Classes will be starting up for me soon and this fall I am very excited that I will, once again, be teaching a Catullus course to my upper level Latin students. As I was looking through my notes and preparing my course materials, I was lingering on the Roman poet’s Carmen 76 which, for many reasons, is difficult to teach. Instead of going through his poems in numerical order (there are 116 poems in his corpus), I group them by theme: The Lesbia poems, the friendship and enmity poems, the poems about poetry. Poem 76 falls into the Lesbia set of poems and it is the very last one I translate with my classes; for me it is the ultimate end of their love affair and he references many of the other poems he has previously written about her in this elegy. In my mind this is most definitely the end of the affair.
Students always struggle with this poem because of the syllogism in the first few lines, the indirect speech, infinitives, etc. But they also have a difficult time with the subject matter. They have no patience for Catullus and his sick heart; time and again I hear them argue that he is weak, whining, feckless and on and on. For a group of people who are prone to melodrama and tend towards emotional ebullience (I say this with the utmost love and affection for them), one would think that they would have more sympathy with or even empathy for Catullus. But, alas, this is never the case. It could be, I’ve always thought, that they recognize in him the very qualities which they abhor in themselves; he mirrors the sentiments in the shows that they watch and music that they listen to. Perhaps he is all-too familiar to them. Or, as I also suspect, the depth of their emotions hasn’t quite reached the levels of soul-sickness that Catullus displays—they have yet, luckily, to get their little hearts broken like our dear poet. Whatever the reasons for their distaste, I will give it my best try, once again, to teach this poem and elicit a bit of tenderness for Catullus’s lost love.
I offer here my own translation of lines 10-26 of Carmen 76, my favorite piece of the poem:
But why should you crucify yourself any longer?
Why don’t you settle your mind and walk away
from this and, even if the universe is against you,
stop being so wretched. It is difficult to put aside
a long love affair; it is, indeed, very difficult; but
put it aside by whatever means necessary. This will be your
only salvation, and you must conquer this: You need to do
this whether you think it is possible or not. Oh gods, if
there is any way for you to show mercy, and if you’ve
ever brought a man relief on his deathbed, then look
down on me who is at this moment so wretched, and if
I have lived a decent life then relieve me of this
plague and this ruin. What a lethargy
has slithered into every part of my being and
has expunged every ounce of happiness from my heart.
And I do not ask what I know is impossible, that
she love me in return or that she decide to be faithful;
but I want to be well again and put aside this soul-sickness.
Grant me this, oh gods, in answer to my prayer.
I decided to translate the Latin morbum (usually rendered as “sickness”) in the penultimate line as “soul-sickness” because it captures so well the complete misery that Catullus feels at the loss of this relationship. I was reading Daniel Deronda this weekend and the female protagonist of Eliot’s novel rejects a kind, loving, and very eager young suitor named Rex. When his love is not returned, this twenty year-old decides that he can no longer continue his studies at Oxford and asks his father for permission to run away to the Canadian colonies where he can live off the land in an attempt to get over his sorrows. When Rex’s father objects to this ridiculous plan and tells his son that love has softened his brain and good sense Eliot writes of him: “What could Rex say? Inwardly he was in a state of rebellion but he had no arguments to meet his father’s; and while he was feeling, in spite of anything that might be said, that he should like to go off to “the colonies” tomorrow, it lay in a deep fold of his consciousness that he ought to feel—if he had been a better fellow he would have felt—more about his old ties. This is the sort of faith we live by in our soul-sickness.”
Rex and Catullus, eager, intense, passionate young lovers, are suffering from the same affliction. I like to think that Catullus would approve of me borrowing Eliot’s phrase, “soul-sickness” to describe his condition. Catullus does get over Lesbia—he runs off to the colonies, which in his case is Bithynia in Asia Minor and the time away proves to be the best cure for him. I hope that Rex’s fate in Eliot’s narrative is similar.