Loving and Hating: Ovid, Catullus and Self-Loathing

Ovid, Amores 2.4

“I will not be so bold as to defend my lying ways
or to lift false weapons for the sake of my sins.
I admit it—if there’s any advantage to confessing;
Insane now I confront the crimes I’ve confessed:
I hate, and though I want to, I can’t stop being what I hate.
Alas, how it hurts to carry something you long to drop!”

Non ego mendosos ausim defendere mores
falsaque pro vitiis arma movere meis.
confiteor—siquid prodest delicta fateri;
in mea nunc demens crimina fassus eo.
odi, nec possum, cupiens, non esse quod odi;
heu, quam quae studeas ponere ferre grave est!

Perhaps it is just my training on an outdated AP curriculum or my love of Catullus, but I cannot read this poem without thinking of this one (Carm. 85):

“I hate and I love: you might ask why I do this–
I don’t know, but I see it happen and it’s killing me.

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Catullus, 91: Untrustworthy Gellius Fails to Surprise

“I was hoping that you would be true to me, Gellius
in my misery, in this love of sure destruction,
not because I know you well and think you are dependable,
or because you are able of restraining your mind from foul crime,
but because I grasped that she is not your mother or sister,
this girl whose great love has been consuming me.
Yet, even though I was joined with you by much familiarity,
I did not believe that this was enough to attract you.
But you, you thought it enough: you find so much joy
In any fault, in anything with even the smallest part of sin.”

Non ideo, Gelli, sperabam te mihi fidum
in misero hoc nostro, hoc perdito amore fore,
quod te cognossem bene constantemve putarem
aut posse a turpi mentem inhibere probro;
sed neque quod matrem nec germanam esse videbam
hanc tibi, cuius me magnus edebat amor.
et quamvis tecum multo coniungerer usu,
non satis id causae credideram esse tibi.
tu satis id duxti: tantum tibi gaudium in omni
culpa est, in quacumque est aliquid sceleris.

Gellius is one of the recurring addressees in Catullus’ poems. He is infamous across the centuries for his (alleged) incestuous relationships with his mother and his (alleged) novel ‘lip balm’ (to name a few of Catullus’ more ribald jests….)

Feast-Week: You Will Have a Happy Thanksgiving–If You Bring the Food, Drink and Company

Catullus 13

“You’ll dine well at my house, Fabullus
In a few days, if the gods favor you, and
If you bring a fine, large meal with you.
And don’t forget: a bright-eyed girl,
Wine, salt, and every kind of cheer.
If you bring these things I ask, fine friend,
You will dine well: for your Catullus’ wallet
Is full of nothing but spider webs.
In exchange, you’ll get unmixed love,
Or something even sweeter and more elegant:
I will give you a perfume which
Venuses and Cupids gave to my girl.
The kind of thing that when you smell it, Fabullus,
You’ll beg the gods to make you all nose.”

Cenabis bene, mi Fabulle, apud me
paucis, si tibi di favent, diebus,
si tecum attuleris bonam atque magnam
cenam, non sine candida puella
et vino et sale et omnibus cachinnis.
haec si, inquam, attuleris, venuste noster,
cenabis bene; nam tui Catulli
plenus sacculus est aranearum.
sed contra accipies meros amores
seu quid suavius elegantiusve est:
nam unguentum dabo, quod meae puellae
donarunt Veneres Cupidinesque,
quod tu cum olfacies, deos rogabis,

totum ut te faciant, Fabulle, nasum.


Image result for Papyrus Ancient Roman Dinner Invitation

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.

Catullus 116: Callimachus’ Poems Can’t Fight Your Magic Missiles

“I find myself turning over and over in my mind again
How I might send you some of Callimachus’ poems
To soften you towards me, so you might not try
To pour out your missiles on my head too.
But now I see that I have taken up this task in vain,
Gellius, and that my prayers are worth nothing.
I will make your weapons miss me in flight
But you’ll be struck fast and then pay my price.”

Saepe tibi studioso animo venante requirens
carmina uti possem mittere Battiadae,
qui te lenirem nobis, neu conarere
tela infesta mittere in usque caput,
hunc video mihi nunc frustra sumptum esse laborem,
Gelli, nec nostras hic valuisse preces.
contra nos tela ista tua evitabimus amitha
at fixus nostris tu dabis supplicium.

Take That, Catullus!

“Stella’s dove, his fond delight – go ahead and let Verona hear this! – is better than Catullus’ sparrow. That dove is better than the sparrow by as much as my friend Stella is better than Catullus.”

Stellae delicium mei columba,
Verona licet audiente dicam,
uicit, Maxime, passerem Catulli.
Tanto Stella meus tuo Catullo
quanto passere maior est columba.

Note: Verona = Catullus’ birthplace.

One Perpetual Night, Countless Kisses: Catullan Hendecasyllables for The Weekend (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!