Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Nasty Poetry of Catullus


          Born in Verona, Italy around 84 BCE, Gaius Valerius Catullus was an influential poet during the days of the Roman Republic. He shunned the traditional poetic style of time which dealt mainly with heroic topics such as war, conquest, and the defeat of mythical creatures by unconquerable men, as was popularized by the writings of Homer. Dwelling on his personal life, his poems invoke intense, and often conflicting, emotions. Odi et amo, he wrote: “I hate and love.”
Much has been written about his work, but little is known about him him. He doesn’t seem to have been married. His poems, while influential, did not generate much revenue, probably causing him to live off of his aristocratic equestrian family’s holdings. He was apolitical, caring nothing for the machinations of politicians, he targeted both Julius Cesar and Cicero for his mockery.  He seems to have had an intense love affair (or several) which inspired his “Lesbia” poems.
Traditionally, Lesbia has been identified with Clodia Metella, a wealthy, educated woman, whom Cicero cast as a sexual predator, a husband killer, and an alcoholic. But we have no contemporary evidence for the identification. The name Lesbia is allusion to the Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos, from whose writing the term lesbian was derived. She too wrote about the conflicting pains and pleasures of love rejoiced and denied.
Much of his work has been derided as well as praised. Because of the shocking nature and subject of several of his poems, he has never been a part of the standard school curriculum. In fact an honest translation of poem 16 was never put into print until the late 20th century.

Carmen 11
Furius and Aurelius, who will be Catullus's fellow-travellers, 
whether he makes his way even to distant India, 
where the shore is beaten by the far-resounding
eastern wave, 
or to Hyrcania and soft Arabia, 
or to the Sacae and archer Parthians, 
or those plains which the sevenfold Nile
dyes with his flood,
                               or whether he will tramp across the high Alps, 
to visit the memorials of great Caesar, 
the Gaulish Rhine, the formidable Britons,
remotest of men , 
Oh, my friends, ready as you are to encounter all these risks with me
whatever the will of the gods above shall bring,
take a message, not a kind message
to my mistress"
let her live and be happy with her paramours, 
three hundred of whom she holds at once in her embrace,
loving none of them really, but again and again
rupturing every man's thighs.
And let her not look to find my love as before; 
my love which by her fault has dropped
like a flower on the meadow's edge when if has been touched 
by the plough passing by.
 

Carmen 16

I will sodomize you and face-fuck you,

queer Aurelius and faggot Furius,

you who think, because my poems

are sensitive, that I have no shame.

For it's proper for a devoted poet to be moral

himself, [but] in no way is it necessary for his poems.

In point of fact, these have wit and charm,

if they are sensitive and a little shameless,

and can arouse an itch,

and I don't mean in boys, but in those hairy old men

who can't get it up.

Because you've read my countless kisses,

you think less of me as a man?

I will sodomize you and face-fuck you.

 

Carmen 29

Who can look upon this, who can suffer this, 

 nisi except he be lost to all shame and voracious and a gambler, 

 that Mamurra should have what Gallia Comata  

 and farthest Britain had once?  

Faggot Romulus, will you see and endure this?  

 You are shameless and voracious and a gambler. 

  And shall he now, and full to overflowing,  

 Shit through through the beds of all,  

 like a white cock-pigeon or an Adonis? 

 Faggot Romulus, will you see and endure this? 

 You are shameless and voracious and a gambler. 

 Was it this then, you one and only general,  

 that took you to the farthest island of the West?  

 was it that that worn-out shiteater of yours, Mentula,  

 should devour twenty or thirty millions?  

 What else, then, is perverted liberality, if this be not?  

 Has he not spent enough on lust and gluttony?  

 His ancestral property was first torn to shreds;  

 then came his prize-money from Pontus, then in the third place 

 that from the Hiberus, of which the gold-bearing Tagus can tell.  

 And him do the Gauls and Britons fear?  

Why do you both support this crook? or what can he do  

 but devour rich patrimonies. 

 Was it for this that you, o most dutiful father-in-law 

and son-in-law, have ruined everything?