Catullus 51

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The equal of a god that man appears,
better than gods, if it’s not blasphemy,
who sits across from you, and stares, and hears

your lovely laughter, which, in my despair,
siphons my senses; soon as I look upon
you, Lesbia, I’m dumb, and don’t know where
my voice has gone;

my tongue grows heavy, underneath my skin
a thin flame drips, my ears ring with a bright
and tinny sound, and my eyes are veiled within
a two-fold night.

Free time, Catullus, that’s what’s killing you!
Free time fuels your fidgeting and your flings.
Free time has leveled prosperous cities, too,
and mighty kings.

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
spectat et audit

dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
vocis in ore;

lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
lumina nocte.

otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
perdidit urbes.


Note: The Romans thought of translation as conquest and competition; they sought to enrich Latin with the spoils of Greek. Catullus in his first three stanzas may not surpass Sappho, but he certainly competes with her: in the first stanza, for example, to Catullus “that man” seems “better than gods,” while to Sappho he is only “the gods’ equal.” In Catullus, the man stares at the girl “continually / again and again” (identidem); in Sappho he sits close to her (πλάσιον). And, of course, Catullus, unlike Sappho, says the girl’s name: Lesbia. Readers of Catullus will recognize the married noblewoman (probably Clodia Metelli) with whom the poet had a brief and stormy affair: short-lived rapture followed by long bitterness and recrimination. Readers of Sappho of Lesbos will hear the allusion and compliment in the nickname, and may further wonder whether, in this poem at least, “Lesbia” suggests Sappho as much as Clodia. If so, the gorgeous poetry in which Sappho expresses her passion and/or envy now inspires Catullus to those same emotions–passion, perhaps, for the airy lilt of the Greek, envy for its mellifluous polysyllabic movement (e.g. kai gelaisas imeroen), beside which the sturdy efficiency of Latin (dulce ridentem) seems blocky and prosaic. This is perhaps just what Walter Benjamin means when he says that the language of a translation should “let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intentio of the original not as reproduction but as harmony.”

While Catullus is singing harmony with Sappho in the first three stanzas, he’s also aware of the wide historical and cultural distance between them. As much as he loves Sappho’s Greek, he may also long for a culture in which the sensuous appreciation of illicit love is both possible and praiseworthy. At any rate, if the first three stanzas express, even as a kind of shadow meaning, a passion for or envy of Sappho and her poem, the anxiety of the fourth, which is original to Catullus, is rooted in the internalized voice of conventional Roman morality. Here Catullus berates himself with the attitude of those “wrinkled old moralists” (senes severiores) he thumbs his nose at in poem 5. It’s “free time” (otium)–all this mooning around with love and poetry and the Lord knows what–that’s gnawing on Catullus’ nerves. It isn’t Roman! He needs to get serious: find a wife and a career in law or politics and start a family. Be a man! Contribute to society! Etc.. Catullus can hardly agree, but he can’t unhear that voice; it’s part of him. The cunning, then, of the poem is this: by means of a partial free translation–which you wouldn’t even notice if you didn’t know to look for it!–it dramatizes the conflict between two voices, two languages, two literatures, two ways of life. If the rest of his libellus is any indication, Sappho’s way won out in the end–luckily for us, if not for Catullus himself..