Catullus, Carmina 101: Trying to Comfort Mute Ash

“Drawn across many nations and seas

I come to your pitiful resting place, brother

To present you with a final gift at death

And to try to comfort mute ash pointlessly,

Since chance has stolen you away from me.

My sad brother, unfairly taken from me.

For now, this, the ancient custom of our ancestors

Handed down as the sad gift for the grave,

Accept with a flowing flood of fraternal tears

And forever, my brother, hail and farewell.”

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus

advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,

ut te postremo donarem munere mortis

et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,

quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,

heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.

nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum

tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,

accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu

atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

In school, I had to memorize the following poem.  I took it very seriously. Then I went to grad school and learned about genre, persona, and play.  Now I can’t read the poem as a record of actual human emotion. Graduate school ruined Catullus for me. (And many other human things).  This translation started as an attempt to regain it. But, the poem does seem maudlin and exquisitely built. Shit. Is he for real? What’s real? Thursdays!

(So, now, this translation is an allegory for graduate school.)

6 thoughts on “Catullus, Carmina 101: Trying to Comfort Mute Ash

  1. I think that our modern mode of expecting that poetry should be an actual record of emotion, or at the very least directly sprung from emotional experience in an identifiable way, is fundamentally flawed. This is a part of why so much modern “poetry” takes on the character of a bellyaching therapy session with no true pathos. Would “et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem” be any less affecting if we knew that Catullus did not even have a brother?
    Indeed, if great poetry deals with universal themes, it seems that it ought then to transcend the merely particular aspect of individual experience. Consider a parallel case in music: if a purely instrumental piece conjures up profound emotion, do we consider it less genuine or authentic if we find out that it was composed as an early school exercise, or any experiment in form? One of my favorite individual lines of Latin poetry is Virgil’s “formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas,” which is effectively just imitation of Theocritus, but seems no less moving on that account.
    In any event, I think that Catullus has suffered a lot at the hands of literary interpreters, perhaps more so than any other ancient poet. All of the attempts to read a penis into the passer poems seem to me to be rather desperate. Especially within and subsequent to the tradition of Hellenistic poetry, which had such a profound influence on the Neoteric movement in the 1st century, there were plenty of light and silly little poems about trifling subjects, which gained their charm not from metaphor or allegory, but from their ability to render something rather insignificant into something beautiful.
    I think that your suggestion about graduate school is ultimately true: there is no surer way to stamp out the human qualities which generate real literary appreciation than by trying to inculcate the higher criticism, which strives at every turn to devalue literary achievement with Protean standards adapted to each individual text at hand.

  2. My comment is not so profound as palaiophron’s but I did read this poem many years ago and found it very moving. Nothing has spoilt it for me since except a fading ability to read Latin. I read only Greek now and spend all my efforts in keeping that up. I do find if I lift up my eyes up from the actual text and read modern criticism or analysis of ancient literature then very often it detracts from what I’m reading. It’s as if the critic has completely missed the point of the work in question. He hasn’t been moved at all. Actually I can’t read a lot of modern criticism because I have no idea of what some of the words mean – intertextuality, speaking to a narrative etc etc. I could make the effort to learn but I am in the envious position of being able to read ancient Greek just for pleasure and I don’t want to read stuff that detracts from that pleasure.

    1. I actually started translating this again today because I know my Latin has deteriorated pretty badly (I haven’t taught it since 2005).

      I hear your frustration with modern criticism although I know that if used rightly the interpretive tools offered in the past 50 years or so can really have a powerful impact on the way we read (and a positive one). The problem I fear is one of proportions (applying the same way of reading indiscriminately without combining with others) and mistaking ends and means.

      But I think Palaiophron is right with his corrective comment: does it make the poetry less beautiful or less powerful if Catullus didn’t have a brother? Or, does the evidence of artifice make it artificial? Since the poem ultimately only exists when one of us reads it, if it is weak or fake or overly wrought, the problem in part lies in us.

      Or something like that.

      Whatever the case, I’ll keep reading….

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