Latin Poetry and Latin Lovers III
Catullus's break-up poem (no. 8).
When a young man knows his love affair has reached a bitter end, what can he do but write a poem about it? The Roman poet Catullus knows the end has come for his dalliance with the girl he called ‘Lesbia’. But he’s also aware that he hasn’t got over her…
Love-sick Catullus, stop being such a fool,
and what you see is lost, write off as lost.
Time was, the sun shone burning bright for you,
when you would tag along behind your girl,
loved by me as no woman will be loved.
That time, when lots of fun and games were had
(how keen you were, and she was no less keen!)
truly the sun shone burning bright for you.
No longer. Now she’s cold: you too be cold.
Don’t live in hope, don’t chase her when she flees,
but let your heart grow hard, be resolute.
Goodbye, girl. Now Catullus is steadfast;
he won’t pursue a girl against her will.
But you’ll be sad when you’re not chased at all!
You silly bitch, what will your life hold now?
Who’ll visit you? Who’ll say you’re beautiful?
Who’ll be your lover? Who’ll call you his girl?
Who will you kiss? Whose sweet lips will you bite?
But no, Catullus. Drop it, stand resolved.
A brief analysis
The insistent questions in the penultimate paragraph change the poet's expression of mature resolve into a frenzy of imagined pity ('what will your life hold now?') and then of burning jealousy (‘who’ll be your lover?’). The poem builds up to a pitch of jealous fantasy (whose sweet lips will you bite?) before it returns to resignation in the final, single, line.
Like some other short poems of Catullus, it’s a masterpiece of taut psychology and witty self-deprecation.
In Latin, the verse scheme is 'limping iambics'. That is, at first the rhythm of each line jogs along with short and long syllables alternating, di dum di dum. You can see my previous post on that metre here:
But with limping iambics, when it comes to the penultimate syllable, an unexpected heavy beat makes the line stumble (di dum DUM dum). It’s the perfect choice of metre for a poet who wants to stop "being a fool" - but stumbles at the crucial juncture.
Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.
Fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles,
cum ventitabas quo puella ducebat
amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla.
Ibi illa multa cum iocosa fiebant,
quae tu volebas nec puella nolebat,
fulsere vere candidi tibi soles.
Nunc iam illa non vult: tu quoque impotens noli,
nec quae fugit sectare, nec miser vive,
sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.
Vale puella, iam Catullus obdurat,
nec te requiret nec rogabit invitam.
At tu dolebis, cum rogaberis nulla!
Scelesta, uae te, quae tibi manet uita?
Quis nunc te adibit? cui videberis bella?
Quem nunc amabis? Cuius esse diceris?
Quem basiabis? Cui labella mordebis?
At tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura.