THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of 113 poems, grouped into three sections based on various meters; written in Latin in the middle of the first century bce.
A poet addresses lovers, friends, enemies, and his family, responding to personal and larger social circumstances in poems ranging from marriage hymns to short, witty lampoons that ridicule their subjects,
Very little is known for certain about the life of Gaius Valerius Catullus. A late source informs us that he was born in Verona (the principal town in the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul in northern Italy) in 87 bce and died at the age of 30 in Rome. However, these birth and death dates are contradicted by evidence in the poems themselves. On the strength of this poetic evidence, scholars conclude that Catullus was born in 85 or 84 bce and died in 55 or 54 bce. The ancient biographer Suetonius claims that Catullus’ father was a prominent man in Verona who often hosted Julius Caesar at banquets, probably when he was governor of Cisalpine Gaul (see Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars , also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Catullus had a brother, whose death and burial in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) he mourned in a famous elegy (poem 101). Later, Catullus served in the Roman province of Bithynia in Asia Minor in association with the governor Gaius Memmius. Catullus’ family must have been wealthy enough to have the poet educated in Rome, where Greek studies were prominent at the time, for his verse reflects a deeply rooted love of Greek literature and a topnotch literary background. When Catullus arrived in Rome, he no doubt associated himself with other young writers interested in making the Latin language and its poetry as flexible and sophisticated as the Greek. Instead of epic verse about Roman legends or heritage, Catullus and his fellow Poetae Novi (New Poets), as Cicero called them, wrote sometimes concise, sometimes lengthy poems about a wide span of subjects. Many of these poems were on subjects of a personal nature, and many were based on the Greek-style lyrics these poets so fervently admired. Catullus was the most famous representative of this artistic movement and of all the New Poets, only his works have survived, thanks to a single manuscript, the Codex Veronensis, once lost, which resurfaced around 1300 and upon which all existing manuscripts are based. Scholars agree that the book of his poetry—called Carmina (meaning “Poems” or “Songs”)—was arranged by Catullus himself. They showcase his specialties; Catullus is as famous for his erotic love poetry as he is for his scathing epigrams and harshly critical verse. His corpus includes an extensive selection of meters, moods, and themes. Catullus’ chief contribution is his so-called “Lesbia Cycle”; a series of poems to his married lover, “Lesbia” (the name derives from the Greek island of Lesbos, home of the poet Sappho, who is perhaps the most famous composer of love poems in antiquity and an important influence on Catullus; see Sappho’s Poems, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). The poems of the Lesbia cycle vividly recreate the rise and fall of a love affair. Catullus’ poetry exerted great influence on ancient writers such as Propertius, Horace, Ovid, and Martial, and on Renaissance writers such as Italy’s Francesco Petrarch and England’s Robert Herrick and Ben Jonson. Commonly considered the most “modern” of ancient poets, Catullus wrote verse that expresses a personal reaction to life events, whether public or private. In so doing, he contributed enormously to our understanding of the late Republican culture of Rome and to the evolution of poetry in ways still felt by new generations of writers.
Catullus’ Rome—the remarkable individuals
Catullus’ poetry is vivid, personal, daring, and unabashedly emotional. It is also a remarkable record of the turbulent era in which he lived. His poems were most likely intended for both oral recitation and publication, and he mentions many known figures of his era throughout his work. Some are lauded; others are pilloried or ridiculed. Because of his works’ profuse mixture of history and art and of public figures and private relationships, many readers since his era have assumed that his poetry is autobiography. Though he undoubtedly drew on elements of his own life, it must be remembered that “the tradition in which Catullus wrote called … for the artful projection of an image or persona, literally a mask behind which the poet manipulates the tools of poetic rhetoric” (Garrison in Catullus, The Student’s Catullus, p. ix). In keeping with this tradition, literary scholars like to separate the poetic voice, the narrator of his poems, from the biographical man. We cannot be certain that Catullus’ famous love affair was “real” in the biographical sense. His poetry, however, is so powerful—and seems so sincerely personal—that many scholars believe his poetic persona to have been inspired by actual events in his life.
This view is supported by the fact that late Republican Rome is well represented in the Carmina. Catullus enjoyed skewering prominent citizens with his often obscene accusations. Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 bce) was stung by Catullus’ stylus no less than four times (in poems 29, 54, 57, and 93), despite Caesar’s friendship with the poet’s father. The foremost military man and politician of his day, Caesar achieved his greatest feats after Catullus’ death. But already by 60 bce, he had formed a political alliance with Pompey and Crassus (the so-called “First Triumvirate”). Thereafter, Caesar was elected consul (in 59 bce) and began his famous campaigns in Gaul (in 58 bce; see Commentaries on the Gallic War , also in Classical Literature and Its Times). By this time, the young Caesar was already one of the most powerful figures in the Republic, and seemingly the most ambitious. Yet Catullus felt socially and financially secure enough to criticize Caesar openly for supposedly promiscuous sexual behavior with both genders. Caesar, says the biographer Suetonius, nevertheless favored Catullus. Apparently the poet apologized for his lewdly insulting verses, then was invited to dine with Caesar.
The Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 bce) is another towering figure in Catullus’ verse. In poem 49, Catullus metes out lavish praise to Rome’s greatest speechmaker. Cicero, however, often disparaged the group of writers with whom Catullus associated himself. The orator called them the “new (or novel) poets” (in Latin, novi poetae, and in Greek, neoteroi), a label reflecting the group’s modern approach. This was no compliment. Cicero sneered at the so-called “modernists,” though he and their most famous representative, Catullus, circulated in the same social circles. In 58 bce, Cicero was banished from Rome and his house destroyed, thanks to his political enemy Publius Clodius Pulcher, brother of the most mysterious and provocative woman in Rome in his day. Was this woman also Catullus’ love interest “Lesbia”?
Indeed, Clodia Metelli (c. 95 bce-post 45 bce) has long been identified as the “Lesbia” of Catullus’ most famous poems. Sister to Publius Clodius Pulcher, she was also the wife of Quintus Metellus Celer, consul of Rome in 60 bce. Her brother’s surname, Pulcher, means “beautiful” in Latin, and she was, by all accounts, a well-educated and lovely woman as well as an important political asset to her brother. Their family gained distinction as one of the most ancient and well respected in Rome. Catullus evidently met Clodia sometime before 59 bce and at once began to poetically immortalize his passion for her. How much of the emotion behind his verse belonged to his poetic persona and how much to the real Catullus remains unanswerable. In any case, the relationship soon soured, and in place of the exuberant lyrics testifying to their undying love came insulting diatribes from Catullus, both brilliant and obscene. Clodia’s husband had died suddenly in 59 bce, and as her brother’s power grew, she apparently threw off Catullus for another lover—Marcus Caelius Rufus. Caelius, as he was called, had been a protègè of Cicero’s.
In 57 bce Cicero returned from exile and used his relationship with Caelius to take revenge on the man responsible for banishing him, Clodia’s brother, Clodius. A case presented itself as a perfect opportunity. Caelius was brought to court on charges of attempting to murder Clodia. Acting as his lawyer, Cicero seized the opportunity to defend Caelius and publicly humiliate the sister of his worst enemy (see Cicero’s Speeches , also in Classical Literature and Its Times). In presenting his case, Cicero famously labeled Clodia “the Medea of the Palatine,” the most fashionable district in Rome. In comparing Clodia to Medea, Cicero identifies her with the female paradigm of jealousy and murder in Greek mythology. Medea was infamous as an enchantress who killed her own children to exact vengeance on her husband, who abandoned her for another woman. It was a condemning metaphor.
The charges against Caelius are fashioned in Cicero’s court drama as nothing more than the vindictive action of a Roman Medea who had lost her younger lover (Caelius) to another woman. Cicero painted Clodia as an indecent woman with a bottomless appetite for sex who violated Roman custom by choosing her own lovers and who watched young men bathe nude at her famous garden parties. Cicero’s biting rhetoric and Catullus’ poetic attack both sought to pillory her for her sexual independence. Cicero even slyly accused her of incest with her brother Clodius, describing him as her husband, then adding, “I meant to say ’her brother’—I’m always making that mistake” (Cicero, Pro Caelio, 13.32; trans. Kelli Stanley). In a clever pun in poem 79, Catullus exploits this well-known slander against Clodia to identify his lover. He writes that “Lesbia” prefers “Lesbius” to Catullus (“Lesbius” is the Latin masculine adjective to the feminine Lesbia, and so suggests a family relation like brother and sister). He furthermore builds on this beginning, adding that “Lesbius” is “pulcher” (the Latin adjective for “beautiful”), playfully punning on the third element in Clodius’ name (Publius Clodius Pulcher). So, to convert Catullan poetics to a mathematical equation, if Lesbius = Clodius Pulcher, then Lesbia = Clodia.
Aside from people, places in Catullus’ Rome—the bustling marketplace, the glittering soirees of the upper classes, the carefully rehearsed drama of the court—are also captured in his lyrics. No ancient poet so vividly records everyday activities of his era, from dining out with friends (poem 12), to bragging in the forum (central marketplace) (poem 10), to demanding repayment of a loan (poem 103). At the same time, Catullus was equally comfortable with the unusual circumstance or topic—a thoughtful and moving elegy to his recently deceased brother (poem 101), a metrically complex narrative about the mythological wedding of Peleus and Thetis (poem 64), or a haunting story of religious fanaticism (poem 63).
The patronage system was one of the firmest foundations of Roman society. For the Romans, social influence amounted to political clout: there was no dividing line between the social and political spheres. A member of the political elite was powerful precisely because other citizens and at times entire cities came under his influence. How did patronage work? The politically elite individual caused these “clients,” as such citizens were called, to vote for or otherwise support issues that he, their patron, favored. In return, the patron bestowed favors on his clients—he might offer them money, legal help, or possibly even a political appointment.
Cicero’s life and relationships provide the best documented examples of how the patronage system worked in Rome during the late Republic. Whole towns in southern Italy, the island of Sicily, and the Roman province of Cilicia (in Asia Minor), where he served as governor, were his clients. This meant he could count on their support, quite literally: several of the Italian towns sent men to help protect the orator when he believed his life was in danger in 63 bce, during his term as consul. In return, Cicero could provide assistance to his clients by recommending citizens to political appointments or providing legal help in a lawsuit. In essence, he represented their interests in the Senate and acted as an advocate for their interests, as they did for his. The total number and status of a politician’s clients are what granted him authority in the highly competitive world of the Roman aristocracy. Catullus lived during a transitional time, when Rome was shifting from a Republican form of representative government (albeit one dominated by the Roman aristocracy) to imperial rule under the authority of one man. The concept of patronage narrowed in scope during the imperial era, when such competition was no longer a factor because power was concentrated in a single individual—the emperor.
One kind of patronage that continued to flourish during the imperial era was that of a writer and his benefactor. It is unlikely that Catullus himself had a patron—it appears as if his social position was secure enough without one. However, any writer not wealthy or well placed socially needed a patron for material support and to attain sufficient fame. Another writer of the first century bce, Virgil, did need a patron. The patron, Maecenas, was a key figure in Emperor Augustus’ circle and the very model of an ideal literary benefactor.
Writers catered to a small population, which made literary patrons especially important. Studies suggest that books were purchased and circulated among just the elite, the only class capable of enjoying them. Poets also shared their lyrics by delivering them orally. Recitations, a popular mode of literary dissemination, were organized for the enjoyment of the same group. Since writers received no money for publication, they depended on inheritances or the monetary gifts of a patron in order to practice their art. If the status of the poet’s own family did not entitle him to a reserved seat at the table, the patron would be his entryway into the highest social circles. In exchange for a chance to write and have his work read and recited among the best people in Rome, the writer would glorify his patron in prose or verse, thus adding to the patron’s glory with each copy read or each nightly recital. The opportunity for literary immortality spurred many a politician to support poetry. Cicero spoke on behalf of the Greek poet Archias when Archias was defending his claim to Roman citizenship (Cicero, Pro Archia). In the speech, Cicero, Archias’ patron, discusses the importance of literature and poets in immortalizing the heroic deeds of generals and leaders. He more specifically notes that Archias is working on an epic poem glorifying his (Cicero’s) heroism in saving the Republic during his consulship in 63 bce (Pro Archia, 11.26). Though Cicero almost certainly prevailed in the case, Archias seems never to have finished the poem that he had promised his patron.
Before Catullus, Latin poetry had been limited to mostly long, drawnout epics on Roman history. There was some circulation of epigrams—short poems that expressed a certain mood or attitude of the author in a mannered Greek style. Also there were theater pieces that employed a variety of meters. All poetry was based on Greek meter, except the early Saturmian verse, which was an ancient Italian form native to the Latin language. Lyric poetry was a much later literary development in Latin literature, essentially the creation of Catullus and other New Poets in the middle of the first century bce. Though many of his poems were inspired by earlier Greek poets, Catullus’ lyrics stretched the Latin language into a pliable, piquant tongue. His poetry mixed elevated diction and street language and spread the whole on a frame of meter typical of Greek lyric, elegy, and even epic. According to one literary historian, “the poet most responsible for the development of Latin lyric was Catullus, even though the poet Horace later attempted to claim this honor for himself” (Forsyth, p. 4; see Horace’s Odes, also in Classical Literature and Its Times).
Catullus did more than adapt a Greek form to Roman language and literature. In addition to his experiments with his native tongue, he stamped a vividly emotional style on an elegant, learned format. One of his own literary heroes was Callimachus (c. 310-240 bce), a Greek poet born in North Africa who flourished in Alexandria and was famed for his erudite and concise poetry. In poem 66 Catullus translates into Latin verse a famous elegy by Callimachus known as the Lock of Berenice. Gaining distinction himself, Catullus was termed “doctus” (learned or polished) by later poets because his poetry demonstrated an obvious awareness of the Greco-Roman literary heritage. Ultimately his melting pot of Greek sophistication and Roman immediacy, of emotion and precision, and of vulgarity and lyricism make Catullus not only a founder of the Latin lyric, but its ideal practitioner. He invented a type of verse whose appeal would endure for more than 2,000 years. “Of all the Latin poets,” observes another literary historian, “Catullus is the one who seems to speak most directly to us” (Wiseman, p. 1).
Contents and arrangement
The Carmina numbers 116 poems but actually consists of 113 poems (three poems—numbered 18-20—inserted into the standard collection in the sixteenth century, are now excluded, though the numbering remains unchanged). The poems are arranged in three sections, featuring various rhythmic patterns and subjects.
Poems 1-60 are polymetric poems. These generally brief poems are full of insult and satire. Catullus wrote them in several lyric meters (especially in the Greek meters known as the hendecasyallable and choliambic or “limping iambic” meter).
Poems 61-68 are seven long poems in additional meters, including elegy-style (or elegiac) couplets and epic-style (or dactylic) hexameters. Elegy, composed in alternating verses or couplets, was originally a meter associated with mourning or warfare in archaic Greece, but already by Catullus’ era the meter was associated with epigrams, satire, and love poetry.
Poems 69-113 are poems written in the elegy-style couplet. They include Catullus’ moving tribute to his dead brother, epigrams that attack various people, often in obscene language (the so-called “Mentula” poems), and intense declarations of love and its sorrows.
It is generally believed that Catullus himself ordered the poems as described above. In addition to the overarching metrical arrangement, there are many “cycles” of themes—the Lesbia poems, marriage and the gods, the “Juventius” poems (addressed to a young male lover), and invective verse that denounces someone or something. The individual poems are most commonly named by their number. Below are three typical poems in the Carmina, all taken from the polymetric section of the work.
Catullus wrote two poems about kissing, but poem 5 is the more well-known, as it embodies the principle of carpe diem [”seize the day”], which would later be made famous by Horace.
Let’s live, my Lesbia, and let’s love—
And not give a damn for the gossip
Of sanctimonious old fools.
Suns may fall—yet rise again;
For us, when once the brief light has dimmed
One eternal night must be slept.
Give me a thousand, then a hundred kisses
Followed by a thousand and another hundred more—
Then again a thousand, again a hundred,
And when we’ve kissed so many, many thousands,
We’ll mix them all up, so we won’t know the number
Or so some jealous sort can’t jinx us
When he discovers just how many kisses there are.
(Poem 5, The Student’s Catullus’, trans. K. Stanley)
In this early Lesbia poem, the narrator entreats his lover to indulge her passion in a giddy flourish of countless kisses. Yet something ominous hangs over the atmosphere of extreme happiness or euphoria: death (the eternal night) is inevitable—therefore, one must love while one can. Superstition, too, threatens the lovers—if their passion is discovered, they could fall victim to the baneful “evil eye” of the gossip. Their erotic indulgence is dangerous to quantify, even by the lovers themselves, as if analyzing their passion will dissipate or sap it. In keeping with this conviction, the poem concludes on a note of secrecy and protection that balances the expansive exuberance of the first lines. “We’ll mix them all up … so some jealous sort can’t jinx us” ends the poem, against “Let’s … not give a damn for the gossip,” which begins it.
The following poem offers an entertaining example of Catullus’ disarming wit, along with a view of upperclass Roman nightlife.
You’ll dine well at my house, Fabullus
In a few days, if the gods favor you.
And if you bring a large and tasty dinner
And don’t forget a pretty girl, and wine, and salt
And plenty of loud laughter.
I repeat, if you bring these things, you charmer,
You’ll dine well;
For your Catullus’ wallet is full of spiders’ webs.
But, in return, you’ll earn unadulterated affection
And something even more elegant and precious—
For I will offer a perfume
Which the love gods gave to my girl.
And after you smell it, you will beg the gods
To change you, Fabullus, into One/
(Poem 13, The Student’s Catullus; trans. K. Stanley)
The poet uses the opening lines to describe the most crucial ingredients of a successful evening party and to emphasize the poverty of the male speaker: the man’s wallet has been empty so long that it contains nothing but cobwebs. Yet within this short work, the speaker goes on to jokingly explain the state of his finances. He claims that Love, personified by the love gods (Venus and Cupid), has given his Lesbia a precious aromatic perfume. He himself may have in fact given “his girl” the perfume. This would account for both his exaggerated poverty as well as his taking on the identity of the “love gods” when he offers the perfume to Fabullus and then equates himself with the essence of Love in the closing lines. The humor implicit in the idea of Fabullus being transformed into a large nose—in order to smell the ratified scent so much more powerfully—probably contains some sexual innuendo as well. Fabullus is an affectionate nickname for “Fabius.” The historical personage, the real Fabius, was a male friend of Catullus who served in the Roman army in Spain.
At first this next poem reads like a high compliment to Cicero, whom everyone would understand was meant by “Marcus Tullius,” the first two parts of his name. It was known that Cicero, the great orator, did not restrain himself when it came to self-praise, and Catullus playfully outdoes the orator in the lavishness of this seeming tribute. He even opens with the rhetorical flourish of epic, calling Cicero a grandson of Romulus, one of the legendary founders of ancient Rome.
To the most articulate grandson of Romulus
Of those that are, of those that were,
O Marcus Tullius,
And of those who will be in later years—
Catullus gives his greatest thanks.
He, the worst poet of all….
As much the worst poet of all
As you are the best patron... of all.
(Poem 49, The Student’s Catullus; trans. K. Stanley)
But the poem’s excessive praise holds true only if Catullus is truly declaring himself “the worst poet of all”—and his tone is seldom so selfcritical. Thus, this apparent compliment to Cicero may actually be mocking him.
The poem is a short masterpiece and its meaning is double-edged. Thanks to the flexibility of Latin word order, “the best patron … of all” could mean either the best (of all) patrons, or the best patron of everyone —a sense that would sarcastically refer to Cicero’s famous ability to defend anyone—even those whom he had formerly prosecuted. Though the surface meaning expresses gratitude, a mixture of elements suggests irony: the elaborate formality of the poem, Catullus’ overly and uncharacteristically modest stance to his own poetry, and, depending on the sense of best patron of all, the ambivalent ending (which could either be a compliment or a sarcastic jibe). Without knowing the circumstances under which Catullus wrote the poem, we can never be sure of its purpose.
Roman culture and the poetic insult
That Catullus was able to perhaps slyly attack Cicero or to forthrightly insult Caesar in verse demonstrates not only the comparative artistic freedom of this poet (thanks largely to his high social status), but also the prominence of the insult in Roman culture. The competitive Roman aristocracy used a variety of tools to keep politics and social prominence (which were virtually identical concepts in Rome) on a level playing field. When one person became too powerful, it was quite common to see him publicly attacked or humiliated. A military triumph was a rare honor accorded to a general for military accomplishments, and it physically paraded the leader’s troops, booty and captives before the Roman populace. During such a triumph, it was traditional for the Roman soldiery to insult their general with loud and rude namecalling. The insults not only enhanced the tough reputation of their commander; they also helped keep the triumph a symbol of Republican power, one that celebrated the state, not the individual. By demeaning him, the insults kept the general in his place; they firmly anchored him as not the leader but as a citizen of the Republic, dispelling the implicit physical threat of his army marching through Rome. The insults also served an important function in the Roman belief system: they helped prevent a jealous enemy from cursing their general’s good luck. By minimizing his good fortune, name-callers sought to avert bad fortune from plaguing him.
Such equalizing social customs were regarded as necessary in the Republic, where power was shared. The insult was one way of emphasizing the importance of the state over the individual, and the fact that it was an accepted part of Roman life meant that Catullus’ invective poetry would not have been startling to his Roman audience. In fact, the ancient Athenians, who also lived in a political state in which power was shared, used this same tool. Demosthenes’ On the Crown is an excellent example of insult in oratory. In theater, too, Greek Old Comedy leveled abusive attacks at public figures such as Socrates or Euripides. (See On the Crown and, for theater, see Clouds ; both also in Classical Literature and Its Times.)
Sources and literary context
Catullus was the foremost of the Roman Novae Poetae or “New Poets,” a literary movement that aimed to transform the Latin language and its literature and to breathe new life into “a poetic tradition [that they] considered stale and stagnant” (Forsyth, p. 1). Others in Catullus’ circle of poets included Valerius Cato, Gaius Helvius Cinna (Cinna the poet in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar), and Gaius Licinius Calvus, apparently Catullus’ best friend. A description of a day they spent together while trying to outdo each other in on-the-spot verse writing is the subject of poem 50. Another member of the literary circle may have been Parthenius, a Greek poet who encouraged the young men to write in the style of some Hellenistic (Greek) poets in the Alexandrian school, when Alexandria, Egypt, was the center of learning and education in the Mediterranean world. The already mentioned Greek poet Callimachus, who wrote in this style, became the single greatest influence on Rome’s New Poets, including Catullus.
Others influenced the New Poets too. The older Greek verses of Sappho and of Archilochus (a master of satire and invective) especially affected the polymetric poetry that Catullus wrote. For his epigrams, Catullus may also have found inspiration in the native Italian or Etruscan tradition of Fescennini. These were blunt, obscene songs performed mainly at weddings to ward off envious spells or prevent the “evil eye” from attacking the fortunate couple. Such a “warding off” function is called apotropaic, and it surfaces in the desire to minimize good fortune reflected in Catullus’ poem 5.
From this blend of sources, Catullus produced a collection of poetry with the Greek learnedness of Alexandrian scholarship and the raw Roman street language used earlier in plays by Plautus (c. 250-184 bce) (see Plautus’ The Braggart Soldier , also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Catullus concocted a happy mixture of traditions, thereby becoming the leader of a revolutionary poetic movement and a singular poet of his day.
Catullus’ impact on subsequent Roman poetry cannot be overestimated. He invented words to increase Latin’s pliability, and he successfully adapted very complex Greek meters into the far less metrically sophisticated language of Latin. He also had tremendous impact on the poets who followed. Horace’s Satires owe a large debt to Catullus, and Catullus is mentioned (and venerated) by the epigram writer Martial. Propertius, too, with his love poems addressed to Cynthia, was inspired by Catullus’ verses, as was Ovid in his writing of love poetry (see Roman Love Elegy, also in Classical Literature and Its Times).
During the fourteenth century, copies of Catullus’ poems appeared in Italy, perhaps through Petrarch, who followed such verse with his own series of love poems addressed to a woman named Laura. But it was in English poetry, beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, through such leading poets as Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, that Catullus probably exerted the strongest influence. John Donne and Ben Jonson drew on Catullus’ poem 5 for inspiration, as did Andrew Marvell when he penned “To His Coy Mistress.” By the end of the eighteenth century (1798), Samuel Taylor Coleridge had translated this same poem into English:
My Lesbia, let us love and live
And to the winds, my Lesbia, give
Each cold restraint, each boding fear
Of age and all her saws severe.
Your sun now posting to the main
Will set—but ’tis to rise again—
But we, when once our mortal light
Is set, must sleep in endless night!
(Coleridge in Duckett, p. 39)
Lord Byron paraphrased a different part of the same poem in the nineteenth century (1806), when addressing his own love interest, Ellen: “Nought should my kiss from thine dissever / Still would we kiss and kiss for ever; / E’en though the numbers did exceed / The yellow harvest’s countless seed” (Lord Byron in Duckett, p. 40). In the United States, Eugene Field, best known for his children’s poetry, published a translation of poem 5 in 1896, calling it “Catullus to Lesbia.”
Come, my Lesbia, no repining
Let us love while yet we may!
Suns go on forever shining,
But when we have had our day,
Sleep perpetual shall overtake us
And no morrow’s dawn awake us …
(Fields in Duckett, p. 40)
Every generation of poet—especially those who wrote about love—seems to have rediscovered Catullus’ legacy. Far from “the worst of all poets,” as he so cheekily dubs himself in poem 49, after 2100 years, Catullus has proven to be one of the most enduring—and enchanting—lyric voices of all time.
—Kelli E. Stanley
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