Catullus: the Unbridled Emotions of Youth
James Chang is the winner of the 2023 Living Latin in Rome High School Essay Contest.
quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli
qualecumque; quod, o patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclō.
(Catullus: Carmen 1, lines 8-10)
“Have for yourself this little book / of sorts; which, O patron goddess, / may it last more than a lifetime.”
It seems like sheer luck that Gaius Valerius Catullus’ Carmina survived the burning of the Library of Alexandria in 48 B.C. Or maybe his wish to last through the ages was finally granted by his goddess. In yet another instance of chance, I stumbled upon Catullus’ poems this year after taking Latin Seminar on a whim of curiosity. And so, perhaps by luck, or perchance by fate, I continue to feel the tug of Catullus’ verse over two millennia after he first put pen to papyrus.
If I were to meet any Ancient Roman, I would meet Catullus. The obvious follow-up question here is: “Why not Ovid, or Caesar, or Spartacus, for that matter? Out of all the famous Romans who have lasted through antiquity, why Catullus?” Put simply, Catullus is one of my favorite poets. I would want to meet him because he has touched my heart. Love for Catullus’ poetry was also shared by the many Ancient Roman readers of his time; he was arguably the most renowned and finest poet out of all his contemporaries, rivaling even the great Cicero. And Catullus’ popularity was not without justification - he was the first Ancient Roman lyric poet, ushering in a new wave of Roman literature for later poets such as Horace and Virgil. Catullus championed lyric poetry, which is poetry about personal emotions and feelings, and his works deviated significantly from traditional poetic styles of the past. In my eyes, there are two aspects of Catullus’ poetry that make him stand far above the rest: his layered emotional content, and his poetic craftsmanship. If I were to describe Catullus’ poetry in a single sentence, it would be, ‘the unbridled emotions of youth’. Catullus captures the feelings of being young (maybe that’s why he appeals to me so much!). His poetry pulsates with emotion from every end of the human experience. With each poem, the reader experiences a duality of love and betrayal, sarcasm and censure, misery and jovial wit.
A great example is poem 50, in which Catullus recounts a leisurely evening writing poetry with his close friend Calvus. Upon leaving, he tosses and turns in bed with furore, or delirium, wishing to see his friend again. The immense joy that Catullus felt with Calvus is now contrasted by the word dolorem, or anguish; his membra semimortua, or half-dead limbs, lay strewn in wretched distress; he can neither satiate himself with food nor sleep. This intense emotional reaction leads the speaker to feel physical symptoms akin to literal heartache. Even more fitting for the topic of heartache is poem 51, in which Catullus describes how, upon catching sight of his lover Lesbia, she snatches away all his senses; his voice is stolen from his throat; night covers his gemina…lumina, his twin lights; tenuis sub artus flamma demanat, a thin flame runs down under his limbs. Physical symptoms in response to emotional stress are a common motif in Catullus’ Carmina; they make his poetry all the more heartfelt.
Alongside the impassioned subjects of his poems, I love Catullus’ craftsmanship. His poems are a combination of not only his own literary talent, but also the works of his Ancient Greek predecessors. One of Catullus’ greatest influences was Sappho of Lesbos. Deemed the tenth muse by Plato, Sappho was a famous love poetess from Ancient Greece, a lyrical musician of the heart. The imprints of Sappho are seen quite notably in poem 11, which is an instance of Catullus’ rare use of the Sapphic Strophe. In the final half of 11, Catullus rebukes and insults Lesbia all in the same breath, alluding to Sappho’s iconic lone mountain hyacinth in the last stanza:
Cum suis vivat valeatque moechis,
quōs simul complexa tenet trecentos,
nullum amans vere, sed identidem omnium
nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
tactus aratro est.
(Catullus: Carmen 11, lines 17-24)
“May she live and may she be well with her three hundred adulterers, / whom she embraces at the same time, / loving none truly, / but breaking repeatedly the loins of all; / And may she not look back, as before, for my love, / which by her fault fell just as the flower / of the farthest meadow, / after it was cut by the passing plow.”
Catullus symbolically crushes Sappho’s purple mountain hyacinth, announcing the death of his love for Lesbia in dramatic fashion. And let us not overlook the bitter hyperbole of Lesbia’s three hundred lovers. How slanderous! How crushing!
Some scholars have expressed disdain over Catullus’ more indecent lines. In contrast to his eloquent love lyric of 51, for example, poems like 11 describe crude and unfiltered vulgarities. To me, the extremity of Catullus’ vulgarities is almost comical; his pronounced sexual innuendos reek of rebelliousness and youthful flamboyance. As if in one giant hyperbole, Catullus captures the extremes of youth in all of its rawness, whether that may be the most foolish love, the most biting hate, or the occasional obscenities of sexual frolicking.
Just above the jagged peninsula of Sirmione, there lies a ruined Ancient Roman villa. Even after two millennia, its crumbled limestone walls continue to overlook the blue waters of the sea. This villa was Catullus’ vacation home; he fondly called it ocelle, or ‘little eye’. If I were ever to meet Catullus, I would want to meet him here, at his home away from home, stepping away from the mind’s burden for just a moment. I’m sure Catullus would recline on his couch before telling me endless stories of friends, lovers, and scandalous affairs; in turn, I would ask him to spend an evening writing poetry with me.
Arnold, Bruce, Andrew Aronson, and Gilbert Lawall. Love and Betrayal: A Catullus Reader. Glenview, IL: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Burl, Aubrey. Catullus: A Poet in the Rome of Julius Caesar with a Selection of Poems Translated by Humphrey Clucas. London: Constable, 2004.
Connely, Willard. “Imprints of Sappho on Catullus.” The Classical Journal 20, no. 7 (1925): 408–13. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3288941.
Dunn, Daisy. Catullus' Bedspread: The Life of Rome's Most Erotic Poet. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018.
Miller, Paul Allen. "Reading Catullus, Thinking Differently." Helios 27, no. 1 (2000): 33+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed March 15, 2023).
Poems of Sappho. Accessed March 15, 2023. https://www.uh.edu/~cldue/texts/sappho.html.
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