It’s hot in New York. Deep summer. Dog days. Somehow it all makes me think of Roman poetry. The mood is languid and personal, stuff happens slowly, even the disasters. I’m thinking of my favorite poet, Catullus. I’m thinking of the way he captured the feel of a lazy Sunday of desperate but indifferent screwing with the side door swinging open in a limp breeze. I’m thinking of how he captured in verse the specific insanities of love, when you’re finding it and when you’re losing it.
It all started in Greece I guess. It started with Sappho and Anacreon and Archilochos. We’re talking lyric poetry here. And with the lyric poetry of Sappho and friends something very different from the heroic dactylic hexameter of the Homeric epics came into being. It was intimate and personal. It was passionate and wounded. It was subjective. Some people, like the Hegelian minded philosopher Bruno Snell, decided that the very birth of the subject could be discovered in the transition from Homeric verse to the lyric poets, to the philosophic writing of Attic Greece. Probably that’s a little heavy handed and speculative. But it is true that Sappho feels new and different and even modern in a way that Homer or Hesiod or the Hymns don’t. Which is not to say that Homer isn’t great. Homer is great. Hesiod is great in a different way. But they don’t write about the here and now of a hot summer day and the passions and stupidities that can occur within. They don’t write, like Sappho does, straight to the heart of subjective experience. The Sapphic strophe bounces along like personal experience.
When Sappho writes the following you feel it in your gut or your balls or the middle of your feet or all of the above.
I just really want to die. She, crying many tears, left me And said to me: “Oh, how terribly we have suffered, we two, Sappho, really I don’t want to go away.” And I said to her this: Go and be happy, remembering me, For you know how we cared for you. And if you don’t I want to remind you ………….and the lovely things we felt with many wreathes of violets and ro(ses and cro)cuses and …………..and you sat next to me and threw around your delicate neck garlands fashioned of many woven flowers and with much……………costly myrrh …………..and you anointed yourself with royal….. and on soft couches…….(your) tender……. fulfilled your longing……….
And that’s without being able to convey the specific rhythm of the Sapphic meter, which relies on the relative length of long and short vowels in ancient Greek and can’t really be captured in English. (If I’m thankful for one thing in my overly studious younger days, it’s that I labored to read ancient Greek at the amazing CUNY Graduate Center Intensive Greek program with Hardy Hansen. Reading Homer in the original with my friends Theo and Dan one summer in the Catskills by a small lake amidst an invasion of fireflies was worth all the bullshit and then some.)
Skip forward a few centuries to the Hellenistic period. Callimachus and his pals are terribly serious scholars. Grammar, rhetoric and that sort of shit is the thing of the day. They’re officially establishing the kind of classical humanism that will be rediscovered in the renaissance and celebrated as, well, something remarkable in human achievement. Which it was, even if we don’t want to get all romantic about it. They call themselves the Neoteroi, the new kids on the block. They don’t write in the epic style. Like Sappho and friends, they’ve got an intimate and personal approach. They like a small moment, an individual experience.
Now we jump from the Greeks to the Romans. Rome: first century BC. The glory days. All the big boys are on the scene; Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Virgil. Catullus and his group of malcontents are trying to bring the style of the Greek neoterics into a Latin poetry. They’ve got various metrical problems to deal with. They want to create a poetic foot in Latin that can compete with Greek lyric. And they want to achieve the intimacy that is in such contrast to the epic feel (though Catullus could do epic very well when he wanted to, thank you). Catullus and his crew think of themselves as the new neoterics.
Catullus creates his hendecasyllables to fit the bill (basically a spondee, a dactyl, and then three trochees).
The great, the amazing thing about the hendecasyllables is the way that Catullus wields them both so lightly and with such an expert touch. There’s an off the cuff feel, extremely important to Catullus, but it actually came about through extremely labored and technical means. Achieving that effect was what it was all about. When it came together correctly, Catullus called it lepidus, a difficult word to translate but best understood as some combination between witty, elegant, and sophisticated. Catullus’ hendecasyllables were a mighty force. He could unleash them in love or in anger or in both. In poem 42 he sends them out against a woman who’s snatched one of his manuscripts. This is Richard Bullington’s translation, he translates hendecasyllables as ‘nasty words’.
Come here, nasty words, so many I can hardly tell where you all came from. That ugly slut thinks I’m a joke and refuses to give us back the poems, can you believe this shit? Lets hunt her down , and demand them back! Who is she, you ask? That one, who you see strutting around, with ugly clown lips, laughing like a pesky French poodle. Surround her, ask for them again! “Rotten slut, give my poems back! Give ’em back, rotten slut, the poems!” Doesn’t give a shit? Oh, crap. Whorehouse. or if anything’s worse, you’re it. But I’ve not had enough thinking about this. If nothing else, lets make that pinched bitch turn red-faced. All together shout, once more, louder: “Rotten slut, give my poems back! Give ’em back, rotten slut, the poems!” But nothing helps, nothing moves her. A change in your methods is cool, if you can get anything more done. “Sweet thing, give my poems back!”
And tying us back to our early Greeks, Catullus makes a translation/interpretation of Sappho. Here it is in the Latin, for those with the chops, and in an English translation.
Ille mi par esse deo videtur, ille, si fas est, superare divos, qui sedens adversus identidem te spectat et audit dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te, Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
That man seems to me to be equal to a god,
That man, if it is right to say, seems to surpass the gods,
who sitting opposite to you repeatedly looks at you
your sweet laughter, something which robs miserable me
of all feelings: for as soon as I look
at you, Lesbia, no voice remains
in my mouth.
But the tongue is paralyzed, a fine fire
spreads down through my limbs, the ears ring with their
very own sound, my eyes veiled
in a double darkness.
Idleness, Catullus, is your trouble;
idleness is what delights you and moves you to passion;
idleness has proved ere now the ruin of kings and
When Catullus speaks of Lesbia here he is using, with a nod to Sappho, the pet name for his one time love, probably Clodia Metellus, a Roman socialite. His love for her was crazy and short. She seems to have been something of a femme fatale. Catullus writes some of the most beautiful love poems to her that have ever been written (again, and unfortunately, the English translations don’t really capture what is painfully frickin perfect in the Latin).
Let us live, my Lesbia, and love, and value at one farthing all the talk of crabbed old men. Suns may set and rise again. For us, when the short light has once set, remains to be slept and the sleep of one unbroken night. Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then another thousand, then a second hundred, then yet another thousand, then a hundred. Then, when we have made up many thousands, we will confuse our counting, that we may not know the reckoning, nor any malicious person blight them with evil eye, when he knows that our kisses are so many.
And when the love faltered, Catullus could write poems of heart rending worry and self doubt:
Lesbia always talks bad to me nor is she ever silent about me: Lesbia is loving me, if not, I may be destroyed. By what sign? Because they are the same signs: I am showing her disapproval constantly, I am lost if I do not love.
But there may not be a poem in any language that expresses the intense duality and pain of a love affair that is tearing apart one’s mind than the terse, beautiful odi et amo, I love and I hate. It goes:
odi et amo: quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
I hate and I love: How can I do it, you ask?
I don’t know, but it’s killing me.
Two lines. Everything in two lines. The entire world hangs in the balance of two lines. And when the balance finally broke and Catullus was jilted he could write some of the most vicious and nasty poetry that’s ever been penned.
The lude tavern and you tentmates, the ninth pillar from the capped brothers, you think that you alone have mentulas, do you think that it is permitted for you alone to have sex with whatever girls there are and that it is permitted to think that the others are goats? or, in an unbroken mind, because you fools sit, and 100 or 200 don’t you think that I will dare to rape orally the 200 loungers at the same time? Moreover think, for I shall write on the front of the whole tavern with sopiones for you. For my girl, who has fled from my embrace loved as much as no other will be loved, for whom great wars were fought by me, has settled down there, all of you fine and well to do men love her, and indeed, which is undeserved, all the punks and alleyway sex maniacs; son of the Geltiberia abounding in rabbits, Ignatius, whom a dark beard makes good and tooth scoured with Iberian urine.
In 54 BCE, Catullus disappears from history. Maybe he just died. Maybe he ran off to be something other than a poet. Who knows. But it’s raining like crazy on this humid New York night and I’m thinking of Catullus on his little boat he loved so. I’m thinking of his summer days with Lesbia and the way he burned and suffered and triumphed and failed. He joked that his poems might last for ages. It was an amusing thought because they were poems of the moment. But they did last for ages. Moments last for ages sometimes.