You restore yourself to desirous, unexpecting me, you return yourself
to me. O, light of a fairer mark!
Who lives more happily than I alone, or who will be able
to say that these things are to be hoped for more than this life?
You, my life, promise that this love
of ours between us shall be agreeable and last forever.
Great gods, arrange for her to speak the truth,
and to say this sincere and from the bottom of her heart,
so that it is granted us to continue all our life
this treaty of inviolable fidelity.
Gaius Valerius Catullus was the Modernist of his day. A young aristocrat who was probably born close the Italian city which is today’s Verona, his family owned a villa on lake Garda, and it has been claimed they upon occasion offered hospitality to Julius Cæsar.
Catullus’s poetry was personal and expressive, and fairly sparkled with life, possessing a sense of immediacy and momentariness in its nimble treatment of the here-and-now and of his actual situation at the time of writing. His wit was sharp and acid, and his emotions vigourous. These are some of the characteristics of a genuine poet. His innamorata Clodia Metelli (the Lesbia of his poems, and probably so named as a tribute to Sappho and to Greek poetry) was the perfect Muse, in that she was a beautiful, strong, aristocratic and irascible woman who did not submit to him, and whose love he could only rejoice in momentarily, due to the fact she was married, and also because Catullus was not her only lover.
Clodia was the wife (and maternal cousin) of Q. Metellus Celer, a Roman prætor, a governor of Cisalpine Gaul. She live on the ‘Nob Hill’ of Rome, in the Clivus Victoriæ on the Palatine, as did Cicero, and we can well imagine that her noisy parties disturbed the peace of this stogy old republican. Despite her illustrious pedigree and high station in life, Clodia had a taste for the demi-monde – and liked to rub shoulders with a decidedly louche crowd. Her perfumed aura carried with it the sulphurous whiff of scandal, and besides the accusation leveled against her (by Catullus) of loitering at the street corners with her aristocratic suitors and cronies, she is also thought to have poisoned her husband, and had incestuous affaires with her brothers. None of these rumours has ever been verified, and today we recognise them as being of the sort one reads on the scandal sheets prominently displayed next to the supermarket checkout counter. Then as now, when a woman is endowed with beauty, intelligence, wealth and power, she becomes an irresistible magnet for rancorous and salacious gossip.
Cicero must have relished his opportunity for revenge, when one of his pupils Marcus Caelius was accused by Clodia’s brother Publius Clodius of having been involved in a political conspiracy and also dishonouring Clodia’s reputation. Cicero was a senatorial supporter, and Clodia’s family were supporters of Cæsar, and this placed them in opposite camps. Cicero’s defense of Marcus Caelius in his speech pro Caelio, permitted this aging lover of servile men to further besmirch Clodia’s reputation, and he must have savoured the delightful opportunity to indulge his priggishness in public moralising.
“Whatever her real nature, this was the woman who had more effect on Catullus’s life than perhaps anyone else. Nor is it necessary to admit to a conventionally ‘romantic’ relationship to recognise that he speaks to her in an altogether different and more disturbing tone from than in which he addresses the other women in his poems. …. it was precisely her forceful and sexually dominating character that attracted him. Which was exactly what repelled Cicero.’
Catullus wrote around 28 poems to, about, and referring to Clodia. That he was deeply in love with her is beyond any doubt, and that she in turn both raised him to the pinnacles of ecstasy and plunged him into the depths of torment is clearly evident in his poems. Catullus’s affair with Clodia demonstrates to a nicety Shakespeare’s observation that “The course of true love never did run smooth.” That Clodia accepted and rejected in turn Catullus’s suit, kept him forever in a state of unease where no thought is permitted to settle and no emotion is allowed to seek its balance. Her capriciousness and unpredictability dictated that he is never permitted by her to fall into complaisancy, or to relax his vigilance. Rejection, jealousy, and usurpation of his cherished place in her affection by his perceived inferiors must have gnawed at his heart, as when the wound and its remedy both find their common source in a single object.
I imagine in his visits to that elegant mansion beside the tree-line Tiber, Catullus must have spent more than a few agonised evenings, being teased and ignored by this woman who spurned the role of a Roman matron in favour of one which more resembled Greek hetære. Clodia had no respect for the conventional Roman values which required women of her class to heed the rules set for patrician wives, which were to run their households with efficiency, manage and discipline their household slaves, and bear the required complement of sons. We cannot know if Catullus’s early provincial upbringing prepared him for such a shocking encounter as he must have had when first introduced to life in Rome.
But Catullus does not seem, at least in relation to Clodia, to have assumed the prerogatives of the superior public role accorded to a high-ranking Roman male. In other words, his poetry bears no taint of any belief in the supposed inferiority of women. He loves and hates Clodia by turn: he showers her with adoration when she is kind to him, and with invective when she is not, but he only denounces her rejection of him, and never assumes a priggish stance in relation to her infidelities and fickleness. This alone reveals something remarkable about his character, and his ability to exercise discretion and discrimination in deciding when and where it was appropriate to be insulting. Far from being incapable of vituperation, he wrote several acidic poems freely apportioning biting disparagement where he thought it due. Deride Clodia he may, but he never insults her, and not only that, but he cherishes her public castigations of him as evidence of her inability to put him out of her mind. This is evidenced in poem 83.
Lesbia says the vilest things about me
in front of her husband
who is thereby moved to fatuous laughter –
The mule of a man grasps nothing
If she were to be silent and forget me she would be sane,
but since she snarls and cuts me off,
it means she remembers me
what’s still worse, she is furious
and she burns even as she speaks.
This particular poem reminds me of one by Juana Inés Asbaje (better known by her monastic name of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz) addressed to her own noble Muse, Maria Luisa the Countess of Paredes, Vicereine of Mexico. The poem ends with these lines:
En fin, yo de adorarte
el delito confieso;
si quieres castigarme,
este mismo castigo será premio.
In sum, I must admit
to the crime of adoring you;
should you wish to punish me,
the very punishment will be reward.
When subjected to intense pressure, as in the process of falling or being in love, the human mind tends frequently to resort to magical thinking, taking on the role of a scryer, or a reader and interpreter of signs, particularly in relation to the beloved. Every detail, every act and every situation becomes a potent symbol encapsulating within itself larger implications and meanings, and so it is with Catullus, that with the strange alchemy of desperate exigency, invective is wondrously transformed into something which engenders a species of satisfaction. To be the object of invective then, becomes a reason to be reassured, and punishment is transformed into reward, because it is no longer taken at face-value, but as evidence of love.
Catullus’s love for Clodia was illicit, and hers for him adulterous – if indeed she ever did love him rather than merely bestowing her favours on him or yielding to his importunities. He was reduced to being the perennial supplicant, and forced to survive on what little gratification she offered him. But this is the classic role of the poet – to accommodate himself to the two halves of the muse cycle – first to be loved and then sacrificed. Uxorious or marital love with all its hidden condescensions to woman delegated to the role of wife, has no place in poetry. The poet/Muse dyad predates patriarchal culture, and finds its beginnings in the time before the iron age. It is Orphic and Dionysian rather than Apollonian, and lunar rather than solar – or as we would say, originating in right-brain wisdom/intuition rather than left-brain knowledge/intellect.
It is a curious coincidence that down the street from Catullus’s house in Rome, was situated the temple devoted to the rites of the Greek Goddess Cybele. Her worship was brought to Rome around 204 b.c.e, in the wake of the Punic wars, and was practiced by its enthusiastic votaries with full panoply of its orgiastic rites, including voluntary castration. Catullus must have found the sounds of music and singing from the temple precincts to be within earshot. These rites, so different from the formulaic propitiations typical of state-sanctioned religion, particularly in Roman times, must have been startling and unnerving to those who witnessed, or even just overheard them. The worshippers of Cybele were not votaries of a civilised deity: they were not vestal virgins or toga-clad priests, but the wild, untethered, uncontrollable, unrestrained, adherents of an ancient, orgiastic, pre-patriarchal religion, stubbornly unamenable to the restrained, formal stage-management typical of the rituals of state. I tend to think that the blood-letting Shia rites of Moharram possess some of the flavour of Goddess worship, and they may indeed be a re-cycling of far more ancient traditions. I suppose too that convention-loving Romans looked down on these demonstrations of madness-tinged devotion with much the same horror-struck disapproval that the puritanical Sunni view their uninhibited Shia brethren, or for that matter the way in which a good Methodist would view a Pentecostal service complete with glossolalia and snake-handling.
It is interesting to speculate about the role played by geographical location in the poetry of Catullus. In the opposite direction from the temple of Cybele on Catullus’s street, was the temple of Castor and Pollux – the Dioscuri, where Clodia’s husband sometimes gave political speeches. This spot was also frequented by Clodia and her hangers-on, and it is the pillars of this temple which are referred to in Catullus’s infamous poem 58. Perhaps the location of his home between these two disparate poles, representing the pre-patriarchal orgiastic past and the state-dominated politicised present may have inspired some interesting mental oscillations, and brought into a sharper focus the values that informed his thinking.
Catullus feared and respected the psychic spaces claimed by the Muse in both her benign and ferocious aspects. He was aware of the power of the poetic trance, and makes it evident in his translation of Sappho’s “Fragment 31” (Catullus poem 51) that he could divest himself of something resembling a social masculinity and subsume it beneath the configuration of female personality. He had moments when he acutely feared being driven mad by love, taking leave of his senses to become a social outcast condemned to exile and a savage life as was Atthis the most famous of Cybele’s votaries. These fearful sentiments are powerfully and pathetically expressed in poem 76.
Catullus was the most renowned of a group Cicero referred to as the Poetæ Novi – The New Poets. Catullus in particular brought a newly minted sincerity and immediacy to the art as he revealed himself, his circumstances and his heart-felt predicament in relation to the love of his life. Catullus was always direct, never pompous or given to bloated conceits. He was never guilty of distorting good sound sense, or resorting to nonsense, never incoherent, effete or epicene. When he resorted to cheerful obscenity in his poetry it was only to deride the pretensions and dishonesties he perceived within his circle of acquaintances and associates. When one seeks to castigate bad or obscene behaviour, one must sometimes resort to a device which possesses the ability to cut through a deep layer of resistant unawareness. Mild reproof will not deter the man who steals napkins at banquets, or does not wash under his arms, or worse, is given to incest or bribery or writing bad poetry. Catullus is clear that he himself remains unbesmirched by the questionable form of his denunciatory poems. He states in poem 16 “Nam castum esse decet pium poetam ipsum, uersiculos nihil necesse est….” – “A genuine poet must be chaste, though his verses need not be so.”
In all the material I have (and by no means exhaustively) read about Catullus, I have failed to come across any serious appreciation of his erudition. He was a pupil of Appolonius of Rhodes, and more than just a passingly good student of Greek. His translations of Callimachus (poem 66) and Sappho (poem 51) bear testament to his scholarship, as well his deep familiarity of Greek myth, which found its way into his poems in an entirely personal context (poems 62, 64, 65, and 68) and as a shorthand to implication and layered meaning. He made elegant use of the Greek poetical metrics such as alexandrines, iambics and sapphics, unlike Virgil whose awkward misapplications of homeric metre marred and garbled his native Latin and imposed on the Aeneid an unfelicitous, procrustian fit.
I have often found myself wishing that Catullus had lived to see Virgil. He would have made celebrated mince-meat out of Virgil’s epic prolixity and his thousand other pompous and boring mannerisms. ‘Poets’ such as Virgil who cater to the vanity of heads of state and supply a spurious pedigree to bolster the pretensions of politicians or Emperors are not their own men, but the mouthpieces of others. I would love to have seen his take on one of the most overrated pseudo poets ever – whom he would have no doubt have relished demolishing. Catullus loathed and derided falsity whether it is found in the ordinary individual or in the powerful aristocrat, and a plump and swarthy boot-licker such as Virgil would have been spared not a single lash from Catullus’s mordant wit. His rebellious honesty, his tendency to pour out his spontaneously brilliant invective on the snobbery of the foolish and vainglorious men, would perhaps have served as a corrective to the depravity that overtook Rome in the next hundred years following his death.
The trait of Catullus which strikes me above all else is his brilliant honesty. This is what makes his poems always sparkle with freshness and meaning. He sounds as modern today as he did two thousand years ago, and his fierce and despairing love, his hopeless predicament, his thwarted passion, his extremes of joy and despair, his originality, his lack of silliness, his derisive attitude towards the things he found ugly, unworthy and hypocritical, are what make him appealing to many of us today.
In reading Catullus’s poetry we have no trouble in recognising a shared experience. If he had been less honest, less forthcoming and less able to express the core of profound human emotion which still remains our common experience across centuries of time, he would be less relevant today. Instead, his vigour and vivacity would seem to shed sparks which burn and singe the page, and his poems contrast beautifully and unstuffily when compared to the vast majority of the poets who merely fill our brains with dreary dust.