Posts Tagged ‘Latin poetry’

Gaius Valerius Catullus: an imagined likeness. (bce. 84 – bce 54)

























poem 2                                                                                

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.





poem 3                                                                           

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.





poem 5                                                                                

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.





poem 7                                                                              

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.





poem 8                                                                                    

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.




poem 60                                                                                          

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?







poem 70                                                                  

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.










poem 72                                                                                                       

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.







 poem 75                                                                                 

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.










 poem 76                                                                             

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.



poem 85                                                                                     

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.









poem 87                                                                                 

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.







poem 92                                                              

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.







poem 107                                                                                                      

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?





poem 109                                                                              

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.

Peter Whigham in the introduction to his translation of Catullus’s poems states

“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.


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Publius Virgilius Maro (October 15th 70 b.c.e – September 21st 19 b.c.e)

























Already had the night completed ten
Of winter’s hours, and by his crowing had
The winged sentinel announced the day,
When Symilus the rustic husbandman
Of scanty farm, solicitous about
The coming day’s unpleasant emptiness,
Doth slowly raise the limbs extended on
His pallet low, and doth with anxious hand
Explore the stilly darkness, groping for
The hearth which, being burnt, at length he finds.
I’ th’ burnt-out log a little wood remained,
And ashes hid the glow of embers which
They covered o’er; with lowered face to these
The tilted lamp he places close, and with
A pin the wick in want of moisture out
Doth draw, the feeble flame he rouses up
With frequent puffs of breath. At length, although
With difficulty, having got a light,
He draws away, and shields his light from draughts
With partially encircling hand, and with
A key the doors he opens of the part
Shut off to store his grain, which he surveys.
On th’earth a scanty heap of corn was spread:
From this he for himself doth take as much
As did his measure need to fill it up,
Which ran to close on twice eight pounds in weight
He goes away from here and posts himself
Besides his quern,’ and on a little shelf
Which fixed to it for other uses did
The wall support, he puts his faithful light.
Then from his garment both his arms he frees;
Begirt was he with skin of hairy goat
And with the tail thereof he thoroughly
Doth brush the stones and hopper of the mill.
His hands he then doth summon to the work
And shares it out to each, to serving was
The left directed and the right to th’ toil.
This turns about in tireless circles and
The surface round in rapid motion puts,
And from the rapid thrusting of the stones
The pounded grain is running down. At times
The left relieves its wearied fellow hand,
And interchanges with it turn about.
Thereafter country ditties doth he sing
And solaces his toil with rustic speech,
And meanwhile calls on Scybale to rise.
His solitary housekeeper was she,
Her nationality was African,
And all her figure proves her native land.
Her hair was curly, thick her lips, and dark
Her colour, wide was she across the chest
With hanging breasts, her belly more compressed,
With slender legs and large and spreading foot,
And chaps in lengthy fissures numbed her heels.
He summons her and bids her lay upon
The hearth some logs wherewith to feed the fire,
And boil some chilly water on the flame.
As soon as toil of turning has fulfilled
Its normal end, he with his hand transfers
The copious meal from there into a sieve,
And shakes it. On the grid the refuse stays,
The real corn refined doth sink and by
The holes is filtered. Then immediately
He piles it on a board that’s smooth, and pours
Upon it tepid water, now he brought
Together flour and fluid intermixed,
With hardened hand he turns it o’er and o’er
And having worked the liquid in, the heap
He in the meantime strews with salt, and now
His kneaded work he lifts, and flattens it
With palms of hand to rounded cake, and it
With squares at equal distance pressed doth mark.
From there he takes it to the hearth (ere this
His Scybale had cleaned a fitting place),
And covers it with tiles and heaps the fire
Above. And while Vulcanus, Vesta too,
Perform their parts i’ th’ meantime, Symilus
Is not inactive in the vacant hour,
But other occupation finds himself;
And lest the corn alone may not be found
Acceptable to th’ palate he prepares
Some food which he may add to it. For him
No frame for smoking meat was hung above
The hearth, and backs and sides of bacon cured
With salt were lacking, but a cheese transfixed
By rope of broom through mid-circumference
Was hanging there, an ancient bundle, too,
Of dill together tied. So provident
Our hero makes himself some other wealth.
A garden to the cabin was attached,
Some scanty osiers with the slender rush
And reed perennial defended this;
A scanty space it was, but fertile in
The divers kinds of herbs, and nought to him
Was wanting that a poor man’s use requires;
Sometimes the well-to-do from him so poor
Requested many things. Nor was that work
A model of expense, but one of care:
If ever either rain or festal day
Detained him unemployed within his hut,
If toil of plough by any chance was stopped,
There always was that work of garden plot.
He knew the way to place the various plants,
And out of sight i’ th’ earth to set the seeds,
And how with fitting care to regulate
The neighbouring streams. And here was cabbage, here
Were beets, their foliage extending wide;
And fruitful sorrel, elecampane too
And mallows here were flourishing, and here
Was parsnip,’ leeks indebted to their head
For name, and here as well the poppy cool
And hurtful to the head, and lettuce too,
The pleasing rest at end of noble foods.
[And there the radish sweet doth thrust its points
Well into th’ earth] and there the heavy gourd
Has sunk to earth upon its belly wide.
But this was not the owner’s crop (for who
Than he more straightened is?). The people’s ’twas
And on the stated days a bundle did
He on his shoulder into th’ city bear,
When home he used to come with shoulder light
But pocket heavy, scarcely ever did
He with him bring the city markets’ meat.
The ruddy onion, and a bed of leek
-For cutting, hunger doth for him subdue-,
And cress which screws one’s face with acrid bite,
And endive, and the colewort which recalls
The lagging wish for sexual delights.
On something of the kind reflecting had
He then the garden entered, first when there
With fingers having lightly dug the earth
Away, he garlic roots with fibres thick,
And four of them doth pull; he after that
Desires the parsley’s graceful foliage,
And stiffness-causing rue,’ and, trembling on
Their slender thread, the coriander seeds,
And when he has collected these he comes
And sits him down beside the cheerful fire
And loudly for the mortar asks his wench.
Then singly each o’ th’ garlic heads be strips
From knotty body, and of outer coats
Deprives them, these rejected doth he throw
Away and strews at random on the ground.
The bulb preserved from th’ plant in water doth
He rinse, and throw it into th’ hollow stone.
On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese
Is added, hard from taking up the salt.
Th’ aforesaid herbs he now doth introduce
And with his left hand ‘neath his hairy groin
Supports his garment;’ with his right he first
The reeking garlic with the pestle breaks,
Then everything he equally doth rub
I’ th’ mingled juice. His hand in circles move:
Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single colour, not entirely green
Because the milky fragments this forbid,
Nor showing white as from the milk because
That colour’s altered by so many herbs.
The vapour keen doth oft assail the man’s
Uncovered nostrils, and with face and nose
Retracted doth he curse his early meal;
With back of hand his weeping eyes he oft
Doth wipe, and raging, heaps reviling on
The undeserving smoke. The work advanced:
No longer full of jottings as before,
But steadily the pestle circles smooth
Described. Some drops of olive oil he now
Instils, and pours upon its strength besides
A little of his scanty vinegar,
And mixes once again his handiwork,
And mixed withdraws it: then with fingers twain
Round all the mortar doth he go at last
And into one coherent ball doth bring
The diff’rent portions, that it may the name
And likeness of a finished salad fit.
And Scybale i’ th’ meantime busy too
He lifted out the bread; which, having wiped
His hands, he takes, and having now dispelled,
The fear of hunger, for the day secure,
With pair of leggings Symilus his legs
Encases, and with cap of skin on ‘s head
Beneath the thong-encircled yoke he puts
Th’ obedient bullocks, and upon the fields
He drives, and puts the ploughshare in the ground.

Translation Joseph J Mooney.





How Publius Virgilius Maro, so beloved by the beaks of old and powerful educational institutions, and Latin scholars, came by his revered reputation, is a story of how the power of the state and the church came to infiltrate and debase genuine poetry, and compel its submission to suit the sordid requirements of politics and religion.

Virgil’s toadying to the great Augustus, who needed Latin equivalents of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in order to dignify his newly acquired imperial status, as well as a Latin impersonator of Homer to add  the much needed  sheen of pedigree and order to Rome’s muddled historical past, gave Virgil his first opportunity to infect with tortured contrivances and artifice the hitherto healthy body of Latin poetry.

Two centuries later, when imperial Rome had begun its descent into dissolution and decay and upstart Christianity commenced its progress towards  assuming the mantle of the state, some chance lines Virgil had written in order to congratulate his old teacher Pollio on the birth of a son, were found, and dusted off, and because of their resemblance to the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, came to be  enshrined as a pre-Christian prophesying of Jesus’  birth. This of course brought about what was to be Virgil’s second incarnation as a state-sponsored luminary at a later time, when church and state were to fuse in their evil binary.

The irony in all this, is that the felicitations Pollio received from Virgil were the snide congratulations of one pederast to another. Pollio was being praised for amending his ways after a life spent in the pursuit of boys, when he  finally married and fathered a son. These inflated and overblown lines (Virgil was never a moderate writer) turned out to be such perfect fodder for the Catholic church, that he was given special standing

From that point on, this heavy, swarthy, stammering dyspeptic man of ‘rustic’ appearance, (nicknamed ‘Parthenias’ or ‘maiden’)’ came to be a fixture in the curricula of respected universities. It was a further fillip to a thoroughly unmerited reputation, that another overrated literary revenge-fantasist, Dante Alighieri, took Virgil to be his guide in a prolonged survey of the infernal regions.

All this came about as a result of Virgil’s liberal borrowings from a motley collection of disparate documents, said to have been gathered from the far reaches of the Roman empire, which claimed to contain the prophesies of the Sybil. These Virgil mined and re cycled for his fulsome praises of Pollio’s infant. It is quite possible that Isiah’s prophesy was included in the weird bundle of state- acquired papers, which as a literary hireling of Augustus, came to rest in Virgil’s hands. This of course resulted in the parts of his fourth Eclogue which in Mormon-like fashion helped transform  Virgil  into a postmortem Christian.

Though it has come to be attributed to Virgil, “Moretum” may have been written by his Greek teacher, possibly Parthenius. Virgil had had a long history of plagiarising – eight volumes of his plagiarisms were collected and published in his lifetime.  But several lines in “Moretum” do smack quite strongly of Virgilian silliness and ignorance,  for instance,  when Symilus the farmer frees his arms from his goatskin garment, and uses its tail to brush the mill. Anyone who the slightest ability summon the image of this little pantomime of hairy Symilus dusting off his quern with the tail of the goat-skin he is wearing, will probably howl with unrestrained laughter at the vision this brings to mind.

And then there is the unfortunate matter of Virgil’s chronic tendency towards inelegant and superfluous periphrasis. A rooster becomes a “winged sentinel,” a farmer a “rustic husbandman” and Symilus does not merely fix his lunch, he waxes  “solicitous about the days unpleasant emptiness.” Nor does he simply get out of bed, but “slowly raise the limbs extended on his pallet low.”

This is Virgil’s attempt to trick the mind by means of seducing the ear. He uses Homeric hexametres –  with which the  well educated Greek-reading  Romans of his day were familiar, to add lustre to and elevate the preparations of the noble Roman peasant preparing his daily fare to the level of the glorious acts of Greek and Trojan heroes.  Symilus grinding his corn and mixing his herbs comes to resemble  –in metre at least – Hector speaking to Andromache or Achilles wielding his weapons.

In order to slyly accomplish his ends, Virgil had to  ruthlessly subverted content to form, the form being of course those dactylic hexametres so flawlessly applied in Homer’s native Greek, but so hopelessly unsuited to Virgil’s own language Latin. It was no easy task, and his repeated failures are thickly strewn throughout the Aeneid.

Virgil’s real ambition is of course not to elevate the poor Roman peasant, several of whom he doubtless displaced and ruined with his large slave-run agribusiness with which no honest peasant could compete, but to sneak his way under the mantle of Homer and share his laurel. This of course was manifestly impossible: The chasm which yawns between a mere hack and a bona-fide genius can never be bridged – and in the words of mark Twain the difference between them is similar to that which exists between the lightning bug and lightning.

When Virgil allows his fancy to range free about how a Roman peasant goes about preparing breakfast, he lets still more of his slip show. The statement that a farmer needs 16 pounds  (or more accurately 11.53 pounds, the Roman pound being the equivalent of 327 grams) of grain for his daily fare, is of course another Virgilian gaffe. We could of course be generous and suppose that some of the bread was to be shared with Scybele, and some to be saved for dinner – but that would still leave a daily ration of 5 3/4 pounds of bread each,  which might be rather difficult to swallow even for a hard-working peasant, let alone a modern reader.

And what to say of the fact that this hoary son of the soil sings country ditties at what must be four o clock of a winter morning …. a sturdy soul he have been indeed, but slightly daft as well.

As for the implication that Symilus could not afford to bring red-onions home from the market – what impediment could there ever have been to his growing them? If indeed the conventional attribution to Virgil is correct, this would be just another of his filchings, and that would make it a little less galling to me as a naturalised American, that  a slight variant of my country’s motto (except for a single letter) is found in a ‘poem’ about a nutritious edible paste.

Virgil obviously prided himself on his knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry, but most of his ‘knowledge’ was mere embroidery of legitimate country themes with a liberal dose of pure superstition and blatant ignorance. For example, book IV of Virgil’s Georgics,  where one comes across a terrible poem which includes instructions for ‘creating’ bees.

This process according to Virgil (who again ‘borrows’ and enlarges on an old Greek superstition which may have originated with Meleager) requires that a two year old bull be suffocated to death, and its carcass be shut up in some ‘constricted place’ , and allowed to rot. Virgil asserts that bees are then formed from this unimaginable mass of putrefaction. Virgil the ‘husbandman’ is completely unable to tell the difference between maggots and bee larvae, or meat-wasps from bees.

Far from being an agriculturist, Virgil was the owner of slave-run farms, which put out of business  – which is to say denied a living –  to the many  much smaller holdings which were the sole livelihood of men such as Symilus.  Virgil was to the  small farmer what Wal-Mart is to the corner grocery and drug-store.   Though of an appearance that was described as ‘rustic’, he was neither robust nor prepossessing in appearance.  Like another over-rated fixture of western literature, Hamlet, Virgil was  not only “fat and short of breath,” but he suffered from dyspepsia and haemorrhoids as well.

When he died at the age of 51, Virgil left instructions In his will for his writings to be burned, and for this we must give him credit. But Emperor Augustus had paid far too much money and waited far too long for his imperial commission to permit it to simply go up in flames. So Virgil’s output of one line per day was quickly put together, and the Aeneid with its weight of errors came to become required fare for the generations of scholars from the time of Augustus, when a quickly manufactured pedigree was an urgent necessity for aspiring Rome, to the scholars of Church-supported western university, who became the natural heirs to the revisionist medieval writers who mined the Latin ‘classics’ in order to find in them whatever would support the requirements of holy mother church.

Virgil seized his main chance when Augustus’  imperial ambitions came to coincide neatly with his own.  Several centuries later, in the middle-ages, when the church itself had been safely  ‘rendered unto Caesar’, which is to say the pope, the dehumanising mockery of state-run religion combined with state -sponsored ‘poetry’, formed the unholy alliance that has  come to be the curse of our literary and spiritual inheritance.




Iam nox hibernas bis quinque peregerat horas
excubitorque diem cantu praedixerat ales,
Simylus exigui cultor cum rusticus agri
tristia venturae metuens ieiunia lucis
membra levat vili sensim demissa grabato
sollicitaque manu tenebras explorat inertes
vestigatque focum, laesus quem denique sensit.
Parvolus exusto remanebat stipite fomes
et cinis obductae celabat lumina prunae.
Admovet his pronam summissa fronte lucernam
et producit acu stuppas umore carentis
excitat et crebris languentem flatibus ignem.
Tandem concepto, sed vix, fulgore recedit
oppositaque manu lumen defendit ab aura
et reserat clausae quae pervidet ostia clavis.
Fusus erat terra frumenti pauper acervos:
hinc sibi depromit quantum mensura patebat,
quae bis in octonas excurrit pondere libras.
Inde abit assistitque molae parvaque tabella,
quam fixam paries illos servabat in usus,
lumina fida locat; geminos tunc veste lacertos
liberat et cinctus villosae tergore caprae
pervertit cauda silices gremiumque molarum.
Advocat inde manus operi partitus utrique:
laeva ministerio, dextra est intenta labori.
Haec rotat adsiduom gyris et concitat orbem
(tunsa Ceres silicum rapido decurrit ab ictu)
interdum fessae succedit laeva sorori
alternatque vices. Modo rustica carmina cantat
agrestique suom solatur voce laborem,
interdum clamat Scybalen (erat unica custos,
Afra genus, tota patriam testante figura,
torta comam labroque tumens et fusca colore,
pectore lata, iacens mammis, compressior alvo,
cruribus exilis, spatiosa prodiga planta)
hanc vocat atque arsura focis imponere ligna
imperat et flamma gelidos adolere liquores.
Postquam implevit opus iustum versatile finem,
transfert inde manu fusas in cribra farinas
et quatit ac remanent summa purgamina dorso.
Subsidit sincera foraminibusque liquatur
emundata Ceres. Levi tum protinus illam
componit tabula, tepidas super ingerit undas
contrahit admixtos nunc fontes atque farinas,
transversat durata manu liquidoque coacto,
interdum grumos spargit sale. Iamque subactum
levat opus palmisque suom dilatat in orbem
et notat impressis aequo discrimine quadris.
Infert ince foco (Scybale mundaverat aptum
ante locum) testisque tegit, super aggerat ignis.
Dumque suas peragit Volcanus Vestaque partes,
Simylus interea vacua non cessat in hora,
verum aliam sibi quaerit opem neu sola palato
sit non grata Ceres, quas iungat comparat escas.
Non illi suspensa focum carnaria iuxta,
durati sale terga suis truncique vacabant,
traiectus medium sparto sed caseus orbem
et vetus adstricti fascis pendebat anethi:
ergo aliam molitur opem sibi providus aeris.
Hortus erat iunctus casulae, quem vimina pauca
et calamo rediviva levi muniebat harundo,
exiguo spatio, variis sed fertilis herbis.
Nil illi deerat ,quod pauperis exigit usus:
interdum locuples a paupere plura petebat.
Nec sumptus erat ullis, sed regula curae:
si quando vacuom casula pluviaeve tenebant
festave lux, si forte labor cessabat aratri,
horti opus illud erat. Varias disponere plantas
norat et occultae committere semina terrae
vicinosque apte circa summittere rivos.
Hic holus, hic late fundentes bracchia betae
fecundusque rumex malvaeque inulaeque virebant,
hic siser et nomen capiti debentia porra
grataque nobilium requies lactuca ciborum
……….crescitque in acumina radix
et gravis in latum dimissa cucurbita ventrem.
Verum hic non domini (quis enim contractior illo?),
sed populi proventus erat, nonisque diebus
venalis umero fasces portabat ad urbem:
inde domum cervice levis, gravis aere redibat
vix umquam urbani comitatus merce macelli.
Caepa rubens sectique famem domat area porri
quaeque trahunt acri voltus nasturtia morsu
intibaque et venerem revocans eruca morantem.
Tunc quoque tale aliquid meditans intraverat hortum.
Ac primum, leviter digitis tellure refossa,
quattuor educit cum spissis alia fibris,
inde comas apii gracilis rutamque rigentem
vellit et exiguo coriandra trementia filo.
Haec ubi collegit, laetum consedit ad ignem
et clara famulam poscit mortaria voce.
Singula tum capitum nodoso corpore nudat
et summis spoliat coriis contemptaque passim
spargit humi atque abicit. Servatum germine bulbum
tinguit aqua lapidisque cavom demittit in orbem.
His salis inspargit micas, sale durus adeso
caseus adicitur, dictas super ingerit herbas
et laeva vestem saetosa sub inguina fulcit:
dextera pistillo primum flagrantia mollit
alia, tum pariter mixto terit omnia suco.
It manus in gyrum: paulatim singula vires
deperdunt proprias; color est e pluribus unus,
nec totus viridis, quia lactea frusta repugnant,
nec de lacte nitens, quia tot variatur ab herbis.
Saepe viri nares acer iaculatur apertas
spiritus et simo damnat sua prandia voltu,
saepe manu summa lacrimantia lumina terget
immeritoque furens dicit convicia fumo.
Procedebat opus nec iam salebrosus ut ante
sed gravior lentos ibat pistillus in orbis.
Ergo Palladii guttas instillat olivi
exiguique super vires infundit aceti
atque iterum commiscet opus mixtumque retractat.
Tum demum digitis mortaria tota duobus
circuit inque globum distantia contrahit unum,
constet ut effecti species nomenque moreti.
Eruit interea Scybale quoque sedula panem,
quem laetus recipit manibus, pulsoque timore
iam famis inque diem securus Simylus illam
ambit crura ocreis paribus tectusque galero
sub iuga parentis cogit lorata iuvencos
atque agit in segetes et terrae condit aratrum.

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In lieu of an image of Propertius – for none appears to exist – this lovely butterfly Erynnis Propertius  stands in.














Propertius Book III. 25: 1-18

Risus eram positis inter convivia mensis,
et de me poterat quilibet esse loquax.
quinque tibi potui servire fideliter annos:
ungue meam morso saepe querere fidem.
nil moveor lacrimis: ista sum captus ab arte;
semper ab insidiis, Cynthia, flere soles.
flebo ego discedens, sed fletum iniuria vincit:
tu bene conveniens non sinis ire iugum.
limina iam nostris valeant lacrimantia verbis,
nec tamen irata ianua fracta manu.
at te celatis aetas gravis urgeat annis,
et veniat formae ruga sinistra tuae!
vellere tum cupias albos a stirpe capillos,
iam speculo rugas increpitante tibi,
exclusa inque vicem fastus patiare superbos,
et quae fecisti facta queraris anus!
has tibi fatalis cecinit mea pagina diras:
eventum formae disce timere tuae!




Sextus Aurelius Propertius, circa 50-45 b.c to circa 15 b.c)






When they deride me among themselves at the banquet table,
Where the vilest of them gossip, bandying my name about.
You’ll recall those five devoted years of my faithful service,
And chewing your nails, often regret my loss.
Your tears won’t move me, for tears it was ensnared me,
Cynthia – you who never weep but to deceive.
I’ll weep as I depart, though injury exceeds mere grieving,
For the yoke you placed upon my back was never easy.
Farewell threshold, still lamenting my resolution,
The door which suffered no battering at my hand in anger – goodbye as well.
May age bear down on you with all the years you’ve been concealing,
And cruel lines overtake your former loveliness.
May you then wrench your grey hairs by their roots,
And the mirror boldly mock your many wrinkles.
May you in your turn suffer rejection from the haughty,
And when you’re turned to an old woman, may you regret your deeds!
With these dark imprecations my poem will mark you,
And teach you to dread the power your beauty had to wield






Version derived by Dia Tsung from various English translations
























Menos veces te baten las cerradas
ventanas ya mancebos porfiados,
ni te rompen el sueño , y desvelados
no traen así alteradas

tus vecinas; y tú, que los umbrales
solícita y los quicios fatigabas,
menos ya, menos oyes las aldabas,

duermes, Liscica, o lloras envidiosa,
la memoria ocupando en las porfías
luengas de los rivales que traías
en guerra peligrosa.

Y vieja, y sola ya, cuando la luna
descrece más o el cefiro más crece,
cuando te enciende Venus y enfurece,
acusas importuna

los mozos, que desprecian con enfado
rosas que desmayó una tarde fría,
y de las que hoy apenas abrió el día
se coronan de grado.




Francesco de Medrano (1570?-1607?) Was a former Jesuit, who died at the age of 37, and whose poems were published posthumously.












Less frequent now the rapping on your shuttered
windows by the insistence of importunate swains:
Neither is your sleep disrupted, nor you made wakeful
by their vexations thus conveyed


to your neighbours and you, by those whom your threshold
tirelessly accosted, wearing out the hinges on your door.
Now wait listening for the knocks that come less and less often
and with nocturnal senses

sleep, Liscisia, or cry with regret
at the memory of nights filled with the insistent
brawls of rivals whom you compelled
to perilous conflict.


And you already a solitary old woman when the moon wanes
more, or the winds of spring grow stronger,
when Venus inflames  and infuriates you,
they will provoke your ire,

when the lads maddeningly disdain
the roses made faint by evening’s chill,
and then proceed to crown themselves to high degree
with those that scarcely opened in the day.






Translation Dia Tsung.





I always  feel a little stab of happiness when my mind rummages into its trunk of forgotten treasures and unexpectedly presents to me the disparate things it has managed to  find and cobble together by its own devices.

Many years ago I had idly scribbled my version of Propertius 3.25, from line 9 onwards, and stuck it in an old folder.  Since then I had given away my copy of Propertius, and I had forgotten about the poem.

Sometime this week I was reading some Spanish poetry when I came across a poem by Francisco Medrano which sounded strangely familiar.

Of course when the connection  came to me, I had to go in search of a lost scrap of paper.  When after much rummaging I was able to track it down,  I discovered that I had made no reference notes to help me find down the original poem! Nor did it help that I had not written the first eight lines.

I found the original poem after many hours spent searching the internet, and I was finally able to put the two poems together, and the two translations together and this is the result.

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