A few selections from Guy Lee's superb translation of Catullus. (Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-283587-4).
Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Latin poet of the first century B.C., and a contemporary of Caesar, Crassus, Pompey, Cicero, Marc Antony, and the rest of that wacky, fun-loving bunch. Although 116 of his poems have survived, he is perhaps best known for his love poems to the pseudonymous "Lesbia," of which these selections are examples. Born in Verona (the modern region of Veneto, formerly Cisalpine Gaul), Catullus relocated to Rome as a young man, and became the archetypal country boy who moves to the big city and makes good.
It was during his stay in Rome that he met and became romantically involved with "Lesbia."
Whilst skimming through the notes and introduction, I discovered that "Lesbia" was the pseudonym Catullus assigned to a woman named Clodia, who was -- well, a bit of a tramp. I knew something about the story was familiar, and I soon discovered what. She was the same Clodia Metelli whom Cicero tore a new asshole in his Defence of Marcus Caelius Rufus. (Reprinted in Selected Political Speeches -- Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-044214-6.)
This Clodia was the sister of Cicero's arch-nemesis, Publius Clodius Pulcher, and the wife of a patrician named Metellus Celer (whom she was later rumored to have poisoned). In the course of her life, she had adulterous affairs with a veritable legion (no pun intended) of men, including Catullus and the aforementioned Marcus Caelius Rufus, upon whom she eventually turned like a rattlesnake.
Now for what I suppose are obvious reasons, I have a soft spot for writers who've endured the deaths of siblings, and who, as young men, had wretched taste in women. (As the very snarky saying goes: "You can take a white-trash whore out of the trailer park, but you can't take the trailer park out of a white-trash whore.") Catullus wasn't the first writer to fall desperately and obsessively in love with a fickle, narcissistic shitweasel of a female, and he certainly wasn't the last. At times, I think hopeless affaires de coeur are the price of admission to the club...
What sets him apart from poets like -- say -- Dante Alighieri is the fact that he had no illusions about Clodia. Dante's mewling praise of his Beatrice in the Divine Comedy is so overblown as to be downright fulsome at times. Not so Catullus. Catullus knew that Clodia had handled more peckers than a gay urologist, and if anything, it only increased the pain and poignancy of his situation.
When it comes to Roman literature, I generally prefer satirists like Juvenal or Petronius -- although I do enjoy Martial's nastier epigrams, and even a few of Horace's pieces. (Now that my Latin is improving, I'll have to go back and read them in the original. Like the Greek playwright Aristophanes, many of the Roman poets suffer in translation. As the parallel Latin/English Oxford edition of Catullus reveals, the unexpurgated, untranslated Latin and Greek are often shockingly and delightfully obscene. What can one say about a poem that begins with the line "Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo"?) What immediately impressed me about Catullus, though, was the man's intensity.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
He didn't fuck around.
Whether it's the result of my stereotypical "Celtic temperament" or the manic-depression (at times, I suspect that the former is merely a euphemism for the latter), I've loved with equal fervor, and endured the same hell when the affair ended. This is to say that Catullus and I were on the same wavelength from the get-go. I began reading the book on Monday night, and finished it Tuesday afternoon.
Except for LXIV (a tedious epyllion -- my least favorite piece), it's all great stuff. The following pieces, though, are my favorites.
Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit -- sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti
in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua
"My woman says that there's no one she would rather wed
Than me, not even if Zeus himself proposed.
Says -- but what a woman says to an ardent lover
One should write on the wind and the running water."
And the second half of LXXII:
nunc te cognoui. quare etsi impensius uror,
multo mi tamen es vilior et levior
'qui potis es?' inquis? quod amantem injuria
cogit amare magis sed bene velle minus.
"I know you now. So though my passion's more intense,
Yet to me you are cheaper and more frivolous.
'How can this be?' you ask? It is because such injury
a lover to love more, but to like less."
Huc est mens deducta tua mea, Lesbia, culpa
atque ita se officio perdidit ipsa suo,
ut iam nec bene velle queat tibi, si optima fias,
nec desistere amare, omnia si facias.
"Lesbia, my will has sunk to this through your frailty
And so destroyed itself by its own kindness
That it could neither like you, even if you were perfect,
Nor cease to love you, though you stopped at nothing."
And my favorite, LXXXV. Short, sweet, and to the point:
Odi et amo. quare id faciam fortasse requiris?
nescio sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
"I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why?
I don't know, but I feel it happening, and I am in agony."