One Perpetual Sleep: From Catullus to Marvell

Catullus, Carm. 5

“My Lesbia, let’s live and let’s love,
Let all the rumors of harsh old men
count for only a penny.
Suns can set and rise again:
but when our brief light sets
we must sleep a lonely endless night.
Give me a thousand kisses and then a hundred,
then another thousand and a second hundred,
And even then another thousand, a hundred more.
When we’ve had so many thousands,
we will mix them together so we don’t know,
so that no wicked man can feel envy
when he knows what a number of kisses there’ve been.”

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

As with earlier poems of Catullus I have mentioned, this one came to me when I was a teenager studying AP Latin. I don’t know if anything more ruinous or momentous could happen to a teenager in his rutting years than encountering Catullus (ok, that sentence needs a limiting phrase–“in a Latin class”). It has been twenty years since I first read this poem, but I could almost translate every line without looking at the Latin.

Perhaps there is an unpleasant serendipity in the Latin AP on Catullus no longer being offered? For better or worse, I never would have pursued classics if not for the verve and danger of Gaius Valerius Catullus. Discipuli, thank your Latin teachers!

For better or worse, I remember reading this poem within the same semester as Andrew Marvell’s gemAndrew Marvell’s gem (“vegetable love should grow”!):

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
       But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
       Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

One thought on “One Perpetual Sleep: From Catullus to Marvell

  1. palaiophron

    It’s a crime against humanity that Catullus is not offered as a part of the AP syllabus. As you know, I think that the emphasis on Caesar and The Aeneid gives students a totally mistaken impression of Latin literature; of course, if I structured the AP course, students would make like Ovid and say ‘Vergilium vidi tantum,’ in order to make more room for Ovid!

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