Sparrows – Brief Poems by Catullus

 

12471_b_1681Catullus, whose full name was Gaius Valerius Catullus, was born sometime around 84 BC  to a leading equestrian family in  Verona and, according to Saint Jerome, died around 54 BC in Rome.  Little is known of his brief life as there is no ancient biography to consult. About 116 of his poems survive to help endorse his reputation as the finest lyric poet of his generation, one whose expressions of love and hatred (odi et amo) continue to  influence poets today. In 25 of his poems he speaks of his love for a woman he calls Lesbia. Her identity is uncertain. She was probably Clodia Metelli, the sexually rapacious wife of a celebrated bore, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, a Roman consul, and the sister of the notorious Publius Clodius Pulcher, a politician and gangster not averse to using intimidation and violence like a Latin Godfather. Ten years older than the poet, she had many lovers among whom Catullus was merely one. Despite her infidelities, the ardent poet could not walk away. His poems veer from devotion and celebration, including a famous tribute and lament for Lesbia’s pet sparrow, to bitter and insulting poems on her infidelities. One of the most celebrated and probably the most translated of his poems (85: Odi et amo) expresses, in two taut lines, the range of his emotions.

Other poems by Catullus are scurrilous outbursts of contempt or hatred, including attacks on Julius Caesar who, according to one account by Suetonius, forgave Catullus when he apologised. Caesar then invited him to dinner.  Some of these brief poems, see below, are rude, nasty, insulting and obscene. Anger and invective have rarely been expressed so succinctly. I have provided differing translations of some of these tweet-sized poems.

Translating Catullus 85

Of all the poems of Catullus, this is probably the one that has been translated the most. Although her name is not mentioned, this appears to another poem about Lesbia. We begin below with a classic English epigram from Richard Lovelace. Walter Savage Landor needs three lines to express the mixed sentiments. Ezra Pound’s monosyllabic and colloquial version gives it a Modernist twist. Perhaps the most astonishing and most bizarre translation is that of Louis Zufovsky, a homophonic translation where Zukovsky, assisted and abetted by his wife Celia, sought words to approximate the sound of Catullus’s words and he has followed the sequence of the syntax exactly. “This translation of Catullus follows the sound, rhythm and syntax of his Latin,” according to Zukovsky, “and tries…to breathe the “literal” meaning with him.” Where sound and syntax intersect with sense is a moot point.

There are other oddities. Frank Bidart provides three versions of the poem where only the opening Odi et amo is translated. The rest of each translation is a mini-riff. Joseph Campana, who is both a poet and a Renaissance scholar, also uses an adaptation of Odi et Amo in his Audrey Hepburn inspired The Book of Faces (2005) where Hepburn becomes an inspirational Lesbia as she enters Catullus 85. In James Michie‘s sonorous translation, the hexameters and pentameters of Catullus‘ elegaic verse are transformed in a four-line stanza of alternately rhyming iambics. Frank O. Copley provides a hip-hop version of Catullus and, like Bidart, Kenneth Quinn offers more than one version of the poem

Your favourite translation?

My favourite translation of Catullus is Sir Walter Raleigh’s brief version of the far-from-tweet-sized Catullus 5. (See below.) In 1601, the  Elizabethan poet Thomas Campion wrote a rhyming free translation of the first half of the Catullus original to which he added two verses of his own, and music, to create a song to be accompanied on the lute. It is this version that Raleigh is said to have had in mind when, imprisoned in the Tower of London and writing The Historie of the World, he wrote his wonderful quatrain where the sound and the syntax, the rhythm and the rhyme, the monosyllabic and multisyllabic words all combine to create a mini-masterpiece.

I tried to select one of the versions of Catullus 85 below as my favourite but, like many before me, was drawn instead to provide my own version with which I conclude the selection of translations. Having read the many versions of Odi et amo, you might let me know, through the comment box below, which version you prefer.

 

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Brief Poems by Catullus

Catullus 5

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.

 

The sun may set and rise,
But we, contrariwise,
Sleep, after our short light,
One everlasting night.

Sir Walter Raleigh

 

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Catullus 93

Nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere,
nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo.

ON JULIUS CAESAR.

Study I not o’ermuch to please thee (Caesar!) and court thee,
Nor do I care e’en to know an thou be white or be black.

Sir Richard Francis Burton

***

I’ve no great inclination to want to please you, Caesar,
to know which of the two you are, black or white.

A. S. Kline

***

Utter indifference to your welfare, Caesar,
is matched only by ignorance of who you are.

Peter Whigham

***

Variation on a Theme by Catullus

I have no desire to please you, O fearless leader,
You have shown your two faces; and I care for neither.

D. A. Powell

 

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Catullus 94

Mentula moechatur. Moechatur mentula? Certe.
Hoc est quod dicunt: ipsa olera olla legit.

Mentula the Cock fornicates. Does a Cock fuck? For sure,
That’s what they say: the pot picks its own herbs.

A. S. Kline

***

Stuffing. O’Toole naturally stuffs with his tool:
the stew-pot stews in its own mess

Peter Whigham

 

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Catullus 105

Mentula conatur Pipleium scandere montem:
Musae furcillis praecipitem eiciunt.

Mentula the Cock tries to climb the Parnassian Mount,
the Muses with pitchforks throw him out, head first.

A. S. Kline

***

O’Toole
attempting an entry on the mons Parnassus
is pitchforked by the Muses out of their (very) private
regions.

Peter Whigham

 

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Catullus 106

Cum puero bello praeconem qui videt esse,
quid credat, nisi se vendere discupere?

If you see a pimp out with a pretty boy,
can you help but believe that he wants to sell himself?

from Sententiae Antiquae

***

Seeing a pretty boy with an auctioneer,
What does one think? “He’s up for sale – and dear.”

James Michie

***

When an auctioneer’s seen with a good-looking boy
(by himself)
It is fair to presume that there has been purchase & sale
– in a closed market

Peter Whigham

 

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Catullus 112

Multus homo es, Naso, necque tecum multus homo est quin
te scindat: Naso, multus es et pathicus.

Great th’art (Naso!) as man, nor like thee many in greatness
Lower themselves (Naso!): great be thou, pathic to boot.

Sir Richard Francis Burton

***

You’re a lot of man, Naso, but lots of men
wouldn’t stoop to you: Naso, a lot of man and a pathic.

A. S. Kline

***

Nasso! an elevated personage
with a stoop, however, bespeaking
a somewhat different form of “elevation”.
Indeed, an elevated person.

Peter Whigham

 

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Catullus 85 in English

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Here is the Loeb Classical Library prose rendering:-

I hate and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask? I know not, but I feel it, and I am in torment.

***

I hate and love; would’st thou the reason know?
I know not, but I burn, and feel it so.

Richard Lovelace

***

I hate, and yet I love thee too,
How can that be? I know not how;
Only that so it is I know
And feel with torment that ’tis so.

Abraham Cowley

***

I hate and love – ask why – I can’t explain;
I feel ’tis so, and feel it racking pain.

Charles Lamb

***

I LOVE and I HATE. Ah! Never ask why so!
I HATE and I LOVE – And that is all I know.
I see ’tis folly, but I feel ’tis woe.

Walter Savage Landor

***

Hate I, and love I. Haps thou’lt ask me wherefore I do so.
Wot I not, yet so I do feeling a torture of pain.

Sir Richard Francis Burton

***

I hate and love – wherefore I cannot tell,
But by my tortures know the fact too well.

Theodore Martin
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I hate and love. Why? You may ask but
It beats me. I feel it done to me and ache.

Ezra Pound

***

I hate and love. You may ask why I do so.
I do not know. But I feel it and suffer.

C. H. Sisson

***

O th’hate I move love. Quarry it fact I am, for that’s so re queries.
Nescience, say th’ fiery scent I owe whets crookeder.

Louis Zukofsky

***

I HATE and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask. I
know not, but I feel it, and I am in torment.

Francis W. Cornish

***

I hate and I love. You ask, “How can this be?”
God knows! What wretchedness! What loathsome misery!

Reney Myers and Robert J. Ormsby

 

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I hate her and I love her. Don’t ask me why.
It’s the way I feel, that’s all, and it hurts.

Carl Sesar

***

I hate and I love. How do I do this, perhaps you ask.
I do not know, but I feel it happen and I’m tormented.

Ulysses K. Vestal

***

I hate and love her. If you ask me why
I don’t know. But I feel it and am torn.

J. V. Cunningham

***

I HATE and love
and if you ask me why,
I have no answer but I discern
can feel my senses rooted in eternal torture.

Horace Gregory

***

I hate and I love. Wherefore would I do this, perhaps you ask?
I do not know. But I feel that it happens and I am tortured.

Justin Neill

***

I hate and I love.
Perhaps you wonder why.
I don’t know, but I feel it, and I am crucified.

Jeffrey Thomson and Jeannine Diddle Uzzi

 

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Three Versions

I

Catullus: Odi et Amo
I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even
wants the fly while writhing.

II

Catullus: Excrucior
I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails
itself, hanging crucified.

III

Catullus: Id faciam
What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into itself, why.

Frank Bidart

***

I hate and love. If you ask me to explain
The contradiction,
I can’t, but I can feel it, and the pain
Is crucifixion.

James Michie

***

I hate, I love (Audrey….

I know nothing,
I feel it happening:
the torment (mine).

Joseph Campana

***

I’m repelled and I love. Maybe you do have to know why.
I don’t know, but I feel it happening and I’m crucified.

Art Beck

•••

I hate I love:
Why should I,
you might ask.
I don’t know.
Still I feel
myself doing it
and am crucified

Eamonn Lorigan

 

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I hate and love. And why, perhaps you’ll ask.
I don’t know: but I feel, and I’m tormented.

A. S. Kline

•••

i hate and I love
well, why do I, you probably ask
i don’t know, but I know it’s happening
and it hurts

Frank O. Copley

***

I hate and I love. And if you ask me how,
I do not know: I only feel it, and I’m torn in two.

Peter Whigham

***

I hate & love. And if you should ask how I can do both,
I couldn’t say; but I feel it, and it shivers me.

Charles Martin

***

I hate and love.  You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?
I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified.

Peter Green.

 

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I hate and I love. Why am I doing this, you may ask?
I do not know. But I can feel it happening, and I am on the rack.

John T. Kirby

***

Two versions

I

I hate and I love. You ask perhaps the reason?
I don’t know. But I feel it happen and go through hell.

II

I hate and I love. You ask perhaps the reason?
I don’t know. But I feel it happen, and am tortured.

Kenneth Quinn

***

I know about the love her/hate her bit.
I can’t explain it, and I feel like shit.

Conor Kelly

 

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LINKS

Rudy R. Negenborn’s Catullus site which contains all the poems and over 1,200 versions in more than 33 languages.

Catullus online.

Selected Poetry of Catullus with a variety of translations in English.

Poems of Catullus translated into English Verse by Theodore Martin. (1861)

The Poems of Catullus, a bilingual edition, translated by Peter Whigham.

Catullus: The Poems. Translations of all the poems of Catullus by A. S, Kline.

The Latin Library. All of the poems of Catullus in Latin.

The Classical Literature page on Catullus 85.

A fascinating essay by Art Beck on translating Catullus in Rattle Magazine

Quintin Hogg reviews translations of Catullus in The Spectator. (1967)

 

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One thought on “Sparrows – Brief Poems by Catullus

  1. I love the Bidart. Clever and powerful, though perhaps “translation” wouldn’t be as appropriate as “interpretation”? Still, wonderful stuff.

    Like

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