Tag Archives: Catullus

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!

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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

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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.

 

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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.

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Let us Live and Let us Love: My Translation and Interpretation of Catullus Poem 5

512px-john_reinhard_weguelin_lesbiaLesbia by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1878.

A dear friend who is also a classicist read my essay for the Seagull Books Catalog and pointed out that my translation of Ovid was so literal and awkward that most readers probably wouldn’t understand its meaning.  I spend my life eliciting grammatically precise, literal translations from my students so that I can assess their learning of Latin syntax.  But his message inspired me to stretch my translation skills beyond the literal and to come up with passages that readers could actually appreciate and enjoy.  Of course I also don’t want to stray so far away from the Latin that I completely abandon all rules of syntax and grammar, so it will be interesting and challenging for me to strike that balance.  I’ve decided to do a series of translations of Latin authors on my blog that will be dedicated to my friend who ever so gently gave me some suggestions for my Ovid translation.  Or, when I become frustrated with a particularly difficult Latin passage, I will blame him.

Since I am teaching a Catullus course in the spring semester, and he is my favorite Latin lyric poet, I will begin my translation series with one of his most popular poems. Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84-54B.C.) had a passionate love affair with a woman named Clodia.  But Clodia was no ordinary woman.  Her family was of old, Patrician, noble stock and she was married to an older, prominent and powerful man, the proconsul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer.  As was the case with most upper class Roman marriages, Clodia’s was arranged for political and economic gains and there was no real love or affection in the marriage.  But she does find love with Catullus, who wrote several poems about her and their relationship.  I imagine him spending hours perfecting this masterpiece composed in hendecasyllabic meter and sending it off to her in secret.  And, just in case it might be intercepted by the wrong person, he disguises his love with the pseudonym “Lesbia.”

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Let’s live and let’s love, My Clodia,
And let’s consider worthless
The gossip of crabby old men!
Suns rise and set:
When the fleeting daylight finally sets for us,
We must spend one perpetual night together.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand kisses,
Then a second hundred,
And then give me another thousand kisses
And then give me a hundred kisses.
Finally, when we have kissed many thousands of times,
Let’s mix up the number of those kisses
So that an envious man will not be able to put a curse
On us if he finds out the exact number of our kisses.

There are, of course, more salacious and explicit poems that Catullus composed about Clodia.  But I find that the subtlety and simplicity of Poem 5 makes it particularly erotic.  The standard interpretation of lines 1-6 are is the theme of carpe diem (seize the day) , with reference to our mortality but I have always viewed these lines rather differently.  The chiasmus in the first line (vivamus mea Lesbia amemus) brings to mind an image of Catullus and Clodia intertwined in bed among tangled sheets, eager for their much anticipated  sexual encounter.  He begins his poem, and his encounter with her,  slowly and languidly with the hortatory subjunctives (vivamus-“Let’s live” and amemus-“Let’s love”) and builds up to the intense immediacy of the imperative da -“give”-as he demands many kisses from her.   He is in the throws of fervent lovemaking when he uses the periphrastic (we must sleep for one perpetual night) and the anaphorae— the repetition of deinde, centum, mille—mimic the rhythm of their lovemaking.   And finally, when he has climaxed, he comes back to the more languid subjunctive forms (sciamus, possit, sciat), and suggests that the intimate details of their encounter, the exact number of their shared kisses, be mixed up so that no one will know and spoil their furtive encounters.

The hyperbole in this poem–“give me  a hundred kisses, then a thousand,” etc.–, which many have found silly, demonstrates just how much he loved her and was willing to risk to be with her.  They had to be very careful to meet secretly at the home of a trusted, mutual friend.  Catullus mentions in the first line of Poem 5 that men are gossiping about their love affair and in the last line comes back to the idea that there are those who envy the pair and wish them harm.  I imagine Catullus as a man of means, he was a wealthy Roman with high social status, who was willing to use and even risk those means to be with Clodia.  Some might accuse me of being a bad feminist, but I greatly admire Catullus, a strong man who would move heaven and earth and defy convention to spend time with the woman he loved.

I also imagine that Catullus was an infinitely patient man as weeks and even months must have gone by in between the times he was able to spend with Clodia.  When he does get to spend the night with her he doesn’t want it to end and his wish that they be suspended in one perpetual night together demonstrates how few and far between their trysts must have been. In an age of instantaneous, electronic communication and social media we seem to have lost our patience for anything and anyone who doesn’t give us immediate pleasure all the time.  I am realistic enough and old enough, some might say jaded enough, to know that an enduring love like Catullus’s is extremely rare or non-existent in an age where we so quickly swipe left, delete, unfriend, block, ignore, hide and cast aside.

Catullus’s poetry is deceptively simple and every time I translate his poems I find another layer of meaning.  Up next, I will attempt a translation of Catullus Poem 7 which is the companion piece to Poem 5 and also involves kisses.  In addition, I will explore the influence of the Greek, Alexandrian poets on Catullus’s style.   For anyone who wants to read all of Catullus’s 116 poems in translation, the Oxford World’s Classics Text by Guy Lee and the Loeb by F.W. Cornish are my favorite translations.  The Loeb translation is a bit archaic as it was published in 1913, but I find the style fitting for Catullus.

My friend who inspired these posts suggested that I translate one of  Horace’s Odes, which are nearly impossible to render into mellifluous English.  I would also like to translate some of Seneca’s Trojan Women and Ovid’s Heroides.  I would love to have more suggestions for Latin authors to translate, so please leave some requests in the comments for me!

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