Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On Catullus and His Poems

Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 BC - c. 54 BC) was a Roman poet, today known solely for the 116 surviving poems of one book. He was born in Verona, to a father who was at least wealthy and distinguished enough to host Julius Caesar on at least one occasion. Other than that, we know nothing of Catullus's youth in Verona. He reemerges to History when he moves to Rome, probably in his early twenties. There he apparently spent the bulk of his later years, interrupted only by a one-year political stay in Bithynia and perhaps occasional trips back to Verona. His death is enigmatic, as is most of his life. There are no extant ancient biographies of Catullus, so all that we know about his life has been pieced together from analysis of his poems and a few other writers that make mention of him.

Catullus was part of a small circle of poets from Verona now known as the "new poets." So named, because of their propensity for experimentation and, usually, shunning of the old and well-established forms of poetry, especially epics. They were influenced heavily by a similar group of poets from Alexandria who wrote during the Third Century, in Greek. Unfortunately, Catullus is the only "new poet" whose work has survived in any substantial form -- we have less than 200 lines from the others in his circle, combined.

We will never know what we are missing from these lost poets, though Catullus's poems do allow some tiny glimpses and speculation. Catullus wrote love poems, of course, but also fierce, if not always serious, invectives ("hate poems", let's call them), some explicitly erotic stuff, and a few touching condolences. He apparently loved to experiment with meter -- Poem 63, for example, is written in "galliambic" and is the only surviving specimen of its kind. Almost all of his poems stay firmly in the everyday, only occasionally venturing into mythology. His language tends to suit his themes; at least it is not lofty and often contains vulgarities.

Catullus's poems vary in theme and tone, yet they typically portray the Epicurean, upper-crust lifestyle of himself and his friends. Many are addressed, presumably written as mock letters, to one or more of these friends. It is soon clear to all readers that this circle enjoyed and actively sought the "good life" and largely avoided politics, philosophy and other serious, or even occasionally altruistic endeavors.

Still other poems portray his now-famous affair and later break-up with the woman he called "Lesbia," probably truly named Clodia Metelli, another figure of the city's upper class. Clodia was a strong, forceful character, at least a decade older than Catullus, the poet himself just one in a long string of lovers -- today, we might call her a "cougar" or a "man-eater."

Besides her important role in Catullus's book (she features in 25 of his poems), she is also known to history for a scandal. A man named Caelius was one of her lovers, until he decided to break it off. "Hell hath no fury..." and all that, so Clodia soon retaliated by bringing charges against this man in court. Cicero, the famous politician and orator, who just happened to be a political enemy of Clodia's brother, decided to defend Caelius as his lawyer and in the process gave the now-famous speech, Pro Caelio, in which he heavily lampoons Clodia, apparently aiming to destroy her in every manner but the physical. (It's on my to-read list!)

Catullus is never quite so brutal, though he does throw a few biting words, most notably in Poem 37, in which he calls her house a brothel and insults her latest favorite, a Spaniard named Egnatius; and Poem 58, shown below, in which he fancies her a streetwalker.

Poem 58
Lesbia, our Lesbia, the same old Lesbia,
Caelius, she whom Catullus loved once
more than himself and more than all his own,
loiters at the cross-roads
and in the backstreets
ready to husk-off the "magnanimous" sons of Rome.

In truth, she probably never walked the streets as a common prostitute, nor had sex any more often or with more partners than most of her male counterparts. In truth, the only information we have about her comes from a heart-broken former lover; and a grouchy, conservative old man who was using her for his own political gains, and highly disapproved of her and her kind, including Catullus himself. So, Clodia Metelli had the good fortune of being immortalized by two of the greatest and most eloquent writers of Ancient Rome, and yet the bad fortune of often being portrayed so negatively.

But it wasn't all bad! To prove it, I leave you now with another poem, Catullus 5, which is (apparently) his most famous. Heck, it is probably one of the most famous love poems, period -- and I personally love it.

Poem 5
Lesbia, live with me and love me so
we'll laugh at all the sour-faced
strictures of the wise.
This sun once set will rise again;
When our sun sets, follows night
and an endless sleep awaits.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then a thousand, and a hundred more again
Till with so many hundred thousand kisses
you and I shall both lose count,
nor any can from envy of so much kissing,
put his finger on the number of sweet kisses
you of me and I of you, darling, have had.

PS: I found this great website which features all of Catullus's poems, in the original Latin as well as in translation into dozens of languages. Translations are done by volunteers so quality varies, and usually sags. Still, it is no doubt the best of its kind on the web -- for better, professional translation it seems one will have to buy a real-life book.

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