Saccharine Saturday: Catullus 70 and 87, Two Poems to Lesbia

“There’s no one she’d prefer to marry to me

Catullus, Dead but Still so Alive
Catullus, Dead but Still so Alive

My woman says, not even if Zeus himself asked her.
She says: but what a woman says to a lover in desire
It is better to write on the wind or running water.”

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.

When I was sixteen and studying for the Catullus/Horace AP (which no longer exists! O Tempora! O Mores!), I thought this poem clever in its brevity and directness. (And, oh my, I oft quoted it to ladies of my acquaintance and age!) I always liked the brusque repetition of dicit in line 3 and the classic image (‘borrowed’ I guess, from Sophocles and others) of writing on wind and water. Of course, what romantic or even cynic is ignorant of the verisimilitude of the use of hyperbole in the first line?

More than half a lifetime later, I cringe a bit at the phrase mulier mea and the implicit and structural sexism of the poem: can we read the woman’s infidelity of speech in bed as a universal human failure (because, please, don’t men lie as frequently if not more to a cupidae amanti?) or does the heft of Catullus’ comment rely too heavily on ancient misogynistic tropes to be saved?

“No woman can claim that she has been loved as much
Truly, as my Lesbia has been loved by me.
No promise has ever been made in as much faith
As can be found on my part in loving you.”

Nulla potest mulier tantum se dicere amatam
vere, quantum a me Lesbia amata mea est.
nulla fides ullo fuit umquam foedere tanta,
quanta in amore tuo ex parte reperta mea est.

Though the twenty-first century me still cringes a bit at the possessive mea Lesbia, people do still talk this way. These two poems are connected by style (hyperbole, anaphora; length), diction (nulli/mulier; nulla/mulier in the first lines) and content; but I think the latter is the superior composition both for its artistry (in its repetitions, inversions and pauses (for example, look how the pentameter stops at me and at tuo/ex; the formalist in me is losing it!) and its less possibly offensive character. Who has not felt the sting of the unequal love, the proffered faith, and the total commitment? Of course, the careful balance and brilliance of the compositions undermines claims of passion. And, yet, the integration of a passionate claim within the controlled context of a carefully built poem speaks to a poet’s power to make something out of nothing, to build order out of chaos.

And, in short, though I ply my trade now as a Homerist, it was Catullus who seduced me into Classics. The dirty bastard is still playing his tricks on the world.

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