Let us Live and Let us Love: My Translation and Interpretation of Catullus Poem 5

512px-john_reinhard_weguelin_lesbiaLesbia by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1878.

A dear friend who is also a classicist read my essay for the Seagull Books Catalog and pointed out that my translation of Ovid was so literal and awkward that most readers probably wouldn’t understand its meaning.  I spend my life eliciting grammatically precise, literal translations from my students so that I can assess their learning of Latin syntax.  But his message inspired me to stretch my translation skills beyond the literal and to come up with passages that readers could actually appreciate and enjoy.  Of course I also don’t want to stray so far away from the Latin that I completely abandon all rules of syntax and grammar, so it will be interesting and challenging for me to strike that balance.  I’ve decided to do a series of translations of Latin authors on my blog that will be dedicated to my friend who ever so gently gave me some suggestions for my Ovid translation.  Or, when I become frustrated with a particularly difficult Latin passage, I will blame him.

Since I am teaching a Catullus course in the spring semester, and he is my favorite Latin lyric poet, I will begin my translation series with one of his most popular poems. Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84-54B.C.) had a passionate love affair with a woman named Clodia.  But Clodia was no ordinary woman.  Her family was of old, Patrician, noble stock and she was married to an older, prominent and powerful man, the proconsul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer.  As was the case with most upper class Roman marriages, Clodia’s was arranged for political and economic gains and there was no real love or affection in the marriage.  But she does find love with Catullus, who wrote several poems about her and their relationship.  I imagine him spending hours perfecting this masterpiece composed in hendecasyllabic meter and sending it off to her in secret.  And, just in case it might be intercepted by the wrong person, he disguises his love with the pseudonym “Lesbia.”

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Let’s live and let’s love, My Clodia,
And let’s consider worthless
The gossip of crabby old men!
Suns rise and set:
When the fleeting daylight finally sets for us,
We must spend one perpetual night together.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand kisses,
Then a second hundred,
And then give me another thousand kisses
And then give me a hundred kisses.
Finally, when we have kissed many thousands of times,
Let’s mix up the number of those kisses
So that an envious man will not be able to put a curse
On us if he finds out the exact number of our kisses.

There are, of course, more salacious and explicit poems that Catullus composed about Clodia.  But I find that the subtlety and simplicity of Poem 5 makes it particularly erotic.  The standard interpretation of lines 1-6 are is the theme of carpe diem (seize the day) , with reference to our mortality but I have always viewed these lines rather differently.  The chiasmus in the first line (vivamus mea Lesbia amemus) brings to mind an image of Catullus and Clodia intertwined in bed among tangled sheets, eager for their much anticipated  sexual encounter.  He begins his poem, and his encounter with her,  slowly and languidly with the hortatory subjunctives (vivamus-“Let’s live” and amemus-“Let’s love”) and builds up to the intense immediacy of the imperative da -“give”-as he demands many kisses from her.   He is in the throws of fervent lovemaking when he uses the periphrastic (we must sleep for one perpetual night) and the anaphorae— the repetition of deinde, centum, mille—mimic the rhythm of their lovemaking.   And finally, when he has climaxed, he comes back to the more languid subjunctive forms (sciamus, possit, sciat), and suggests that the intimate details of their encounter, the exact number of their shared kisses, be mixed up so that no one will know and spoil their furtive encounters.

The hyperbole in this poem–“give me  a hundred kisses, then a thousand,” etc.–, which many have found silly, demonstrates just how much he loved her and was willing to risk to be with her.  They had to be very careful to meet secretly at the home of a trusted, mutual friend.  Catullus mentions in the first line of Poem 5 that men are gossiping about their love affair and in the last line comes back to the idea that there are those who envy the pair and wish them harm.  I imagine Catullus as a man of means, he was a wealthy Roman with high social status, who was willing to use and even risk those means to be with Clodia.  Some might accuse me of being a bad feminist, but I greatly admire Catullus, a strong man who would move heaven and earth and defy convention to spend time with the woman he loved.

I also imagine that Catullus was an infinitely patient man as weeks and even months must have gone by in between the times he was able to spend with Clodia.  When he does get to spend the night with her he doesn’t want it to end and his wish that they be suspended in one perpetual night together demonstrates how few and far between their trysts must have been. In an age of instantaneous, electronic communication and social media we seem to have lost our patience for anything and anyone who doesn’t give us immediate pleasure all the time.  I am realistic enough and old enough, some might say jaded enough, to know that an enduring love like Catullus’s is extremely rare or non-existent in an age where we so quickly swipe left, delete, unfriend, block, ignore, hide and cast aside.

Catullus’s poetry is deceptively simple and every time I translate his poems I find another layer of meaning.  Up next, I will attempt a translation of Catullus Poem 7 which is the companion piece to Poem 5 and also involves kisses.  In addition, I will explore the influence of the Greek, Alexandrian poets on Catullus’s style.   For anyone who wants to read all of Catullus’s 116 poems in translation, the Oxford World’s Classics Text by Guy Lee and the Loeb by F.W. Cornish are my favorite translations.  The Loeb translation is a bit archaic as it was published in 1913, but I find the style fitting for Catullus.

My friend who inspired these posts suggested that I translate one of  Horace’s Odes, which are nearly impossible to render into mellifluous English.  I would also like to translate some of Seneca’s Trojan Women and Ovid’s Heroides.  I would love to have more suggestions for Latin authors to translate, so please leave some requests in the comments for me!


Filed under Classics

26 responses to “Let us Live and Let us Love: My Translation and Interpretation of Catullus Poem 5

  1. obooki

    Lines 4-6 are about death, rendered literally:

    Suns may die and be reborn,
    For us when once the brief light dies
    There’s one perpetual night for sleeping.

    The poem is about seizing the day, and not concerning oneself over niceties of morality; although even this just conceals a demand for sex.


    • Yes, of course, the standard, textbook interpretation of lines 1-6 is that it is a carpe diem poem. But I have always looked at these lines differently as I think Catullus has many layers of meaning in his deceptively simple poems. I prefer to translate occidere as “to set” as I think “to die” always seemed a bit strong for this poem. I especially have looked at the line with nox… (the passive periphrastic) differently. He also refers to lovers and nighttime in Poem 7, also about kisses but not a carpe diem poem. And I have been reading Jean-Luc Nancy’s Coming lately who speaks about the use of night in literature as a common motif for lovers and it made me think of poems 5 and 7. But I will go back and put in a line about the carpe diem so it is clearer that this is my unique interpretation.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Andrew (@brixtandrew)

    Lovely translation. Particularly interesting to read a detailed commentary alongside.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much! I am challenging myself to go beyond the literal translations and explain my own views on Catullus. I have translated these poems so many times now that I see something different, a new layer of meaning every time I encounter them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Vishy

    Loved your translation and interpretation, Melissa! Looking forward to reading more of your translations and interpretations of Latin poems. Horace, Ovid – I can’t wait! Maybe you will consider translating / sharing your interpretation of 85 (“I hate and I love”) – it is very short compared to poems 5 and 7, but I would love to hear your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vishy

      I so want to read the Loeb translation of Catullus’ poems! Thanks so much for recommending, Melissa!


      • It’s interesting that you should mention poem 85 because that is my favorite poem of his! I hope you enjoy the Loeb translation. It is a bit old-fashioned but I’ve always loved it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Vishy

        Poem 85 is my favourite too 🙂 I will look forward to reading the Loeb translation. Thanks so much for recommending!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Vishy

        Just got the Loeb translation of Catullus, Melissa 🙂 It made me sad in a way, because once upon a time, when we wanted a particular translation of an ancient classic, we had to go to the bookshop, find out if they had it in stock, place an order, wait for their phone call which might take a few days, weeks or sometimes even months, and when the bookshop called with the news that the book had arrived, feeling all excited and go there and collect the book and experience the high of the new book for days. It was wonderful. Now, we just go to the Kindle store and get the book immediately and it is instantaneous pleasure and gratification. I am not complaining about that – I am happy and thrilled to get the book in an instant – but I sometimes miss the pleasure of anticipation of the old days. What you have said in your post about modern day instantaneous gratification and pleasure is perfect and very true.

        I can’t wait to read the Loeb translation of Catullus. Thanks so much for recommending!

        Liked by 1 person

      • One of my favorite things to do is to browse used bookstores. But you are right that we have lost that sense of anticipation and patience. I especially see it in my students who get bored very easily.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Vishy

    Browsing books in used bookstores is always wonderful! Have you read Anne Fadiman’s essay ‘Secondhand Prose’? It is there in her essay collection ‘Ex Libris’. It is a beautiful essay about used bookstores. I think you will like it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks! It’s inspiring for a non-Classicist to have Latin poetry translated and presented in small portions. And good that you provide the Latin original. So please continue.


  6. obooki

    I’ve been thinking about the last 4 lines as well. Although I seen to remember this was how I was taught to translate it, and although this is how Quinn’s commentary says we should translate it, I think as often it would be better if we translated the actual words that are written. The whole business of the curse seems to have been mistakenly borrowed from poem 7. Anyway, I think it should read:

    Then, when we have done many thousands,
    We shall mix them up, lest we should know,
    Or lest any wicked man should be able to envy us
    When he learns how many kisses there are.


    • These translations are a personal challenge for me to go beyond the strict, literal translations that I produced in classes in grad school. I believe that there are many layers of meaning in Catullus and I am experimenting with some of my own translations and interpretations of the text. In this one I am taking the last line as another reflection of the first line in which there are rumors about them floating around and old men (like her husband) wanting to break them up (do them harm).

      Liked by 1 person

  7. For all I know any “have you seen” suggestion is no fun for translators, and I have no Latin, but anyway have you seen Horace Gregory’s Catullus (The Poems of Catullus, 1956)? Punchy, casual, Modernist – big sense of personality. Maybe too loosey-goosey for you, I don’t know – although he has the sun “set” – but you might be interested in seeing what he does with the lines. He has no hesitation to break them up.

    so that poor fools and cuckolds (envious
    even now) shall never
    learn our wealth and curse us
    with their
    evil eyes.

    Horace Gregory is named after that Horace. He was from an unusual family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing, Tom! I just love the translation of these lines you posted, so I will have to buy the whole collection. I do like “have you seen” suggestions because it is always interesting to see how others have interpreted ancient authors. My own translation here is not a traditional, literal one either.

      I always thought Horace would make a good name for a cat. Of course, old names seem to be making a comeback so maybe in a few years Horace will make one of those “popular names” lists.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: How Many Kisses are Enough?: My Translation of Catullus Poem 7 |

  9. Pingback: Kisses Come in Several Kinds: Jean Luc Nancy Parodies Catullus |

  10. Pingback: Let us Live: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop |

  11. Ajith Thomas

    I don’t know Latin but enjoyed your translation of Vivamus of Catullus. Your translation is clear and makes the poem look better in standard.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Val

    Lovely article! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Dan Maddox

    I loved reading this. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Francesca Mula

    You are brilliant!!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Pingback: Catullus to Secundus, then fall to ignorance, bigotry & intolerance – purple motes

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