Catullus is the most difficult of the Roman poets to wrestle with. For one, he is mostly a mystery compared to his contemporaries and successors like Horace, Virgil, and Ovid. Moreover, what poetry of his survives sometimes comes across as obscene in a way that not even the writings of Ovid or Horace do. Recent scholars like C.J. Fordyce consider a third of his 117 poems unworthy for reflection: their obscenity speaks for itself. Yet Catullus is the creator of Latin elegiac poetry, his lyricism is unarguably breathtaking and witty (in the Latin), and he was an individual who sang of what Christians identified as man’s fallen nature: that tension between love and lust, compassion and hatred, joy and envy. Catullus, then, may be the preeminent poet of the city of man, but his poems also move with the spirit of a restless soul seeking the nourishment that only Love itself can provide.
“I hate and I love, why do I so, perhaps you ask? / I do not know, but I feel it, and I am crucified” (Poem 85). This short poem encapsulates the totality of Catullus’s poetry. Love and hate, confusion and torment, desire and guilt. In two lines Catullus poetically summarizes the human condition’s many twists and turns.
Catullus lived through turbulent and transformative times. He lived and died during the nadir of the Roman Republic. He counted such luminaries as Cicero, Crassus, Pompey, and Julius Caesar as his contemporaries. He made fun of them all, at least to the degree that he could without losing his life (and occasionally having to apologize to stay in their good graces). He was, in this regard, somewhat courageous in taking on the Roman power players during the republic’s terminal decline into civil war and empire (which he did not live to see).
In this chaotic time, he fell madly in love with “Lesbia,” or Clodia Metelli, wife of the Roman politician and consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. Loving Clodia and witnessing the real time decline of the Roman Republic fueled his most memorable poetry: his love poetry to Clodia and his reflection on the decline of the ages (his famous “Bedspread poem,” Poem 64). It is, therefore, these poems that I wish to concentrate on and through them offer a penetrating critique and appraisal of Catullus’s heart—a heart that we, too, share, even if we think ourselves primmer and more proper than Catallus’s own fantastical imagination and tumultuous life.
When Catullus wrote those words: “I hate and I love,” he spoke truth about the human condition. While one can say that it was also a manifestation of Catullus’s own life—specifically his failed love life, which saw Clodia fade away from his bedside clutch and that no other woman could replace her in his heart—the agonized love and lust which Catullus speaks of in his poetry is something that philosophers, theologians, and writers of the past and present have wrestled with. We all intuitively know that this agonized love, this trepidatious line between joy and enmity, is something deeply real, as we have all experienced it in our lives. Catullus, then, speaks to us in our most hopeful moments. He also speaks to us in our crudest and darkest moments. This is what makes Catullus engaging and repulsive simultaneously.
The tension between love and hate is not merely found in his love poems to Clodia. The tension between love and hate is the central theme of Poem 64 as we slide through the myth of the ages toward decline: the impossibility of love and the agonizing heartbreak of having fallen from that primordial grace of blissful existence without suffering the broken heart of a lover sailing away from our lives forever.
Poem 64 opens with the memories of an Edenic-like paradise, Arcadia to the Romans, with its picturesque depiction of nature which also evokes the goddess Minerva: “They say that pines were born long ago / From the head of Mount Pelion in Thessaly / And swam the sea, its undulating waves / To Phasis, pheasant river, and / The land of Aeetes the king.” The poem begins with this depiction of serenity and the joy of Peleus and Thetis, father and mother to the great hero Achilles (more on him later).
In the wedding banquet, Catullus ignores the story of Pseudo-Apollodorus where the goddess of discord (Eris) was excluded and tossed the apple of discord into the banquet which caused the goddesses Minerva (Athena), Juno (Hera), and Venus (Aphrodite) to war with each other and demand a verdict as to who was the most beautiful. Instead, Catullus depicts the wedding that everyone yearns for: pure love, joy, and the bliss that comes with wedding garments and song. It is the ideal within the idyll.
However, the wedding of Peleus and Thetis that gives birth to the heroes “most admired / Beyond measure of all Ages,” quickly descends from that golden age into decay. “The place [that] was filled / With the jubilant crowd who held gifts before their faces / And faces expressing joy,” is contrasted with the imagery of uncleansed soil and fallen leaves polluting the fields causing “decay” to “over[u]n the abandoned ploughshares.” The hour of happiness is also the hour of decline. The poem shifts to the story of heroes: Theseus and Ariadne and Achilles.
The myth of the ages asserted that the decline from gold to silver to bronze was given a brief respite in the heroic age. The heroic age brought new life, new inspiration, new vitality to the world of decadence and destruction. Here Catullus brilliantly subverts this portrait and continues with his own “fall of man” in the continual decline of the earth and humanity.
Catallus’s continued progression of the bedspread poem inverts our expectations as well as implying the tragedy of love and the sorrow that comes with a love unfulfilled. Peleus and Thetis should now enter the bed to consummate their love with each other in the rapturous bliss that comes with marriage. This was the hope of Ariadne (who can be understood to be Catullus in real life) with Theseus (sometimes considered to be Clodia in real life). Ariadne’s dreams of marriage to Theseus are shattered when the hero abandons her and sails away to Crete to meet King Minos and eventually set sail for Attica where he will slay the infamous Minotaur that enslaves the people there and become the mythical hero-king founder of Athens.
But the concentration on Theseus forgets Ariadne. Catullus includes, in brief, Theseus’s feats, but he concentrates on the lament and sorrow of Ariadne, spurned and abandoned by Theseus, her heart fading into oblivion, her tears cascading down her cheeks like a torrential waterfall, beaten and broken by the false promises of love which causes enmity between the sexes. The loss of love causes her to be “pitiful and alone on lonely sands” which shatters her “hope for…a happy marriage” dancing under the stars with those “Longed-for wedding songs.”
Here Catullus, knowingly or not, speaks truth about love and the lack thereof. Love binds together, as we saw with Peleus and Thetis. Love initially bound Ariadne and Theseus together. If love binds together, if love is the “unitive force” that holds all things together, the opposite of love is separation. Separation leads to loneliness. The loss of love for Ariadne results in precisely that: separation from Theseus which results in her utter isolation: she is alone “on lonely sands.” As Ariadne watches Theseus sail away, her heart still desires to cling to him—a reflection of her still unquenched though dying love for the hero—but is now “completely lost” reminding us of that isolation and loneliness that comes with a love unconsummated.
The “raging” “passion in her heart” leads to her lament. Ariadne’s lament is a heartfelt plea, a curse, really, directed against Theseus with significant implications. She curses him and his false promises which extends into a more universal statement of enmity between the sexes: “May no woman now believe a man where he makes a promise / May no woman hope the words of her man are true.” We grieve for Ariadne because we, too, know the loss of love and the heartbreak that comes with it. Ariadne’s sorrow and lament reveal her love, but it also reveals the “hate” that comes with a love spurned and rejected.
The other great hero that Catullus subtly inverts, and critiques, is Achilles—the child of the love between Peleus and Thetis which the poem began with. Catullus’s critique of Achilles is the perfect continuation of the imagistic language he has crafted with the abandonment of Ariadne. The loss of love that Ariadne experiences is now met with the imagery of bloodshed and destruction as Catullus launches into the infamous rage of Achilles where he storms back into battle and causes the Scamander River to flow red with blood: “For as a reaper picks thick bundles of corn / Beneath the blazing sun and harvests the blond fields, / So [Achilles] will lay low the bodies of the Troy-born / With unforgiving iron … The River Scamander will witness his great virtues / As it flows in profusion … [with] Slaughtered bodies that mount up.”
Catullus is satirical about the “great virtues” of Achilles. What great virtue lies in death and destruction? None at all. Having witnessed the sorrow of Ariadne’s abandonment and lament, this sorrow of a love lost turns into the imagery of death and destruction with the pivot to Achilles. Catullus is magnificent in the dialectical progression of how the loss of love leads to death, and he does so with a piercing satirical critique of the greatest hero of antiquity. Achilles is no hero. Just as Theseus is no hero. (At least from Catullus’s critique within the poem.)
The arc of the bedspread poem is the gradual decline from the golden age of Arcadian bliss and serenity to the sorrow of love spurned to the death and destruction that results because of the impossibility to find happiness and solace in love. This is the age we now find ourselves in according to Catullus (notwithstanding the fact that Catullus himself was unable to consummate the burning love of his own heart). Moreover, where the heroic age was generally conceived and imagined as a time of reprieve and inspiration, Catullus subtly implies that it was yet another continuation in the declination of humanity. So now the “gods [have turned] away from us. / So they do not dignify our assemblies with their presence, / Or even bear to touch the clear light of day.”
What begins in a serene and joyful opening—Arcadia with the wedding of Peleus and Thetis—moves to heartbreak, sorrow, death, and destruction. Poem 64 follows the myth of the ages, but Catullus inverts the heroes and heroic age as just another path on the decline; it is a lamentable age, an age of betrayal, deceit, and skullduggery. The heroic age brought grief and death, not respite and new life. Those who worship the heroic age blind themselves to its reality: the sorrow of Ariadne, the bloodthirsty rage of Achilles, and the death that came from love spurned.
What a depiction of the fall of man.
Beyond the bedspread poem, Catullus is most famously remembered for his love poems to Clodia (“Lesbia”) as hitherto mentioned. It is easy to dismiss these poems as the ruminations of a man-child who never grew up, a lovesick puppy angry that the love he sought was not reciprocated, and the often-obscene language seems to warrant its rejection on that ground alone. Such dismissal of Catullus’s poetry, however, misses the profound insights that Catullus provides into the turbulence of love and lust and the dream that “love” can “last forever.”
Love has the power to unite and bring serenity in a world of flux and violence. It transports us back to that original Edenic, Arcadian, paradise that we have fallen from. Our language today, like Catullus’s language then, still evokes this idyll in love. Clodia is the “sparrow” and “apple” of Catullus’s eye. Their love is like the “Libyan sand,” kissing and caressing each other on the golden beaches with the soft waves of the ocean crashing up around them. The experience of love always seems to take us back to that primordial garden where love was first sanctified under the skies of purity, waves of serenity, and leaves of the trees.
How often, like Catullus, do we see in our culture—literature and film especially—romantic moments under the sun, the moon, and the stars? How often, like Catullus, do we have our own experiences of love in the blessed meadows and fields of nature? How often, like Catullus, do our sacred traditions evoke Eden, gardens of delight, and blossoming flowers as the pasture in which love is most fully realized?
But all that glistens is not gold.
Catullus, being the man he was, was also attune to the madness and ecstasy of love turned to lust. From those same images of sparrows and apples and grains of Libyan sands, Catullus also speaks of loosening “chastity belt[s]” for “a thousand kisses” and “another thousand” that cause him to go “crazy” and become “a fool” and “failure.” Here, too, Catullus reaches into the dark id of human existence and its libidinal desires that can lift us into that Arcadian paradise of blissful love or tear us down and drag us into the abyss of “hate,” cruelty, and anger:
Lesbia says a lot of cruel things to me in front of her husband. The dolt finds considerable happiness in this. Mule, do you have no feelings? If she had forgotten me and kept quiet She would be cured. But since she barks and abuses Not only does she remember me but – this is far more piercing She is angry. This is how it is, she burns, and she talks.
Like many lovers, Catullus employs an inverse psychological justification of how taunting teasing and cruelty is itself a reflection of love. This is the madness of love—really, lust—which drives us insane and often is the catalyst for abuse. “Lesbia always speaks badly of me,” Catullus writes, but in that speaking “badly” of him, the lovesick poet interprets these moments as evidence of her love: “I’ll be damned if Lesbia does not love me. / How can I tell? Because with me it’s just the same. / I curse her continuously, / But I’ll be damned if I do not love her.”
Catullus’s juxtaposition of the serenity of love with the madness of hate, cruelty, and anger is also something common in our cultural patrimony. How often, like with Catullus, do we see in our culture—literature and film especially—lovers quarrel with one another, strike each other, and engage in cruel teasing and mockery that sometimes results in physical confrontation? How often, like Catullus, do we know people in such relationships where things seem romantically ideal at one moment then horrifying terrible in the next? How often, like with Catullus, do our sacred traditions also depict the tension between love and hate burning up in our own souls and hearts, the temptations and turbulence that comes with the restless heart seeking love while fighting against the death-impulse of lust?
Catullus may not have understood lust in the way that those who came after him did, but we have the benefit of living in the aftermath of those writers and thinkers who were able to separate the bliss of love (which Catullus correctly identifies with the serenity of that primordial perfection) from the destructive anger and danger of lust (which Catullus says he is incapable of knowing though he senses and is tormented by it). As such, we can see in Catullus the twists and turns of the tempestuous soul caught in the rapturous vicissitudes of life crying out for that grace which is love while being drowned in a torrential whirlpool of his own libido dominandi. We see in Catullus our own personal struggles and hopes, our vanity and ego, our failures and our want for redemption. Catullus’s love poems sing of this common mortal condition we all inhabit – good and bad.
If love is the calming medicine of the soul that brings unity and serenity in the midst of death and destruction, a union of two become one, Catullus still glimpses that reality:
You dangle before me, my love, and life, the prospect That this love of ours will be cherished and last forever. Great gods, make it that she can promise truthfully, And say it sincerely and from her heart So that we may live our whole lives By this everlasting pact of sanctified love.
It would be a great injustice to our own lives if we discard Catullus simply on the grounds of his crudity and paedomorphic antics and language scattered throughout his poems. Yet have we not, ourselves, cried the same feelings of Catullus? Have we not been caught in the ecstatic torment of love and our want to consummate it and the grief and sorrow of love’s failure? Have we not ourselves cried out to the heavens for sanctification and for those dreams of living a loving life in a garden of delights to come true? If we run from Catullus, it is only because we see too much of our darker selves in him while remaining blind to those wondrous moments of light that break out of his wicked splendor and lift us back to that original bliss we yearn for.
Catullus is not a saint. He is not a moral poet. But his crudity and madness still dance with the shadows of truth and echo with the cry of the human heart. He is entirely right that we should cry out to the “great gods” so that those whom we love can “sincerely” declare it “truthfully” “from [their] heart” and out of this declaration of love two lives will come together through that “pact of sanctified love” that will “last forever.”
Despite it all, Catullus is right to see love as life: “We should live, my Lesbia, we should love.” Only in that love do we experience the calming heart of joy that gives us a taste of eternity. For all his many faults and ills, Catullus still glimpsed that serenity of eternity offered in love where blossoming flowers, golden sand, and cascading waves don’t weep in sorrow but sing in happiness.
All translations of Catullus’s poems are by Daisy Dunn.