Poems for Sunday
I remember a bookstore cashier once flirting with me over my purchase of Catullus, whose poems she considered to be very sexy. I suppose it depends on your tastes. Most of his poems are either hilariously profane attacks on Roman contemporaries, or detail his ill-fated love for a married woman named Lesbia, who had ill-fated liaisons with legions of men, by Catullus’s account. These poems can be either swooningly romantic or utterly scathing, and often both. At his best, Catullus captures something of the bipolarity of tumultuous love. Here are some examples. (Apologies if my translations are flawed. Latinists are invited to have a go at them too.)
(92) Lesbia mi dicit semper male nec tacet umquam
de me: Lesbia me dispeream nisi amat.
quo signo? Quia sunt totidem mea: deprecor illam
assidue, uerum dispeream nisi amo.
Lesbia always speaks evil of me, she is never silent about this. But I’ll be damned if Lesbia doesn’t love me. How do I know this? Because the same reproach could be made of me: I constantly deprecate her, but may I die if I don’t love her.
(72) Dicebas quondam solum te nosse Catullum,
Lesbia, nec prae me velle tenere Iouem.
dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam,
sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos.
nunc te cognovi: quare etsi impensius uror,
multo mi tamen es vilior et levior.
qui potis est, inquis? quod amantem iniuria talis
cogit amare magis, sed bene velle minus.
Once, you said you only knew Catullus, Lesbia, and you wouldn’t even want to hold Jove before me! I loved you then and not as the mob for a harlot, but like a father loves his sons or daughter’s husbands.
Now I know you: and so, I burn even more strongly for you; still I consider you to be almost worthless. How is this possible you ask? Because such injury pushes the lover to love more intensely, but with less affection.
[Here’s a personal favorite that’s so short it’s nearly a koan.]
85. Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
I hate and I love. Maybe you wonder how I do this?
I don’t know, but I can feel it happening and it torments me.