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World Poetry Day: Catullus

ByJay Kaposi

Mar 20, 2018

Classical literature carries with it connotations of grandeur, while epic poetry entails feats of heroism. The great poets write books of love elegies and Odyssean hexameter; Catullus, however, is rather different.

Having been alive during the 1st century BC, Catullus was a prominent poet whose surviving corpus contains a relative paucity of content, despite having had a large influence on later poets such as Ovid. It is therefore especially notable that the Neoteric poet remains so significant. However, given that his works continue to entertain and inspire because of their striking style and brilliance, this is unsurprising. His poems vary in content; sometimes he is joyous, other times pathetic, and occasionally highly offensive. In a fifth of his poems, he famously laments a lover, given the name Lesbia, who ceases to return his affections.

Whenever Catullus is discussed, Poem 85 and Poem 16 are often the first to be mentioned. The former is well known for powerfully encapsulating the entirety of the human experience of emotion in two lines, or even in three words: Odi et amo, or “I hate and I love”. The latter, however, has gained notoriety as it is a vociferous attack on two friends who mocked the sensitive nature of other poems. In response, Catullus warns his friends that “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo”, which translates into such repugnant English that, to this day, exam bodies omit the poem entirely. Catullus is ultimately versatile: he can shock with invective, or move by describing his torturous romantic failures.

Inevitably, certain poems dominate the conversation more than others. However, Catullus is far from limited to hurling insults and complaining about his romantic troubles. His technical ability enables him to convey emotions so powerfully that readers are still able to empathise with the sentiments of a man who has been dead for over two thousand years.  The reader shares his delight upon returning home to Sirmio in Poem 31, and equally his devastation at his brother’s death in Poem 101.

This poem in particular, although less well known, is one of Catullus’ most harrowing. He describes travelling great distances to his brothers’ grave so that, tragically, he might “speak in vain to the silent ashes”. The Catullus in Poem 101 does not savagely offend, nor does he pity himself. Instead, he mourns his brother, skilfully weaving words to inspire genuine sadness in his readers; the detail is astonishing, each construction self-consciously serving a purpose. When addressing his brother, describing how “fortune has stolen you from me”, Catullus places himself and his brother physically next to one another in the sentence, cruelly symbolising that this is the last time they shall be together.

There is little known about the life of Catullus besides information pieced together from clues in his poetry, which itself is not a great amount. Consequently, his unwavering legacy is a testament to his poetry. Regardless, the power of his words do not diminish, their pertinence made to seem sharper by the passing of time.


Image: Son of Groucho via Flickr. 

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