How Many Kisses are Enough?: My Translation of Catullus Poem 7

leighton_frederic_-_acme_and_septimius_-_c__1868

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.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “How Many Kisses are Enough?: My Translation of Catullus Poem 7

  1. Beautiful translation and analysis. If I remember the story of the founding of Cyrene, wasn’t the founder encouraged by the Oracle at Delphi to found a new city in Libya, and then kept halfway following the advice in various other places, asking the Oracle for advice and receiving the same instructions, and then finally they got where they were supposed to and founded Cyrene? I may be remembering it wrong. But if I’m remembering it right, your analysis suggested an additional thing to me that might be hidden in this poem. Since Catullus mentions the sand between the Oracle of Jove (presumably at Delphi?) and the tomb of Battos, I wonder if he’s referring to that slow process by which the founders of Cyrene were cajoled into settling in Libya? That was a seduction of sorts, which perhaps he is evoking for his present erotic purposes.

    Loved this. — Don’t be nervous about teaching, you’re clearly a wonderful teacher and all your students will love you again like they probably have in each of the past twenty years!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that is the story in Herodotus! And the citizens of Thera ignore the oracle because no one wants to leave. They experience a drought and the oracle reminds them of founding a colony so they have to draw lots to see who will have to go. The Oracle is the one of Jove that is in the African desert but serves the same function as that of Delphi as far as delivering oracles. So I am sure your analysis is spot on as a reference to the found of Cyrene! There are many subtle layers to these poems and it is one of the reasons why I love Catullus so much.

      Thanks for your kind words about my classes. My first year course has 30 students enrolled and having that many in one class makes me nervous. It’s really difficult to give individualized attention to that people in one room. But it’s a good problem to have so many young people interested in a “dead” language!

      Good luck with your protest today! Thanks for fighting the good fight and stay safe.

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  2. Thanks a lot for this billet. It’s fascinating to read your translation and get the explanations behind the words. You remind me how much I enjoy this period of history and how rich their literature was.
    Please keep writing these posts! 🙂

    I like the Ancient Rome’s world. I’ve lived all my life near cities founded by the Romans (Divodorum, Lutecia and now Lugdunum). The main street in my home town is actually a former Roman road. So they’re part of our present.

    PS: I have a modern French translation of Ars Amatoria by Ovid and I loved how contemporary it sounded.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your very kind words, Emma! For a long time I resisted talking about any of my interest in ancient history on my blog. But I think readers enjoy this period in lit./history. Ovid is wonderful as well! I love the Amores in addition to the Ars Amatoria.

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  3. I was just thinking about what a great teacher you must be… 🙂

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  4. The madder the world goes, the more I retreat into the Classical world. Ironically, my copy of Peter Green’s bilingual Catullus just turned up today. I’m assuming that you won’t have your class translate No. 16? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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