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Song Five -- Gaius Valerius Catullus

Guest poem submitted by TJ:
(Poem #1463) Song Five
 Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
 and let us judge all the rumors of the old men
 to be worth just one penny!
 The suns are able to fall and rise:
 When that brief light has fallen for us,
 we must sleep a never ending night.
 Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
 then another thousand, then a second hundred,
 then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
 Then, when we have made many thousands,
 we will mix them all up so that we don't know,
 and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
 how many kisses we have shared.
-- Gaius Valerius Catullus
I noticed that there wasn't any Catullus anywhere in the Archive, so I
thought that I'd toss some your way.  I include the Latin just in case
anybody is interested, there's a certain texture to the language that i
find wonderful.

 "Carmen Quinque"

 Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
 rumoresque senum severiorum
 omnes unius aestimemus assis!
 soles occidere et redire possunt:
 nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
 nox est perpetua una dormienda.
 da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
 dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
 deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
 dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
 conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
 aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
 cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

        -- Gaius Valerius Catullus

I remember having to translate all of this stuff by myself in my high
school Latin class years ago.  At the time it was a chore, but now
looking at it just for the enjoyment, it's quite wonderful.  Poor
Catullus, he was always going back and forth on Lesbia, love to hate,
hate to love.  I highly recommend him for the conflicted sort.

Regards,
TJ.

[Biography]

Very little is objectively known of the life of Gaius Valerius Catullus.
It is believed that he was born in Verona in 84 B.C. to a wealthy and
well-connected family. Catullus' father was a friend of Julius Caesar.
He died in Rome in 54 B.C. at the age of thirty. From his poems it is
known that he went to Bithynia as an aide to the governor of that
province in 57-56 B.C. We also know from Cicero that Catullus was one of
the "neoteric" or new poets. Whereas the majority of poets in Rome at
that time produced epic poems, often commissioned by aristocratic
families, Catullus and other neoteric rejected the epic and its public
themes. The neoteric poets used colloquial language to write about
personal experience. Their poems are mostly smaller lyrics that are
characterized by wit and erudition. Aside from these facts, what is
known of the life of Catullus comes from the thoughts expressed in his
poems.

The knowledge of Catullus' poems comes from a single manuscript that
survived the Dark Ages. This manuscript was discovered in Verona in
around 1305 and disappeared again at the end of the century. Two copies
of it, however, were made and one survives in the Bodleian Library in
Oxford. The other copy, which was believed to be owned by Petrarch, was
also lost. The surviving copy contains 116 poems in three sections:
sixty shorter poems written mostly in Greek lyric meters, primarily
hendecasyllabic or eleven-syllable lines; eight long poems; and a set of
short epigrams.

The shorter poems are often extremely playful and personal. Catullus
speaks directly to his friends in a casual voice. For instance, the
dedication poem begins with the lines "To whom am I giving my charming,
new, little book / polished just now with the dry pumice stone? /
Cornelius, to you: for you were the one / who thought this rubbish was
something ..." The short lyrics are often funny, and on occasion
extremely crude. He also used these poems to explore the limits of
friendship and love. He wrote twenty-five poems to a woman he named
Lesbia, offering both erotic banter as well as heartbreak at her
infidelity and their eventual breakup. English poets such as Ben Jonson
and Christopher Marlowe wrote imitations of these poems, particularly
poem five, which begins "Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love."

The longer poems deal with many of the same concerns. They also
chronicle the death of his brother at Troy and Catullus' visit to his
grave. In this poem, Catullus speaks frankly of loss and the inability
to express such a loss. Many people consider it to be one of the finest
elegies ever written. The remaining group of poems consists of short
epigrams that offer satiric observations on the life in Rome.

Although nearly lost, Catullus' poems had a profound impact on later
poets. This influence can be seen not only in Latin love poets such as
Horace or Ovid, but also in English Renaissance poets such as Robert
Herrick. John Milton spoke Catullus' "Satyirical sharpness, or naked
plainness." Catullus has also been praised as a lyricist by twentieth
century poets, and translated by writers as diverse as Thomas Campion,
William Wordsworth, and Louis Zukofsky.

        -- www.poets.org

[thomas adds]

While searching the web for background information on today's poem, I
discovered that Ben Jonson, Walter Raleigh and Thomas Campion have all
written their own poems inspired partly or wholly by Catullus' fifth
Song. I plan to run these 'spinoff' poems as a theme over the next week.

The 17th century poet Richard Crashaw also wrote a poem based on
Catullus, but where Jonson, Raleigh and Campion all use the original as
merely a starting point for their own excursions, Crashaw's version is a
literal (and somewhat dry) translation:

 Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
 and let us count the opinion of censurious old men as a penny.
 Suns can set and rise again:
 our brief light only sets
 and then there is an endless night for sleeping.
 Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
 then another thousand, and a second hundred,
 then a thousand and a hundred over and over again
 then when we will have kissed that many thousand times,
 even we will not know how many,
 and no one who wishes us ill because he is envious, can hold against us
 the kisses he cannot count.

        -- Gaius Valerius Catullus / tr. Richard Crashaw

thomas.

8 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

John K. Taber said...

Song five is also important historically. It (along with some
other classic poems) is the source of the pastoral. The
notion of carpe diem had tremendous appeal in the Renaissance.

TJ mentioned the avoidance of the heroic in favor of the
personal. Ezra Pound picked up on this in his Homage to
Sextus Propertius. Propertius begged off writing epics to
further Augustus's empire with the excuse that his talent
was too small, only suited for making a fool of himself in
his poems after making a fool of himself in love.

As Pound has Propertius explain, something is needed to
read in more normal times.

John K. Taber

Lest321 said...

Why does everyone, including Ben Johnson and Thomas Campion, mistranslate
the 6th line? Well, I suppose the poets do it to scan and rhyme, as well as
the beauty of the words, but why does everyone else? Even with my mostly
forgotten Latin I can see it says "(to us) night is one neverending sleep". And
line 4 - so direct - "suns are able to set and rise again" - why weaken it
with paraphrasing? Nothing personal to the translater here, they all do it, on
the hundreds (about1600) sites that quote this poem, and this is one of the
few that invite comment.

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