Tag Archives: Catullus

Let Mortals Never Take a Vow in Jest: Dante Paradise Canto V and Catullus

Illustration of Beatrice explaining divine wisdom to Dante from the Mandelbaum translation.

No, I haven’t lost my mind, you read that title correctly. I wrote a post at this time last year discussing the similarities I noted between Catullus’s love poems and Dante’s Vita Nuova. As I was reading the final book in the Divine Comedy this afternoon, I was surprised to see in Canto V of Paradiso what I believe are some parallels, similarities, perhaps even influence from the Roman poet Catullus. In this Canto, Beatrice is instructing Dante about the seriousness of a vow—at first she is, of course, talking about religious vows and nuns and how they cannot be broken unless one makes a promise of something loftier. But the conversation, I think, moves into more general matters of faithfulness and agreements that anyone is capable of making over the course of his or her life. Beatrice tells Dante (trans. Mandelbaum):

Let mortals never take a vow in jest;
be faithful yet circumspect, not rash
as Jephthah was, in offering his first gift;
he should have said, ‘I did amiss,’ and not
done worse by keeping faith. And you can find
that same stupidity in the Greeks’ chief—
when her fair face made Iphigenia grieve
and made the wise and made the foolish weep
for her when they heard tell of such a rite.
Christians, proceed with greater gravity:
do not be like a feather at each wind,
nor think that all immersions wash you clean.

Even I was surprised when reading this Canto to have thoughts about Catullus flash across my mind. In Carmen 76 and 70 Catullus is admonishing his former lover Clodia (Lesbia) for holding out vows and promises to him which, in the end, she could not keep. Catullus uses the language of vows, pleasure, faith, wind and water to describe his staying faithful to a promise of love and companionship and Clodia’s breaking of those same promises. It is also evident that the words Catullus uses in his poems have religious, spiritual and legal connotations. Poem 76 begins (Latin translations are my own):

If there is any pleasure for a man in remembering previous good deeds, when he knows for a fact that he has been dutiful, and that he has not violated a sacred vow, and that he has never, in any agreement, abused the gods for the purpose of deceiving his fellow man, then many joys remain for you throughout your long life, Catullus, even though these joys have resulted from a thankless love.

And in poem 70 Catullus writes:

My woman says that she prefers to marry no other man over me, not even if Jupiter himself were to ask for her hand in marriage. She says this: but what a woman promises to an eager lover should be written on the winds or the swift flowing rivers.

As I mentioned above, Latin words like pius (dutiful, pius), fides (promise, vow), foedere (agreement, contract) all have religious connotations. Catullus takes the vow he has made to his beloved as seriously as if it were a religious or a legal contract. And we can likewise view the passage from Dante as not only bearing religious meanings, but also romantic ones—especially since the words are spoken between Dante and Beatrice. It also struck me that the example of a broken vow that Dante uses is that of Iphigenia who was promised by her father, Agamemnon, a wedding but instead was sacrificed at the altar of Artemis—a myth with both religious and marital references. I haven’t been able to find a reference or footnote in any of the Dante commentaries about Catullus. But can you see, fellow readers, why Dante reminded of these carefully composed elegiac meters from Catullus?

7 Comments

Filed under Classics, Italian Literature

Catullus, George Eliot and Soul-Sickness: A Translation of Carmen 76

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.

12 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics

Io Saturnalia: My Translation of Catullus Poem 14a

John Reinhard Weguelin. The Roman Saturnalia. 1884.

The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia held on December 17th in the Julian calendar involved decorating, partying, eating, gift giving and general conviviality.   This special day, gradually expanded to a full week, was dedicated to the agricultural deity Saturn whose temple in the Forum was the center of sacrifices for the holiday.  A general spirit of frivolity was felt throughout the city as Romans of all classes participated in the merrymaking.  Catullus, the 1st century B.C. poet, calls Saturnalia the “best of days.” In his Carmen 14a, Catullus describes his great annoyance when his friend, Calvus, gives him a joke gift—a book of bad poetry!—for Saturnalia.  Catullus then plots the sweet revenge he will inflict upon Calvus (Translation is my own):

Oh Calvus, if I didn’t love you more than my own eyes
I would hate you as much as I hate that guy Vatinianus.
What could I have possibly said or done to make you
destroy me with so much bad poetry?  May the gods
do very bad things to that client of yours who originally
sent you this wicked gift.  Because if, as I suspect, Sulla
the elementary school teacher gave this new and well-chosen
gift to you then this situation has not turned out so badly
for me, and, in fact, it is good and fortuitous, and your
efforts are not in vain. Oh great gods, what a horrible
and accursed little book! That very book which I am
convinced you sent to your friend Catullus on this best
of days, Saturnalia, so that I might die again and again
on this day!  I will not, absolutely not, let this go,
you trickster.  As soon as it is light out, I am running
to the bookshop and collecting all the poisonous poetry I can
find for you—Suffenus and Caesius and Aquinus.  I will
pay you back with these punishments!  And as for you,
bad poets, goodbye! Go away!  Go back to that place where
you got your bad feet, the troubles of our generation,
you absolute worst of all poets!

We know from his other poems that Calvus is one of Catullus’s most dear and well-respected friends.  In addition to being a poet, Calvus is also a lawyer and Vatinianus who is mentioned in the first few lines in the poem is an odious man that Calvus once prosecuted.  Catullus considers Calvus an excellent poet and the two close friends would have contests and challenge each other to poetry duels.  A book of lousy poetry seems a fitting joke gift between these men.  What makes Calvus’s gift especially bad (and funny) is that he regifted it!  Catullus calls Calvus out in the poem for his regifting—Calvus received the book as payment from one of his clients, named Sulla, and Calvus then passes the book off to Catullus.  Catullus also calls Sulla, the original giver of the books,  an elementary school teacher, which in ancient Rome is an insult to Sulla’s intelligence.  The part of the poem that has always amazed me is that Catullus threatens to get Calvus back by emptying the bookshop of every bad piece of poetry he can find, and he names names!  Of the three he mentions, Suffenus is the poet whose writing we know the most about; in Carmen 22, Catullus describes Suffenus’s verse as akin to lines composed by a goat herder or ditch digger.  Oh to have seen the look on Calvus’s face when he reads that book of poetry.  Nice burn, Catullus!

To all of my fellow readers: Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.  May you receive lots of excellent books of poetry during your Saturnalia celebrations!

Leave a comment

Filed under Classics

My Pilgrimage from Dante to Catullus to Sappho

The fifth chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage  describes Miriam attending a Dante lecture. As I was reading  Interim I remembered that I had bought a copy of Vita Nuova translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that was reissued by the NYRB poets series in 2011.  And from Dante I was led to Catullus and then to Sappho.  I am sure that entire dissertations have been written about this topic, but here are my scattered thoughts anyway.

When reading Dante’s Vita Nuova, a comparison between the Italian poet and Catullus immediately comes to mind.  Some of the similarities are so basic and superficial that they can be considered coincidences.  Both poets, for instance, humbly call their collections a “little book” (libello in Italian and libellus in Latin.)  The poetry of both men is deeply personal and autobiographical, although specific details such as dates for events are difficult to glean from their writings.   The Italian and the Roman, both of whom were upper class, wealthy citizens, each fall in love with a woman that is inaccessible and married to another man—Beatrice is for Dante what Clodia (Lesbia) is for Catullus.  And finally, both men are the novi poetae of their respective generations, breaking free from the traditional conventions of their craft (Catullus rejects epic in favor of short, personal poetry; Dante writes in Italian instead of Latin.)

Beginning from the age of nine, Dante writes about each of his encounters with his beloved Beatrice.  On one such occasion, a gathering to celebrate a wedding (some believe it is Beatrice’s own wedding), he sees her with a group of other young women and he is struck dumb by the sight of her.  The loss of all of his senses  is described in a sonnet that was written about this chance meeting with her:

Even as the others mock, thou mockest me;
Not dreaming, noble lady, whence it is
That I am taken with strange semblances,
Seeing thy face which is so fair to see:
For else, compassion would not suffer thee
To grieve my heart with such harsh scoffs as these.
Lo! Love, when thou art present, sits at ease,
And bears his mastership so mightily,
That all my troubled senses he thrusts out,
Sorely tormenting some, and slaying some,
Till none but he is left and has free range
To gaze on thee. This makes my face to change
Into another’s; while I stand all dumb,
And hear my senses clamour in their rout.

The last five lines are similar enough to Catullus Poem #51 to suspect a case of intertextuality. Many scholars have speculated that this poem captures Catullus’ first encounter with Clodia who is sitting with another man at a party while the poet looks on (translation is my own):

This situation steals away all of my senses,
I who am so wretched; For as soon as I looked at you, Lesbia,
nothing else exists for me. But my tongue swells up,
a thin flame simmers beneath my limbs,
my ears are ringing, and darkness covers
both of my eyes.

Catullus 51 is the Roman poet’s translation of Sappho #31 in which poem she is similarly frozen while beholding her lover. Some scholars have speculated that Sappho sees the object of her desire at a wedding, which is an interesting parallel with the setting of Dante’s sonnet (translation is my own):

When I look at you, even for a short time,
I am no longer able to speak.

But my tongue breaks,
and at once a small fire assails me under my skin
my eyes do not see and my ears are ringing.

I am contemplating another reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy and I have Dorothy Richardson to thank for rekindling my interest in the Italian poet and bringing me back to some of my favorite poems from Catullus and Sappho.

For the extra curious here are links to the original languages: Catullus, Sappho, Dante

And here is an abstract of an excellent article about Dante’s influence in Pilgrimage: https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/dantes-pilgrimage-in-dorothy-richardson(6bff1f93-85f3-4b23-99a1-05ddfef79ef4).html

4 Comments

Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry

Ave atque Vale: Nox by Ann Carson

Nox

nox, noctis, f.  noun. [cf. Skt. nak, Gk. νύξ , Eng. night]  The time between sunset and sunrise, night; noctis avis, an owl; in contexts implying nightfall;  personified as a god or goddess;  nocte, by night, at night;  diem noctemque, day and night, without cessation or pause;  in noctem, for use at night-time;  nox aeterna, perpetua, i.e. death; the conditions of night, nocturnal darkness, etc.; in a fig. context, as symbolizing concealment or mystery; also chaos, turmoil.

Nox is a fitting title for Ann Carson’s eulogy of her older brother Michael whom she hadn’t seen in many years.  Nox refers not only to his death, but his absence, the blackness, and mystery that surrounded his turbulent life.  Carson’s brother had gotten into trouble because of drugs and, in 1978, instead of going to jail he fled to Europe and her family rarely heard from him.  She writes that he phoned her “maybe five times in 22 years.”  Nox is an accordion style, color reproduction, of Carson’s memorial notebook that contains texts, photos, letters, and sketches.  The entire notebook is housed in a gray box which little tomb of sorts seems appropriate for such a project.

Ann Carson chooses Catullus Poem 101 as the starting point, the inspiration for this notebook and scrapbook she keeps about the troubled life and death of her brother.  Catullus’s brother is also older than him and died far away from Rome, in the Troad.  Catullus’s poem is meant to serve as a private eulogy delivered at his brother’s graveside, long after the formal burial and death rituals have taken place.  Similar to Catullus, Carson is not able to be at her brother’s funeral because his widow didn’t find his sister’s contact information until two weeks after the memorial service.  She writes about her experience with Catullus Poem 101:

7.1  I want to explain about the Catullus poem (101). Catullus wrote poem 101 for his brother who died in the Troad. Nothing at all is know of the brother except his death. Catullus appears to have travelled from Verona to Asia Minor to stand at the grave. Perhaps he recited the elegy there. I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times. Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy. No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind. I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I cam to think of translation as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

The very first page of Nox has a complete copy of Catullus poem 101.  From there Carson gives a lengthy definitions for every single word in the Catullus poem.  These definitions occupy the left-hand side of the notebook, while the right-hand side is dedicated to her own personal observations, photos, and mementoes of her brother.  Through the personal stories, anecdotes and observations about her brother and the few experience they shared together, Carson does successfully capture the sorrow and the “deep festivity” of a Catullus poem.  She talks, for instance, about his nickname for her when they were younger.  He calls her “pinhead” or “professor,” names that imply some sort of acknowledgement for her intellectual gifts.  And later on, in one of their few phone calls, he sounds melancholy except for a brief moment when he calls her “pinhead.”

It was such a great experience for me to translate Catullus poem 101 with my students this year and share Ann Carson’s book with them.  They commented that it made the Catullus elegy more meaningful and they were amazed at the uniqueness of the accordion folded book.  One of them remarked that the scrapbook style of Nox, with torn notes and letters, was fitting for the brother and sister’s scattered and disjointed relationship.

My favorite part of this Catullus poem has always been the very last line. Its emotion, its finality are so perfectly captured by Catullus’s simple words.  It is fitting that Carson ends her memorial with her own translation of this poem—the photocopy of it on the final page is faded and blurred like the memories of her sibling—so the last line of Catullus also serves at the ending of Nox.

atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

And into forever, brother, farwell and farewell.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Anne Carson, Nonfiction