Catullus: The Poems

“Catullus
Your Saturnalian bonne-bouche.”

I’m bubbling with a lot of writing, at least a dozen reviews are raring to spill forth; it would be a shame to let this heat slide off into a deadened feeling you get when you remember a book read long ago but retain nothing of it, because you had not taken the care to record your impressions. Over the years I have discovered that the best way to remember a book is to write about it. This doesn’t always materialise though. Life, you see.

I read this Penguin edition of Catullus’s poems (tr. Peter Whigham) side by side Peter Green’s translation. I have no hesitation in saying I prefer the latter, not because I am in any way able to compare it with the original Latin, but seeing the parallel text I can see that Green has endeavoured to remain faithful to metre, length and the rhythm of the original. This stands in contrast to Whigham’s translation with its arbitrary enjambments and unruly line-breaks, where some poems are summarily translated, others are bloated (over-translated?), perhaps to give clarity to the vagueness of the original. However, Whigham’s love epigrams are more spontaneous, direct and urgent compared to Green’s.

I do not object to artistic recreation in translation when its purpose is to convey the tone and spirit of the original, and to give a sense of the language even if it means bending the rules of idiomatic English, especially when it requires an intelligent rendering of satire. But I think if you take too much liberty with the original you end up turning it more your own creation and less that of the writer you’re translating. FitzGerald’s and Omar Khayyam come to mind. I have since long refused to call it a translation. Rubaiyat is FitzGerald’s reworking of Khayyam, a work that should be seen as Rubaiyat of Edward FitzGerald.

Entry #8 serves as a good example of Catullus’ angry love poem. It’s aimed at his lover, the wife of another man, whom he refers to as Lesbia in his poems. Catullus hates her for abandoning him and also hates being in love with her, but can’t bring himself to concede. I’m quoting both translations to highlight the difference between Whigham and Green. (All italics belong to the translators)

Peter Whigham translation

“Break off
fallen Catullus
time to cut losses,

bright days shone once,
you followed a girl
here & there

loved as no other
perhaps
shall be loved,

then was the time
of love’s insouciance,
your lust as her will

matching.
Bright days shone
on both of you.

Now,
a woman in unwilling.
Follow suit

weak as you are
no chasing of mirages
no fallen love,

a clean break
hard against the past.
Not again, Lesbia.

No more.
Catullus is clear.
He won’t miss you.

He won’t crave it.
It is cold.
But you will whine.”

Peter Green translation

“Wretched Catullus, stop this tomfool stuff
and what you see has perished treat as lost for good.
Time was, every day for you the sun shone bright,
when you scurried off wherever she led you
that girl you loved as no one shall again be loved.
There, when so many charming pleasures all went on,
things that you wanted, things she didn’t quite turn down,
then for you truly every day the sun shone bright.
Now she’s said No, so you too, feeble wretch, say No.
Don’t chase reluctance, don’t embrace a sad-sack life-
make up your mind, be stubborn, obdurate, hang tough!
So goodbye, sweetheart, Now Catullus will hang tough,
won’t ask, “Where is she,” won’t, since you’ve said No, beg, plead.
You’ll soon be sorry, when you get these pleas no more-
bitch, wicked bitch, poor wretch, what life awaits you now?
Who’ll now pursue you, still admire you for your looks?
Whom will you love now? Who will ever call you theirs?
Who’ll get your kisses? Whose lips will you bite in play?
You, though, Catullus, keep your mind made up, hang tough!”

For the sake of (relative) brevity, I’m eschewing a more detailed comment on Catullus’ longish (and excellent) poems mixing elements of tragedy and epic, so I’ll round off the note on translation by saying that I have been unhorsed along with my hoary perceptions about ancient Roman poets. “Beautiful” is not a word that comes to mind when you read Catullus, no; he is witty, sardonic, playful, deeply personal, highly offensive, almost autobiographical. He does not mince words when he is up to denouncing whom he does not like: his Lesbia whom he repeatedly accuses of turning into a whore with a multitude of lovers, all for having spurned his love(!), the poets of habit, time-wasting rhymesters, and his foes whom he abuses without a blush: his preferred revenge is to drive his equine male organ through the foully malodorous bog land of other people’s backsides. Not a man you would want to know in real life! Suffice it to say that Catullus startled me, amused me, shocked me, and gave me plenty to laugh through the sweet (& sour) time I took in reading both translations.

For Vibennius he has this to say. Poem #33

“Oh you cream of the con men in the bathhouse,
Pop Vibennius, and your son the bum-boy –
Dad may have a dirtier right hand, but
JuniorÊ»s got a more voracious backside –
why not just sod off to exile in some
hellhole, since Dadʻs larcenies are public
knowledge, while you, son, cannot hawk your bristly
asshole, no, not even for a penny!” (Green)

Thanks to Penguin Little Black Classics series I have discovered quite a few world greats which otherwise it would have taken me a long time to discover, independently. I was introduced to Catullus with this collection: I Hate and I Love, enjoyed it thoroughly and immediately sought out the full collection. Here are a couple of samplers to get a better (bitter?) taste of Catullus on your poetic palate!

Poem #16: Catullus rebukes his critics and detractors who most probably had objected to the content of his poems, as many still would! (I have no idea what the first and last lines mean)

“Pedicabo et irrumabo
Furius & Aurelius
twin sodomites,
you have dared deduce me from my poems
which are lascivious
which lack pudicity…
The devoted poet remains in his own fashion chaste
his poems not necessarily so:
they may well be
lascivious
lacking in pudicity
stimulants (indeed) to prurience
and not solely in boys
but those whose hirsute genitalia are not easily moved.

You read of those thousand kisses.
You deduced an effiminancy there.
You were wrong. Sodomites. Furius & Aurelius.
Pedicabo et irrumabo vos.” (Whigham)

Poem #78B

“…but what irks me now is that your filthy saliva
has soiled the pure kisses of a pure girl.
You won’t get away scot-free, though. All future ages
shall know that, and ancient Fame tell what you see.” (Green)

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