Gaius Valerius Catullus was
born in Verona around 84 BC. His father was wealthy and distinguished,
owning a villa at Sirmio, and entertaining Julius Caesar when the great
man was governor of Gaul. The poet went to Rome in 61 BC, where he fell
in love with the 'Lesbia' of his poems, very probably Clodia, a member
of the aristocratic Claudian family and the wife of Q. Caecilius
Metellus Celer. The fascinating but rapacious woman soon tired of her
young lover, but he worked his rapture and despair into some of the
finest of Latin poetry. Catullus was also attracted to men, and wrote
several poems for them.
In 57 BC Catullus went to
Bithynia on the staff of Memmius, governor of the province. On his
return a year later he probably travelled via the Troad to perform
burial rites for his brother, who had died on service in the east.
Thereafter Catullus seems to have lived in Rome, in comfort if not
luxury at his villa near Tibur, which is modern Tivoli. Many
acquaintances are mentioned in his poems, but we know very little of
his everyday life. By 54 BC he was probably dead.
Catullus belonged to the
'neoteroi' or new Roman poets drawing inspiration and technique from
Alexandrian Greek models. The 114 poems extant derive from a single
manuscript, and are very mixed, ranging from the witty, brilliant and
moving, to the indifferent and unnecessarily obscene. Their arrangement
seems an editorial convenience. The first 60 are lyrics in various
meters. Poems 61-4 are long pieces modelled on those of the learned
Greek scholar-poets of Alexandria. Poems 65-116 are in the elegiac
metre but epigrams, i.e. short poems on a wide variety of topic. Adding
to the confusion of this unhelpful grouping is the very uneven quality
of the work. For long sections Catullus can write with searing
brilliance, but many poems are trivial and overcharged with obscenity
or bluntness of humour that is more Roman than ours.
The translation covers only
one third of poems, but two thirds of the text. Some renderings are a
little free, but Catullus is not a poet that can be always translated
word-for-word, and his language is not generally that of contemporary
speech. There are many translations in the current style of free verse
that follow a more literal approach, but these are rendered in a terse
iambic to bring out the poetry.
Whom else could I present little book
to, all the roughness pumiced off
but you, Cornelius, once kind enough
to think these little trifles worth your time?
You - whose three great books, of all Italian work,
display the wisdom of mankind:
the fruit of Jupiter and endless toil -
I ask to take this effort as your own,
when, so protected by the virgin Muse,
it may then live, and last, more lives than one.
Cornelius Nepos (c. 94-24 BC) was famous
for his historical works, but also wrote light verse. The dedication
may well have introduced the collection in the original manuscript, and
is written in the hendesyllabic metre (eleven syllables, divided into
Let us live, my Lesbia, in our love
despite what fierce old men will say. For us
their ancient saws may count as nought. It's true
the sun that sets today will rise again,
but once its transient light is spent
there comes enforcement of an endless night.
So give me then a thousand kisses, give
a hundred thousand, hundred more. Heap on
those brief confusions that continually
the many senseless things we may have done
are lost in one, and therefore never spell
the whole - for then an evil eye may count
the sum, and curse us with what kisses were.
A famous piece, written in the
hendesyllabic metre, and here a little freely rendered in the last
Carmen 31: Sirmio
Dearest of islands and peninsulas
of standing waters or the boundless seas -
for both the glittering sea god Neptune holds -
how willingly, Sirmio, I come to you.
I scarce believe I've left the plains of Thynia
and Bithynians to safely reach you here.
What blessedness to lay aside old cares,
and come, mind burdened with its travelling,
at such a cost, wearily, to our own home,
and take again our ever-longed-for bed,
alone the recompense for all our toils.
So hear me, Sirmio, and let your joy
replenish mine, and laughing Lydian waves
repeat the raucous laughter in this house.
Another celebrated piece that has been
much translated and adapted. Sirmio is modern Sirmione, an isthmus
projecting into Lake Garda, where Catullus's father owned a villa.
Original in the choliambic metre.