My Longest Healthy Relationship is with the Dead Poet Catullus
The Story of a Poet Told Through His Poems
A few years ago I was going through a chest of papers and came across a note:
I’m not going to weep on your doorstep or anything, but I want you to know that not kissing you is a challenge.
“Oh Catullus,” I whispered, “you’ve done it again.”
There are people in life one runs into over and over for no obvious reason. The man from the bank, perhaps, or a parent’s old neighbor. For me, that person is Catullus, a Latin poet who died over 2,000 years ago. It’s odd. Ever since I first read one of his love poems at the age of 17, I’ve seen him—or at least, his poetry and work inspired by it—wherever I’ve gone.
The romantic note I received as a student was a case in point. Stopping short of quoting Catullus directly, its anonymous author exemplified what Catullus did best: wit, playfulness, and eroticism. Understated, unassuming, but far deeper than met the eye, Mr. X had come over all Catullan on me.
Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 82-53 BC) wrote poetry in the dying days of the Roman Republic, when the idea of a man waiting on his beloved’s doorstep all night to lament his heartache was not unheard of. In the age of Julius Caesar (a “shameless, grasping gambler”), Catullus luxuriated in taut, penetrating verse, demanding, in one poem, thousands upon thousands of kisses from his mistress. While his contemporaries teased him for being effeminate for writing of so many kisses, my wannabe lover earned my admiration for bemoaning the prospect of giving me none.
It is true that what happens at first by accident happens later by design. The more I saw Catullus, the more I wanted to see. But when I discovered the note among my paperwork, four years after receiving it, it happened that I had just signed a contract to write a book about Catullus. At just the right moment, it got me thinking about how his poetry has crossed the divide between antiquity and now. And not only that. To my surprise—and I have to say, mild embarrassment—it made me realize that Catullus had been the most permanent fixture in my life those past four years.
* * *
Catullus was first introduced to me as a “love poet.” Among the 117 poems of his that survive, several explore the bliss of early romance. When the young Catullus moved to Rome from his native Verona, he fell in love with a married woman. Infatuated, he attempted to seduce her through his poetry. She was very probably Clodia Metelli, a wealthy aristocrat and senator’s wife, some years Catullus’s senior. In his poems, Catullus called her “Lesbia” after the Greek poetess Sappho of Lesbos; Clodia Metelli “was an experienced poet of very many plays.”
When friends heard that I was absorbed in the work of “Catullus the love poet,” they expressed concern. At the time, I was 26, around the same age Catullus was when he left Rome on a treacherous voyage to the north coast of modern Turkey, and, like Catullus, I had fallen prematurely in love—but it was not to be. If anyone was going to find Catullus’s poetry a fraught and burdensome read, my friends said, it was me. I didn’t. Catullus was far too clever a poet for that.
* * *
You want to know how many of your gros bisous,
Lesbia, would be enough for me, enough to spare?
As great as the number of grains of Libyan sand
That lie on silphium-bearing Cyrene
Between the oracle of steamy Jupiter
And the holy tomb of old King Battus;
Or as many as the stars, when night is quiet,
That watch the secretive liaisons of men:
To give you this many kisses
Is enough and more for crazy Catullus,
Which neither meddlers could count out
Nor utter evil spells about.
(Catullus, Poem 7)
Very often, Catullus’s poems forced me into a daydream, then quickly lifted me out of it. One cannot remain lost in thought too long when Catullus’s words are tickling the brain with their peculiarity. Basiationes, first line. “Huge kisses?” Who wouldn’t want to be asked for kisses so deep and passionate that there was no word for them? The standard Latin for “kisses” was oscula. The rarer alternative, basia, root of many modern European words for affection (including Italian, un bacio), had Celtic origins. Catullus came from Verona, which was part of Gaul in the first century BC. Basia, fattened out to form a brand new word, basiationes, were not just kisses, they were Catullus’s kisses. How to encapsulate that: gros bisous. The art of the love poem lies between the lines. It’s the small personal details which convince us that the hyperbole is genuine and not simply rhetorical. They allow little time for self-pity.
* * *
The trouble with working with ancient sources is that there aren’t very many of them. Those there are tend to be slippery, elusive, and dense with difficulties. Hardly any information about Catullus survives beyond what he himself tells us in his poetry book. The best chance you have of knowing him and keeping him alive today is to immerse yourself in the life he evokes in verse. Hard enough if you know Latin, immensely difficult if you don’t. If years of reading and translating Catullus taught me two things, they are how enticing these poems are, and how legitimate the story they tell is. I resolved to write the life of Catullus in his own words: Catullus’s life as told through his poems. To fret over how “accurate” those poems are about Catullus’s life is to miss the point. The story the poems tell is the only one we have. Embrace it, and you will feel the poetry seep beneath your skin.
Catullus got under my skin. From my first acquaintance with him, I loved that he offered unique insight into a crucial moment in Rome’s political history, but also that the personal portrait of his love life grew more resonant the deeper I read. Even his longest poem, which I like to call his “Bedspread Poem,” presents itself as a mythological story centered around the design on the wedding bedspread of Achilles’ parents, but proves to mirror Catullus’s own experience of love and heartbreak. In a poignant soliloquy, the poem’s protagonist, Ariadne, weeps for the hero Theseus, who loved her and left her.
Indeed, I’ll admit that it was partly because Catullus wrote not only about his affair in full-swing, but also about it coming to an uncomfortable end, that I could read his most romantic poems as bittersweet rather than smug. Lurking behind the Bedspread Poem and so many of the shorter poems in the collection is a story of betrayal. Lesbia betrayed Catullus in the cruelest way possible—by having an affair with his friend. The hurt took its toll. One moment Catullus was writing of kisses and, in a rather more risqué fashion, of Lesbia’s pet “sparrow”:
Sparrow, apple of my girl’s eye,
Often she plays with you, holds you in her lap,
Gives you a fingertip when you want it
And urges you to take passionate bites
Whenever she wishes, gleaming in desire for me,
To play with something for pleasure.
And I believe it provides a small release from her
Frustration, as then the intolerable burning fades.
I wish that I could play with you as she does
And lighten the ponderous cares of my mind…
(From Catullus Poem 2)
The next moment, Catullus was branding his former lover a harlot: “Now on crossroads and in alleys [she] / Wanks the descendants of great-hearted Remus.” Outside a seedy inn in the forum, he wrote in another poem, the very worst men were queuing up to sleep with her. “Do you think / I wouldn’t dare to penetrate two hundred / spectators at once?” Catullus screeched, disgusted by what had become of the “girl, who fled my embrace.”
And they call Catullus a love poet! On balance, it struck me that Catullus’s collection might sooner be described as a meditation on love’s shortcomings. Friends needn’t have worried about me depressing myself with Catullus’s love poetry when I had such cutting lines as these to negotiate:
As soon as the lust in their desirous minds is sated, they remember none of their words
(From Catullus Poem 64, the ‘Bedspread Poem’)
Or Catullus’s most famous couplet:
I hate and I love, why do I so, perhaps you ask?
I do not know, but I feel it, and I am crucified.
(Catullus Poem 85)
Love is torturous—no one needs Catullus to tell them that. But what I came to appreciate most, both as a Classics scholar and in my own life, is the verve and economy with which such thoroughly human sentiments can be described. Heartache may render most of us dumb, but in Catullus it had the opposite effect. Because it did, his poetry makes us laugh even when we suspect we shouldn’t. “Accept what you see has died, is dead,” as he wrote, compelling himself to move on from his broken relationship. Smiling to ourselves, we watch him try, and try again, “Stop being a fool, you failure, Catullus,” before losing himself in thoughts of the woman’s future:
Whom now will you love, or whose lover will they say you are?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?
But you, Catullus, pause. Be strong.
(From Catullus Poem 8)
Sure, you pity him. But you can’t help but smile then consider yourself unfeeling for doing so as you witness a struggle that’s so familiar. It’s an uncomfortable truth that the words of the lonely and lovelorn often make for more entertaining reading than those of the loved-up. The very fact that Catullus could summarize the vicissitudes of love so neatly over 200,000 years ago proves to be a comfort. Nothing’s changed.
Of course I will always adore Catullus’s kiss and sparrow poems, and the cerebral challenges they present the reader in need of distraction. I will always keep my Catullus-inspired note from university. In the course of writing Catullus’s story, however, it was often the poems which are doused with resentment and rage, including particularly the Bedspread Poem, which most fired my belly. Diverting and wickedly humorous, they may well have you laughing when you ought to be empathizing, but sometimes there is no better cure for love.
Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet has just been published by Harper.