Catullus

Catullus

In the fourteenth century CE, a manuscript surfaced in Verona that had been lost for more than a thousand years: the poems of Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BCE), considered by many as one of the greatest poets who ever lived. These poems, with their beauty, wit, tenderness, and heartbreak, are still as alive and moving today as they were two thousand years ago

They are dense, subtle, witty, ardent, fearless, deeply uncensored, nasty (sometimes), petty (sometimes), and always beautiful. It’s especially his love poems that have earned readers’ admiration over the centuries; the joy and the savage self-inflicted torments that he underwent in his “miserable, disastrous love affair” have been shaped into poems that for honesty and emotional power have few parallels in world literature.

Stephen Mitchell, who is known for bringing ancient texts to vibrant new life, has now translated Catullus’ poems for a new generation of readers. These are the first translations of Catullus to recreate his rhythms in English and thus to let contemporary readers hear the formal beauty of his verse as well as its content, which Robert Lowell calls “much more raw and direct than anything in English.”

Excerpts

Little sparrow, my girl’s delight and darling,
whom she holds in her lap and sometimes gives you,
bright with longing, her fingertip to peck at,
teases you and provokes you to bite harder,
plays a dozen such sweet games, as (I think) she
tries to lessen the pain of her desire—
how I wish I could play with you as she does
and bring ease to my heart’s ongoing torment!

*

Mourn, oh mourn, you divinities of passion
and all those who are sensitive to beauty:
my girl’s sparrow is dead, her pretty playmate,
whom she loved even more than her own eyes. For
sweet as honey he was and knew his mistress
just as well as a small girl knows her mother—
would not fly from her lap but, gayly hopping
here and there on her thighs, he would continue
his melodious chirping, for her only.
Now he walks down the dismal road to Hades,
toward the country no traveler returns from.
You foul shadows of death, a curse upon you!
—vile devourers of all things glad and graceful,
who have spirited off my pretty sparrow
(Reprehensible deed! Unlucky creature!);
it’s your fault that my darling’s lovely eyelids
are puffed up and her eyes are red with weeping.

*

My dear Lesbia, let’s just love each other
and not bother our heads about the gossip
spread about by old farts and busybodies.
Suns can die and then rise new the next morning,
but, for us, when our little light has vanished,
one vast night must be slept and slept, forever.
So come, sweetheart, and give me first a thousand
kisses, then you might add a hundred others,
then a thousand, and then another hundred.
And then, once we have added tens of thousands,
let’s go bankrupt and cancel the whole number,
so that no one can cast a spell upon us
when they learn we’ve enjoyed so many kisses.

*

Wretched Catullus, stop this crazy longing.
Let go of her. She’s gone. She won’t come back.
You had it good: your days were filled with sunshine;
you used to go wherever the girl led you—
that girl no one will ever love as you did.
You had the best of times, the sweetest moments,
and what you wanted she did not refuse.
Yes, it was good: those days were filled with sunshine.
But now she doesn’t want you, and there’s no
changing that, poor madman. So forget her;
don’t make yourself so wretched at her absence;
stand firm and stay the course. What’s done is done.
Goodbye, dear girl; Catullus will stand firm;
he won’t run after you, won’t beg or plead,
and you’ll be sorry soon, when no one wants you.
What fate remains for you? How will you manage?
Whom will you love? What man will say—and mean—
that you’re his life, his soul, his peerless beauty?
Whom will you kiss now? Whose lips will you nibble?
But you, Catullus: stay the course. Stand firm.

*

Please, sweet lady, my charmer, my enchantment,
my delight, my delicious, clever darling,
let me come for the afternoon siesta.
Just make sure that the door’s unlocked, and don’t go
anywhere for a stroll, not even briefly,
but stay home and prepare yourself for me and
nine delirious bouts of nonstop fucking.
(If you’re busy, then let me come right now: I’m
lying down after breakfast, going crazy,
punching holes through my underwear and tunic.)

*

Through many countries and over many seas I have traveled
and arrive, my brother, for these sad funeral rites,
to offer you now the final dues that are owed the dead
and to wait in vain for your silent ashes to answer,
since fortune, alas, has robbed me of your belovèd presence,
dearest of brothers, unfairly torn from my life.
There is nothing more I can do but perform these burial rites,
the ancient tradition handed down by our fathers.
Accept the gifts that I offer, wet with fraternal tears,
and now, my brother—now for all time—farewell.

Reviews

“Mitchell beautifully translates Catullus, retaining the original poems’ hendecasyllabic form while lending a punchy, plucky voice to the ancient poet.”—Publishers Weekly

“What a dream combination, Stephen Mitchell and Catullus! I’ve always loved Catullus for his irreverence, his passion, his idiosyncratic voice, which echoes down the centuries. Now Mitchell has made him one of us, a contemporary poet whose verse unveils the human condition in all its madness and grace. Mitchell’s rare poetic gift shimmers through these translations.”—Jay Parini, author of New and Collected Poems, 1975–2015

“The genius of Stephen Mitchell in these new translations is to make a friend of Catullus — a new incarnation of this bad boy ancient Roman poet, for ‘all those who are sensitive to beauty.’”—Daniel Halpern, author of Something Shining and founding publisher, Ecco

“Is there any language that Stephen Mitchell can’t bring to life for readers of English? Here, in his first foray into Latin, he does for Catullus what he’s already done for Rilke, Neruda, and Yehuda Amichai: capture a great lyric voice with freshness, vigor and energy. This version belongs on the bookshelf of every poetry reader.”—James Romm, series editor, Ancient Lives