Tag Archives: Elegy

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.

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Love Has Finally Arrived: My Translation of Sulpicia

Euterpe, Muse of Music and Poetry

Since it is Women in Translation month, I thought that it would be interesting to write a little post and offer my own translation of the only female  poet from Ancient Rome whose work has survived.  Sulpicia, born during the Augustan period and a contemporary of Horace, Ovid and Vergil,  wrote six love elegies which were not published on their own, but instead appended to the volume of poetry penned by Tibullus.  Even nowadays her poems can only be found in the Loeb, for instance, as part of the Corpus Tibullianum.  For many years scholars have denied the fact that a woman could have written these poems but it is now widely accepted that it was the daughter of upper class Roman citizens, connected to Augustus’s inner circle, who composed these elegies.  Unfortunately, more recent studies have criticized Sulpicia’s poems and judged them as inferior to her contemporaries because they are missing the literary allusions that are prevalent in other elegiac poets.

After translating Sulpicia’s poems, however, it is evident that she was keenly aware of the elegiac forms of her fellow Roman poets.  Regardless of what one might think of their literary merit, Sulpicia’s six poems, addressed to her lover Cerinthus, are the only opportunity for us to sneak a glimpse into the mind and heart of a Roman female from her own perspective.

I offer my translation of Sulpicia Poem XIII in which she confirms that the rumors about her love are more than just rumors and she wishes to cast aside all veils and embrace her joys and affections:

Tandem venit amor, qualem texisse pudori
quam nudasse alicui sit mihi fama magis.
Exorata meis illum Cytherea Camenis
adtulit in nostrum deposuitque sinum.
Exsolvit promissa Venus: mea gaudia narret,
dicetur siquis non habuisse sua.
Non ego signatis quicquam mandare tabellis,
ne legat id nemo quam meus ante, velim,
sed peccasse iuvat, vultus conponere famae
taedet: cum digno digna fuisse ferar.

Love has finally arrived, and a rumor that I tried to conceal
this kind of love would bring me much more shame than
revealing it openly. I begged Venus with my poems and
she brought him right to me and placed him in my lap.
Venus has kept her promises.  If anyone is said to be lacking
in his own happiness, then let him speak about my joys.
I wouldn’t wish to entrust anything to wax tablets for fear
that someone else might read about my feelings before my
love. It pleases me to have engaged in this transgression;
I am tired of wearing a mask because of this rumor.
Let it be said that we have been together,
each of us equally worthy of the other.

I love the tone of this poem, that Sulpicia doesn’t care about rumors and she wants to free herself of societal expectations placed on her.  The digno and digna in the last line is my favorite part of the elegy—both she and her lover are “worthy of” and “fitting for” one another.

What is everyone else reading for #WITMonth?

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Filed under Classics, Opinion Posts, Poetry