I tapped out the meter with my right foot as I drove on cruise control to Poughkeepsie the next morning. It was a difficult syncopation, but finally I had it. I was thrilled to have memorized Catullus V. I knew if I wanted to keep it in memory, I needed to constantly repeat it aloud, and over the next few weeks, like a proud child with an esoteric piece of knowledge, I would recite it to anyone who would listen. Alas, few would. I seldom made it past the fourth line before I was told, “ENOUGH!” This was, as my friend Stephanie had earlier warned, a private passion, even though Catullus V was a classic love poem in every sense of the word.
On Monday, I arrived at class ready to stand up and recite. Much to my disappointment, Matthew never asked us to do so. Instead he presented all the Catullan nouns for kisses (in order of increasing passion: basiationes, basium, osculum, suavium—the first a “little kissification,” a locution invented by Catullus himself). By the time we had studied four other Lesbia poems, and witnessed Catullus both passionately enamored and abjectly brokenhearted, we had thoroughly studied the verb “to kiss”: basio, basiare, basiavi, basiatum, in all its tenses and moods. Lesbia basianda est! (Lesbia must be kissed!) is a passive periphrastic. Who could imagine kissing could be used to review verb forms?
Before we proceeded with more Catullus, Matthew spent a week on Catullus’ precursors, the most interesting of which, for me, was Laevius—even his cognomen remains unknown. It is believed he composed an erotopaegnia—a collection of playful erotic poems. He was also fond of making neologisms: His signal accomplishment, to my mind, was the sesquipedalian, twenty-six-letter subductisupercilicarptores, which translates as “disapproves with lifted brows” and beats out circumnavigaveramusne by five letters!
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The following week we translated Catullus I, the dedication poem, and the famous passer poems, Catullus II and III, all about Lesbia’s pet passer (sparrow). There has been much scholarly disagreement about the true meaning of these poems. In the Renaissance, a scholar named Poliziano put forward the theory that this little bird that frolics on Catullus’ beloved Lesbia’s lap and calms her deep passion (gravis ardor) is a sly metaphor for the male member—sparrows being more than uncommon house pets, and the word “sparrow” in Greek being slang for penis. His theory is buttressed by the last two lines: tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem / et tristis animi levare curas! (if only I could play with you as she does, and calm the sad cares of my mind), and by a poem, written by Martial a century and a half later, about his slave boy Stella, “My Stella’s pet Dove . . . has surpassed Catullus’ sparrow. My Stella is greater than your Catullus by as much as a dove is greater than a sparrow.” And in another poem, “Give me kisses, Catullan kisses. If they shall be as many as he said, I will give you Catullus’ Sparrow.”
In Poliziano’s reading, Catullus II is a complaint that masturbation cannot satisfy Catullus the way Lesbia does, and Catullus III, a lament that his member has failed him, and Lesbia is in a weeping tizzy about it.
The theory went out of favor for centuries, until it was revived in the libertine 1970s and began raging anew, producing dozens of scholarly articles. In our class discussion of the sparrow poems, I was the only one to come down decisively in favor of the penis interpretation. “It’s sure a lot more fun. And that it’s not a pure onetoone correspondence makes it sly and witty fun,” I said. In a moment, I felt my young class mates’ eyes turn to me. Perhaps it had dawned on them at last that rather than a senex severa (a stern elder, such as was featured in Catullus V), I was an emissary from the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies. It seemed, indeed, that we elders, Matthew and I, might be the only lively persons in the class!
That evening I was inspired. George and I had been in one of those arid troughs filled with criticism and alienation. I began telling him about Catullus II and the sparrow, whom Lesbia pokes provocatively, and holds to her breast, and knows so intimately. I read the poem aloud in Latin, then translated it for him. Though he loved it when I read him poetry, he’d endured plenty of my setpiece narratives about Latin, and I could tell this rendition was not winning the forgiveness for last night’s outburst I was seeking. Finally I told him, “The interesting thing is, lots of people think the sparrow is a metaphor for the penis.” There followed one of our most lively discussions ever about a poem. Catullus and his passer, qualecumque (such as it is)—a word from Catullus I—led us into a night of delectatio amoris, and luckily I never got the chance to tell him about the lament of Catullus III.
From LIVING WITH A DEAD LANGUAGE: My Romance with Latin by Ann Patty, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Ann Patty.