It has been argued that Catullus translates and borrows Sappho Poem 31 to describe the first time he sees his lover Clodia (pseudonym Lesbia) at a party. In Carmen 51, the Roman poet describes Clodia sitting by an unidentified man (perhaps her husband?) talking and laughing and Catullus is captivated by her presence and experiences what many might call love at first sight (translation is my own):
That man seems to me to be just like a god,
or, if I can get away with saying it, he is even
better than a god, because of the fact that he
gets to sit near you, and watch you, and continually
listen to your sweet laughter. But the sight of you and
the sound of your voice destroys all of my miserable
senses; for whenever I lay eyes upon you, Lesbia,
everything else in the world ceases to exist—my
tongue is tied, a delicate flame burns beneath my
limbs, my ears start ringing with a strange sound,
and both of my eyes are covered in complete
Louis Zukofsky, in A Test of Poetry, dedicates a chapter of his fascinating little book to presenting different translations of the same passage of an ancient author—Homer, Ovid, Catullus—and provides a brief analysis and commentary on these translations. For a comparison of different translations of Catullus 51 he presents first Lord Byron’s rendition (1807):
Ah! Lesbia! Though tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee;
But, at the sight, my senses fly,
I needs must gaze, but, gazing, die;
Whilst trembling with a thousand fears,
Parch’d to the throat my tongue adheres,
My pulse beats quick, my breath heaves short,
My limbs deny their slight support;
Cold dews my pallid face o’erspread,
With deadly languor droops my head,
My ears with tingling echoes ring,
And life itself is on the wing,
My eyes refuse the cheering light,
Their orbs are veil’d in starless night:
Such pangs my nature sinks beneath,
And feels a temporary death.
And then Sir Philip Sidney’s translation (1579):
My muse, what ails this ardour?
Mine eyes be dim, my limbs shake,
My voice is hoarse, my throat scorched
My tongue to this my roof cleaves
My fancy amazed, my thoughts dulled
My hearth doth ache, my life faints
My soul begins to take leave.
Zukofsky comments, “Evidently there must be some living poetic matter in the poem of Sappho which has attracted the attention of other poets.” It’s interesting to me that both Byron and Sidney’s poems veer into hyperbole by equating love with death. I don’t think that Catullus meant to push the limits of his metaphor quite that far. His focus on the loss of his senses suggest that love, for him, is a disease, and he is fainting from his symptoms. He’s not dead yet, he’s just “sick!” I also prefer the brevity and repetition of Sidney’s version over Byron’s expanded, rhyming verses.
Zukofsky sums up the reasons why we continue to translation and interpret and identify with poems that are more than 2,0000 years old:
A valuable poetic tradition does not gather mold; it has a continuous life based on work of permanent interest (quality). This tradition involves a knowledge of more than English poetry and the English language. Not all the great poems were written in English. There are other languages.
There are all kinds of measure (metre) in verse. No measure can be bad it if is a true accompaniment of the literal and suggestive sense of the words.
3 responses to “Living Poetic Matter: Catullus Carmen 51”
This is fascinating, Melissa, thank you! I too prefer Sidney’s translation over Byron’s – the former feels more urgent and desperate, akin to that sense of shortness of breath when faced with an overwhelming feeling. And I love Zukovsky’s recognition of the living, breathing poetic tradition. I’m sure Homer, Ovid etc al would be amazed and delighted to know that we are still hooked on their every word all these years later!
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Thank you! This is such an intense poem. I was so glad to see it included in the Zukofsky book.
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