Frederic Leighton, Acme and Septimius, c 1868
Monday is the first day of the spring semester for me and even though I have been teaching for nearly twenty years I still get nervous whenever I step into a new class. This year the enrollment in my classes are especially robust, which makes me feel even a bit more anxious. My Honors course this semester will be translating Catullus and it is always my hope that they grow to appreciate the many layers of his intense poetry. Since I have Catullus on my mind I thought I would continue my translation series by offering my rendition of Poem 7 which is also considered the companion piece to Poem 5 that I translated in a previous post.
Like many of Catullus’s verses, at first glance Poem 7 seems deceptively simple. The poem is a mere twelve lines in hendecasyllabic meter and it is about kisses. What could be a more trivial and frivolous topic for a poem? But a closer examination of the Latin reveals the poet’s talent at deceiving his readers:
Quaeris, quot mihi basiationes
tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
oraclum Iovis inter aestuosi
et Batti veteris sacrum sepulcrum;
aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox,
furtivos hominum vident amores:
tam te basia multa basiare
vesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi
possint nec mala fascinare lingua.
You ask, Clodia, how many of your kisses
are enough or more than enough for me,
and my answer is as many as the great number of
sands that lie in the Libyan desert in silphium-bearing
Cyrene between the oracle of sultry Jove and the
sacred tomb of old Battis; or as many as the number
of stars in the sky that spy on the secret affairs of
lovers during the quiet of night. To kiss you so many
kisses would be enough and more than enough for crazy
Catullus. And nosy men would never be able to count
this number of kisses and put a curse on us!
I imagine that when he is composing this Catullus and Clodia are in the midst of their passionate and intense love affair; whereas in Poem 5 he seems to be still trying to woo her, in Poem 7 they have consummated their relationship. I imagine them coming up for air after a particularly intense encounter and Clodia posing this question to him, “Just how many kisses will be enough for you, you crazy man?” His hyperbolic response—he won’t be satisfied until he receives as many kisses as grains of sand in a desert or stars in the night sky—is fitting for the depth of their ardor. Catullus sends this poem as a response to his lover knowing that she is a docta puella, an erudite and intelligent woman who will understand his Alexandrian references.
The Romans referred to North Africa as Libya, so that is the part of the world to which Catullus is alluding. North Africa, and Cyrene in particular which he also mentions, is the birthplace of the Alexandrian poet Callimachus whose style Catullus is attempting to emulate in his poetry. In contrast to epic poets that are concerned with larger themes and the grand achievements of heroes, Callimachus and the νεωτερικοί “new poets” of the Hellenistic Period compose brief, erudite poems about intense emotions experienced by ordinary men. Their poems are considered highly perfected works of art in which every word is carefully chosen and placed on the page. Catullus and his friends are considered the Latin Neoterics or, as Cicero disdainfully labeled them the Novi Poetae, and their poems are equally as intelligent and polished as those of their Greek predecessors. By appearing to casually mention Libya and Cyrene in a love poem, Catullus is name dropping and only the most learned readers could understand that his verses are so much more than a love poem. The reference to Battos is even more obscure since this man was a distant relative of Callimachus and the founder of Cyrene which Herodotus explains was a Greek colony of the island of Thera.
But I do think it is important to return to Catullus’s underlying inspiration and motivation for composing this poem, his love for Clodia. He wants an infinite number of basiationes which can be playfully translated as “kissifications.” He reminds us that their love affair is clandestine by inserting into line 8 the secret lovers who meet under the cover of night. He subtly underscores his sexual relationship with Clodia by mentioning the silphium plant that was used as an ancient form of contraception. And finally, he emphasizes the fact that people are gossiping—mala lingua “evil tongues”— about his time spent with Clodia whose powerful husband could destroy Catullus if word of their love ever reached his ears. Catullus’s raw, ardent and visceral poems would not exist without the passion and risk he experiences while engaging in this love affair.