|Catullus and Lesbia Get Laid
by Asa Boxer
Let's be honest, the main reason we keep Catullus around is for the dirty stuff. I can certainly appreciate the cachet of releasing his verse in a modern translation for our so-called "uninhibited" generation; there is a sophomorically naughty pleasure involved in reading the decadent verses of an ancient Roman poet. But it's hard to understand why Catullus's sensibility deserves to be considered "modern". It's no surprise the modernists adopted him as one of their own, but that doesn't mean that he actually belongs among them. Ezra Pound and H.D. revived the Greek lyrics-as did Catullus in his day-by writing their own modern-classical versions, but that's where the similarity ends. With Freud at the steering wheel, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Hugh Heffner, and the Beats cruised into mid-century spreading the gospel of sex; and, given the social context, Catullus's candid focus on sexuality must have led many to feel that he was, indeed, a kind of contemporary. This might explain why Horace Gregory's 1956 free-verse interpretation of Catullus became an instant standard. Unfortunately, Gregory's text also started a trend of rendering, and re-rendering the Latin into ever-more current-and therefore anachronistic-forms. What's troublesome is that despite the cultural changes since mid-century, the myth of Catullus's modernity persists. Heck, it's even on the back cover of Canada's new translation by Ewan Whyte.
Miller and Nin, however, are dead, and Heffner, the Viagra poster boy in a mask of face-lifts, has become something of a self-parody. Displaying the erotic and the vulgar no longer strikes us as an especially contemporary or avant-garde thing to do. Here's an example of what an early 21st century reader might find trite in Catullus:
Ipsitilla my sweet
and luscious tart,
ask me to come by at noon.
If you grant me this,
grant me one thing more.
Leave your door unlocked.
Please don't step out,
but prepare for us
a nine course feast of love.
Please send me news at once
for now I lie on my back
and my desire is poking
through the covers bumping
into my breakfast plate.
Worth a chuckle, but if this passage is interesting, it is only so by virtue of the fact that it was written 2000 years ago, and not because it is a noteworthy example of modern poetry.
Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84-54 B.C.) was an aristocrat born and educated in the Roman Province of Verona. Following his schooling, he came to Rome and fell in with a group of young intellectuals, poets, and politicians, within whose circles, according to Horace Gregory, "he was the acknowledged genius, the desired lover, the all-night drinker, and good friend." In terms of artistic reputation, Catullus was also part of a poetic movement referred to by contemporaries as "The New Poets". With little to go on-hardly any of the circle's work survived the millennia-it seems that what characterised this school was a refusal to follow the trend for historical epics like Virgil's Aeneid. Instead, they wrote satire and comedy, as well as short, witty personal poems which were common among the literati of the leisured class and were circulated strictly for the amusement of its own coterie. That said, perhaps the notion of Catullus as "one of us" is not so far off the mark. After all, he lived at a time (much like the Alexandrians many centuries before him, and much like the New York School of the 20th century) when the role of the poet as a priest of truth was being called into question, a time when religion and conventional morality were being challenged by the arts. But historical parallels, though interesting, are not in themselves evidence of contemporaneity. To read Catullus fairly, his work should be judged by the virtues of its form and energy, rather than by the proximity of its author's culture to our own.
Those virtues, however, seem short in supply. If I have suspicions regarding the quality of Catullus's poems, it's because his poems do not, as a whole, impress by imaginative prowess. They do not communicate, for instance, the essential challenges and beauties of life by talking about something tangential in the way Virgil's Georgics address the benefits and the difficulties of empire by focusing on the details of farming. It's said that Catullus was a master of playful language, using metrically exacting forms encoded with acrostic messages. Not only are such games lost in translation, but puzzles alone do not make good poetry, and neither do formal constraints. So it would be a weak argument that calls Catullus a poetic master based solely on his skill as an intricate, Latin formalist. Consequently, the majority of his work in translation doesn't deserve to be called anything other than versified thought. Thus the satisfaction involved in reading the poems of such an ancient lies not in aesthetic appreciation but in the act of recovering the life and times of a man long dead. It is the antiquarian pleasure of discovering his joys and pains, his circle of friends, his lovers, the contemporary gossip, the social and financial pressures of the rich and famous, and the cultural signs of affluence that marked Rome in the 60s and 50s B.C. In other words, Catullus is, primarily, a phenomenon of interest to the cultural historian rather than to the lover of poetry.
I have been careful to qualify my statements with "for the most part" and "primarily", for it would be unfair to dismiss Catullus altogether. My intention has been to dismantle current approaches to the poet so as to rebuild a more suitable sense of what I think he has to offer. After all, Whyte has gone through the trouble of producing a new translation "as close as possible to the spirit of Catullus"; and, as he points out in his introduction, "Poets from Ben Johnson to Irving Layton have written imitations of his work." Being neither translator nor Latin scholar, I can't properly weigh the rendering of the poet's "true spirit". Instead, I must rely on the other available versions for points of comparison. And by my estimation, between Horace Gregory, James Michie, and Charles Martin, Ewan Whyte's translation lends Catullus's poetry more individual dignity than any of of the others. Gregory's self-dubbed "approximations in English", though wonderful in parts, often feel too much like something out of Ezra Pound. For example, where other translators, like Michie, use a simile ("like a little ship/ Caught in a big sea by an angry squall"), Gregory's Imagiste rendition of the last line of poem 25, leaves us dramatically with, "little boat careering through a dark, angry ocean." Alternatively, Michie's translations, in their effort to rhyme, end up braiding the language into something too self-involved to communicate the immediacy of emotion that Whyte captures. Here's Michie's rendition of poem 2 followed by Whyte's:
Sparrow, my Lesbia's darling pet,
Her playmate whom she loves to let
Perch in her bosom and then tease
With tantalising fingertips,
Provoking angry little nips
(For my bright beauty seems to get
A kind of pleasure from these games,
Even relief, this being her way,
I think, of damping down the flames
Of passion), I wish I could play
Silly games with you, too, to ease
My worries and my miseries.
Sparrow, my Lesbia's pet that she holds
between her breasts and lets flutter
in her hands and on her head, laughing
as he chirps coming to her again
and again. She teases him with her
fingertips, earning stinging pecks to
her delight. I wish I could dampen my
desire for her by playing with you, little
sparrow. I would dream of her naked smell
through your pecks to quench my miseries.
Notice how Michie's "Her playmate whom she loves to let" contributes nothing to the poem, how the word "let" probably says least of all the words in the phrase yet takes all the emphasis due to its end-rhyme with "pet". The rhyme with "get" further along is weak to the point of silliness so that one gets the feeling that Catullus wrote doggerel. Notice in comparison how Whyte's translation handles the same lines with graceful simplicity, how every word counts, and how effortlessly the poem communicates its emotion by remaining focused on the description of Lesbia playing with her bird.
And Martin? Well, Martin is a difficult one to assess, because both he and Whyte have produced free-verse translations that tend to take liberties in different places. Overall, what distinguishes the two is that Whyte has chosen simple language where Martin has chosen affectation. The idea of Catullus as a sophisticate often leads Martin to choose sexual innuendo over direct expression, a technique that baffles the poet's rude blasts (saying in poem 57, for example, "equally voracious, / and with nymphetoleptic dispositions", instead of something far simpler, and far more pronounceable and therefore quippier like Whyte's "the / literary pair are screwing almost without / cease"). The Martin translation also has the tendency of muffling the emotion with too much cleverness:
Sparrow, you darling pet of my beloved,
which she caresses, presses to her body
or teases with the tip of one sly finger
until you peck at it in tiny outrage!
-for there are times when my desired, shining
lady is moved to turn to you for comfort,
to find (as I imagine) ease for ardor,
solace, a little respite from her sorrow-
if I could only play with you as she does,
and be relieved of my tormenting passion!
When this piece is overly suggestive of the lover's clitoris, as it is above, it loses something of its charm. Where Martin nails the bird to one metaphorical perch, Whyte allows it to flirt with sexuality, flutter with a peck of jealousy, and communicate a sense of the poet's tender love by describing his desire to be near his beloved's most treasured object. In the case of poem 2, a sensitive translation is of paramount importance, because his love poems are among his finest work.
Without fail, every introduction to Catullus mentions the significance of his relationship with the woman he calls Lesbia, the subject of 25 poems, at times loving, at others outraged, despairing, and jealous. According to scholars, the name Lesbia is a metrically matched pseudonym for Claudia, the wife of a Roman dignitary and a poet in her own right (thus Lesbia, another name for Sappho). They had a passionate affair that she ended, leaving Catullus feeling tormented. Fortunately, Catullus's passion found form in at least one outstanding poem that truly deserves its place in the canon, poem 5:
Let us live and love,
not listening to old men's talk.
Suns will rise and set
long after our little light
has gone away to darkness.
Kiss me again and again.
Let me kiss you a hundred times,
a thousand more, again a thousand
without rest, losing count, so no
one can speak of us and say
they know the number of our kisses.
Nothing spectacular happens; it's perfectly mundane, in a way, similar to William Carlos Williams-mundane yet metaphorical. The stroke of genius lies in the final idea with its clearly excessive statement. Nobody counts the kisses of others; that's ridiculous. It is as if the poet is tenderly teasing his mistress about her fears and doubts, appealing to her sense of an immeasurable love, and gently reminding her that their relationship is beyond the jealousies and gossip of the "old men's talk". At the same time, Catullus is being defiant of the intrigue and rumours regarding his affair, poking fun at the impotent old men, those who would like to, but cannot, count the number of his kisses. This poem works because of the efficiency with which it compresses experience, encapsulating both tenderness and spite, effectively conveying a mood of common affection without succumbing to sentimentality. It is a credit to Whyte's translation that such a delicate balance is so effectively conveyed.
Another remarkable piece is poem 4. Notice how the poet unblinkingly focuses on the object at hand, and how subtly the implications creep in:
My friends, the vessel you see
before you was once faster than
anything on the surface of the
water with oar or sail. She claims
the shores of the hostile Adriatic
and the rough Cyclades will concede
this. She knew the waters off noble
Rhodes, the Propontos, and the Pontic
Gulf where she was once a great tree
High on mount Cytorus. There she gave
voice through her leaves. She still
remembers her oars when they first
wetted the sea. She carried her master
safely across great distances
at his control, whether the wind fell
against her or, by Jupiter's favour,
directly behind. Never were there
prayers to the gods for shore when
storms overtook her. Now she
rests on these shallow waters.
In her great age she devotes
herself to the twin gods, patrons
of vessels, and remembers.
"Never were there / prayers to the gods for shore when / storms overtook her": this is metaphor at its finest. And it is precisely this kind of double-barrelled writing for which Catullus should be most appreciated. Whyte's outstanding translation should, of course, be lauded for making such an appreciation possible. The rigorous phrases that shape the above poem are, after all, as much the translator's as they are Catullus's; and one's enjoyment of the poem is entirely dependent upon, and indebted to, Whyte's excellent work.
An appraisal of Catullus's achievement would be incomplete without a word regarding 61 and 64, his two longer poems. 61-an epithalamion written for a wealthy patron-is a boring generic-feeling piece that falls among those poems valued primarily by one's inner antiquarian. Poem 64, on the other hand, is a truly captivating piece. It's Catullus's farewell to the epic form, as rich and beautiful in its contra-epic style as anything by Homer or Virgil. The poem's story is framed by the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles; but much of the piece focuses on their marriage blanket. Like the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, this blanket depicts a story of its own: the unfortunate affair between the hero, Theseus, and Ariadne, who, as a sign of her love, helps him destroy the Minotaur (the monstrous man-bull creature, who was, significantly, the product of relations between Ariadne's mother and a bull). In return for her help, Theseus is supposed to take her home to Athens to marry. Instead, he abandons her on the island of Naxos, and in retribution for his treachery, she calls upon the furies to torment him. When Theseus arrives home, he finds that his beloved father is dead and that a minor instance of negligence on Theseus's part is somehow responsible for the tragedy. With the story of Theseus and Ariadne told, Catullus turns back to the marriage between Peleus and Thetis, and soon enough brings the Fates into the picture as wedding guests of the ocean god, Thetis's father. The Fates, who are charged with weaving the individual threads of life into a great tapestry, proceed to foretell the bloody story of the Trojan War and Achilles, who, we must keep in mind, will be the product of the marriage underway.
What's bizarre about this piece of writing is that it begins as a marriage poem, but ends with a meditation on villainy, viciousness, decadence, and the condemned, godless state of humanity. The poet briefly waxes sentimental about the days when men made sacrifices to the gods, and the gods assembled freely with men; and then he ends the poem with the following:
Run spindles weave your fate run
in their brother's blood.
Sons did not grieve at the death
of their parents; fathers yearned
for their sons' deaths so they could
enjoy the consorts of their sons;
and mothers offered themselves
to their unknowing sons, offending
the household gods. These offences,
even if sanctioned by human law,
have turned the gods away from
us. The just gods no longer attend
human assemblies or allow themselves
to be seen by the light of day.
Behind these words, I sense a call for a new kind of poetry, a call for a godless poetry more befitting a godless age. Rather than writing the kind of verse that inspires future heroes to pursue fame by the sword, Catullus offers a poetry that celebrates the promiscuous, the jealous, the treacherous, the mad, the ugly, and the scornful; a poetry that looks godless people straight in the eye, recommending camaraderie and indulgence in small, personal vices over the pursuit of imperialism and war.
So you see, it's not only the dirty stuff that convinces us to keep Catullus around. There are the better love poems and the metaphorical poems for the poetry lover; and there are the personal quips and coterie pieces for the bookworm. He has even left a piece in epic style for those with a hankering for the intricately allusive and loomed methods of the classical bard. Yes, Catullus has left a little something for everyone; Whyte has made that much clear. What I think Whyte has contributed to the study of Catullus's work is a sense, not so much of his modernity, as a sense of his perpetuity. Of course, I still feel that, in the grand scheme of the history of poetics, Catullus was a minor contributor, but then three or four truly memorable poems are perhaps all that should count in the final analysis. If poetry is viewed as being more about poems than poets (as I believe should be the case), then Whyte has helped contribute several wonderful poems to the English language. A delightful boon!