The End of the Affair

Mark Buchan |

Catullus, The American Songbook, and Stephen Sondheim

 “The Sparrow of Lesbia” by Guillaume-Charles Brun (1825–1908). (source)
  “The Sparrow of Lesbia” by Guillaume-Charles Brun (1825–1908). (source)

I have a favorite moment in Catullus’ poetry. I have no idea how long the moment lasts, or if it lasts at all. Before I finish, I’ll offer you the chance to construct it for yourself. It occurs at the end of the antepenultimate line of Catullus 11, a poem where the poet asks two of his friends, Furius and Aurelius, to take an angry, final message of “goodbye” to his lover, Lesbia. The moment can help us reflect on Catullan artistry; but also put Catullus in a dialogue with some of the finest lyrical achievements of American songwriting from the last century. And all on a specific topic: how, poetically speaking, do you end a love affair?

I was first made aware of this moment in an undergraduate supervision. A Cambridge Professor, known as much for his technical expertise in meter and textual criticism as for his open hostility to the excesses of “literary criticism,” had been helping me, and two other suitably naive undergraduates, translate Catullus 11. Nothing much to tell, until he paused over an ‘‘irregularity” in the meter of the poem’s final stanza. (In passing, I’ll suggest that this discussion will make more sense — and certainly be far more pleasurable — if you take time to read or listen to the songs/poems as we go. It may also help you get through some of the technical asides that will, alas, prove necessary. You have been warned!)

nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
tactus aratro est.
‘Nor let her look back, as before, at my love,
Which has fallen — her fault — just like a flower
At the edge of meadow, after it has been touched
By a passing plough.’ (Catullus 11, 21–4)

The image of the poet’s love as a flower, hacked down by a heedless, randomly passing plough, is evocative and beautiful enough. But the Professor added something. The poem is in Sapphics, and the first three lines should contain the same pattern of eleven syllables (– u — x — u u — u — –). But at first sight line 22 contains twelve syllables, something metrically impossible:


qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati.


In order to count the syllables, we need to factor in the normal ‘elision’ between the first two words, ‘qui’ and ‘illius.’ Latin poetry avoids the phenomenon known as ‘hiatus’ when one word ends with a vowel, and the following word starts with it. Without a consonant to smooth this transition, there is a sense of a gap (hence hiatus, the Latin word for ‘gap’ or ‘yawning’), which is removed by simply merging the vowels together. So not ‘qui — gap — illius’, but ‘qu’illius, long syllable, short syllable, long syllable. So we keep counting, and as we arrive at the Latin word for ‘meadow’ ‘prat’ we have reached our eleventh syllable The final syllable ‘i’ in ‘prat-i’ seems extra-metrical, surplus to requirements. It sticks out, and somewhat clumsily.

But the Professor offered a solution, though one that arrives a little too late. Fast-forward to the next line, and we see that the next word begins with a vowel, ‘ultimi.’

qui illius culpa cecidit velut prat(i)
ultimi flos

We can now go through the process of ‘elision’ once more. The last syllable of ‘prati’ disappears into the ‘ultimi’ of the next line: ‘prat’ultimi’. But this time, crucially, the elision occurs between the lines, on the edge. At this point, half-guiltily, as if aware he had stuck a foot into the dangerous territory of “literary excess,” the Professor pointed out the connection. The syllable at the end of the line, which briefly appears as extra-metrical, only to be subsumed in the elision to the first word of the next line, mirrors the flower that sticks out into the neighboring field, and is casually cut down as if it had never existed. Catullus’ love exists in this elided I in “prat(i) ultimi.” I remember wanting to talk more about this, relate it to the rest of the poem, indulge in a kind of “literary excess” that I’ve never really stopped practicing since. But the Professor would hear none of it. The point had been made. We moved on, translated a little more, and the supervision ended. I thought it was magical.

I was reminded of this Catullan moment when listening to various performances of the 1935 song “Last Night When We Were Young,” by Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg, a team most famous for the songs from The Wizard of Oz. The song has recently been revived by the 95-year old Tony Bennett, in his final concerts. I first encountered it from my favorite Frank Sinatra album, In The Wee Small Hours. It is a rueful, mysterious break-up song. But I’m most interested in another syllable that seems to stick out, as if added on. This syllable arrives at the end of the bridge of the song, “break.”

To think that spring had depended
On merely this: a look, a kiss
To think that something so splendid
Could slip away in one little day-


If the quantity-based system of Latin meter is based on repeated syllables in predictable quantities, the lyrical patterns of the American songbook are based on rhyme. The internal rhyme of “away” and “day” would be “perfect.” But to rhyme a word with only part of another word (“away” with “day-break”) is an imperfect, though commonly practiced rhyme form (sometimes known as “apocopated rhyme,” as one word is “cut off”). I associate it most with Dorothy Fields. Here’s an example from the song “Don’t Blame Me”:

Verse 1: I’m under your spell/So how can I help it
Verse 2: If I can’t conceal/The thrill that I’m feeling

The perfect rhyme would be “spell” and “hell,” “conceal” and “feel,” but an extra syllable is added in both cases, matching the extra note of the melody. I’m sure there are some lyrical purists out there who would object to this kind of rhyme, and even as I mention it I fear some may now only be able to hear “hell pit” instead of “help it.” (Luckily, I’m not one of them.) But here’s the point for the Harburg lyric. The imperfect rhyme of “away” and “day-break” occurs in the song’s bridge, which is not repeated. There is no pattern that guarantees the rhyme is not some anomalous mistake. The syllable “break” somehow sticks out even more, as if a deliberate addition. It’s not necessary. Listen to any version of the song and you should be able to hear the singer pause, however briefly, between “day” and “break,” as if to signal that the last syllable is an afterthought. And, as with the potentially elided final syllable of “meadow” in Catullus’ poem, this extra syllable makes perfect sense for the meaning of the song.

From even the title, the song seems to offer straightforward nostalgia. The “last night” enters first as a metaphor, standing in for past youth, now looked back on. But the bridge suggests something more specific. Perhaps it really was “last night” when they were non-metaphorically young. The air of nostalgia now focuses on a singular, recent, raw moment of break-up, that divides the world into innocence and post-innocence, youth and age. This dramatic moment leads into the break of day and is affirmed by the split of “day-break” into “day” and “break.” From imagining how “one little day” can change everything, that day becomes night-as-it-turns-into-dawn, presumably after a long night of talk. Any singer has the choice of how to perform the word. Do you linger over “day” to emphasize the brutality of “break”? Or try to minimize the break, use your voice to smooth over the metrical imperfection? And here, we can return to our meadow’s edge, and ponder how long to pause between “prat” and “ultimo” in performing this poem. Do you make the gap between “prat(i)” and “ultimi” last? Ignore it? Catullus’ love exists, or disappears, in whatever choice you make.

This poetic phenomenon (if it has a name, I’m unaware of it!), when something that at first seems formally clumsy, but is somehow rescued by the meaning that this clumsiness evokes, is responsible for the beautiful effect provided by the last word of another poem about the loss of love, by A.E.Housman. The poem plays a key role in Tom Stoppard’s dramatization of Housman’s life, The Invention of Love. Once more, I’m most interested in the final syllable.

He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,
And went with half my life about my ways.

For classicists, the last line might make us think of Horace’s phrase about the recently deceased Virgil, animae dimidium meae, “half my soul/life,” from Odes 1.3. But consider the manner in which this sundering of life into a “before” and “after” of the friends’ parting fits in with the final rhyme of “gaze” and “days.” As with “break” and “prat-i,” the rhyme, at least to my ear, seems clumsy. It’s the kind of rhyme that Stephen Sondheim, whose own work we’ll turn to shortly, would severely disapprove of. In this case, the problem is not with the rhyme itself: “gaze” rhymes perfectly with “ways.” It’s rather that the phrase “about my ways” seems to be an imprecise version of the common phrase “go about my way”: we don’t usually say “go about my ways.” For someone who pays as much detail to rhyme as Sondheim (he’s written two books on the topic!) this looks like the lyricist’s laziness, a simple failure to come up with a perfect rhyme with “gaze” that fits the context. To be sure, there is the phrase “parting of the ways,” but that makes the clumsiness almost seem worse. But what if we find out, a little too late, that the clumsiness is the point? The poet draws attention to the plural, as if to say his life is split into the ‘before’, when there was a single path that linked him to his lover, and the ‘after’, an aimless wandering from ‘way’ to ‘way’ to ‘way’. The complete, unerring focus on the poet’s single gaze on his love-object is contrasted with the incomplete, stumbling, unfocused ‘ways’ of the rest of his life. The imperfection is perfect.

And so to my final moment of lyrical rupture. I include it because I’ve been clinging to it in recent days in response to the death of its author, Stephen Sondheim. A proper tribute to Sondheim’s contribution to classical literature will have to wait. For now, the ending of his song “Goodbye, For Now” can help us look back, one last time, to Catullus 11. The song itself was written as an instrumental for the film Reds, but on the encouragement of Warren Beatty Sondheim later added lyrics, though they never appeared in the film itself. The gist of the song is already there in the title. It dramatizes a moment of parting between lovers, one that mirrors the plot of the film, where the romantic leads are forever parting and returning to each other. At first the phrase “for now” suggests a parting that will at some point end — “goodbye, but only for now.” But the phrase changes meaning by the end of the song to become much more ambiguous. Here are the last few words.

Somehow each hello
Makes it worth goodbye
For now

The last phrase, “for now,” repeats the musical notes of “goodbye,” and with the same stress on the second syllable. This too should be easy to hear in a recording, as should the way the song’s final note fails to resolve, leaving the sound of “for now” strangely musically open-ended. But in a song where the singer is clearly resisting this latest in a series of partings, the final use of “for now” also becomes more complex. For those of a happier bent, it can simply repeat the idea of the beginning, modifying the verbal idea in “goodbye.” The song would begin, and end, in a melancholy but hopeful “for now.” But what if we also hear it modifying the entire phrase, “makes it worth goodbye… for now”? Suddenly it is much darker, much more Catullan 11. What if not all future “hellos” might make it worth goodbye? Might this be the last one? The hope for the future hello, spoken to the lover departing, gets caught up in a veiled threat: it’s worth it… for now. But don’t count on it next time. One could even put the two interpretations together. Is the song performing the kind of pain at goodbye that always happens, every time they say goodbye, and is always caught up in veiled threats (it’s worth it for now), only to be resolved by the surprise of the next hello?

And so, back to the Catullan stanza we started with, and its opening line.

nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
Nor let her look back, as before, at my love

The enigmatic word “respectet” is at least in part explained by the later idea of the plough hacking off the flower. No point this time, Catullus suggests, looking back in sorrow at the pain you’ve heedlessly caused. In the “ut ante,” “as before,” Catullus suggests a series of past “goodbyes for now,” with no certainty as to whether this last version is the “ultimate” one, or somehow still a part of the overall recycling of “hello” into “goodbye,” “I hate” elided into “I love.” We’re left with ambivalence, the sense of a world torn in two, a lover wishing to at times paper over the cracks of separation, at others to deny them. Perhaps a defiance of tone could also be a response to ambivalence, wanting to exult in the break, exaggerate it, as if to pretend it’s entirely of your own choosing.

But what else can you do at the end of a love affair?

Mark Buchan is the author of Perfidy and Passion and The Limits of Heroism. He teaches writing at Rutgers University.


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Mark Buchan

Mark Buchan is the Editor of In Medias Res. He currently teaches in the Writing Program at Rutgers University.


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