The Poems of Catullus.

Catullus at Lesbia's by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1865).

I saw a review of Catullus' poems on Goodreads that describes him as "petty, bitter, overdramatic & bisexual." That is Catullus in a nutshell. These poems, many of them anyway, are wild and are enough to shock, or at the very least surprise, the most modern of readers. Catullus was born in 84 B.C. and lived only 30 years. He was born into a prominent family in Verona  and, through them, seems to have been personally acquainted with Cicero, Caesar and Pompey, and he spent much of his adult years in Rome where he fell in love with Clodia Metelli, a married woman who he referred to as "Lesbia" in his poems. One of his main influences was the poet Sappho, and he went on to influence the likes of Ovid, Virgil, and Horace, and later, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, and W. B. Yeats. We are lucky to know of Catullus: a single manuscript was discovered in around 1305; it was copied then lost several times. Only three survived, and frankly, given how explicit they are, I'm particularly surprised they survived the Victorian age!

The poems or carminas, of which there are 116, can be divided into four: (1) poems to his friends, (2) the erotic poems to Clodia and other male and female lovers, (3) the "invectives" which are the most obscene, and (4) the poems of condolence. The most fun, of course, are the invectives directed far and wide at people from Clodia's lovers, Julius Caesar, and friends he had fallen out with. Some of the best had me crying with laughter, one in particular but, given I've made a practice of making this blog entirely safe for work, I can't quote: Carmina 97, which is not for the fainthearted; nor is Carmina 16 which also has notoriety as it was believed it was so explicit it wasn't translated until the 20th Century.  

But it's not all vulgarity: some are quite sweet, such as Carmina 38 to his friend:
Angst,
ennui & angst
consume my days & weeks,
and you have not written
or done anything to soothe my illness.
I am piqued.
So much for our friendship.
Ah! Cornificius,
a word from you would cure everything,
though more full of tears
than a line from Simonides.
Others very sad, such as Carmina 73:
Cancel, Catullus, the expectancies of friendship
cancel the kindness deemed to accrue there:
kindness is barren, friendship breeds nothing,
only the weight of past deeds growing oppressive
as Catullus has discovered, bitter & troubled,
in one he had once accounted a unique friend.
The final favourite poem of mine that I'll quote, Carmina 85:
I hate and I love. And if you ask me how,
I do not know: I only feel it, and I'm torn in two.
Certainly this is a great deal of angst in The Poems of Catullus, and bitterness too. But this curious collection is so very much alive, however negative it can be. There's some moving poems, some silly and fun, and some in the true sense of the word obscene. Whatever the case, this is a great read and for the influence it had despite all the odds, an important one.

Comments

  1. i've shyed away from Catallus for the reasons you cite, but he has been in the libraries of many literati, and so must have redeeming features... i'll look for a copy. tx for the information...

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    Replies
    1. I think a more maturer brain than mine would probably find it off-putting, but I must say I thought at times he was hilarious!

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