Radishes and Mullets: When It’s Better to Skip a Line of Catullus

Catullus

All Latinists love the light, often frivolous poet Catullus. We first encountered him in an Age of Cicero class:  the wordy orator and the witty poet were contemporaries in the first century B.C.  The two of them were, more or less, friends: Catullus even wrote a thank-you note to Cicero in the form of a short poem.

Naturally, we are charmed by Catullus’s tender, witty love poems, which reveal a world much like our own. In one poem, he writes about the thousands of kisses he and his girlfriend, Lesbia, will exchange, mixing them up so no disapproving old men can count them. (I have posted my translation of this poem below.)

Tonight I  decided to relax by rereading some of Catullus’s lesser-known poems. I admire his work, but I had forgotten how lewd, really obscene, he can be. And if the commentary of your edition was published in 1894, you may have some difficulty understanding exactly what the poet meant.  Victorians are fond of periphrasis of vulgar phrases.

Poem 15 begins mildly enough.  Catullus genially asks his friend Aurelius to do him a favor:  to leave alone his amores, a castum (chaste or modest) boy. The word amores (the plural of amor) usually refers to a  lover or an object of passion, but here the editor claims he is “a young boy, a favorite of the poet.” As the poem goes on, it seems to me that Catullus could either be the boy’s friend or lover.   At any rate, he wants to protect him from Aurelius’s advances.

It is difficult to interpret this poem as mildly as the Victorian editor does.  In lines 10-13, Catullus writes graphically, “But I fear your penis, dangerous to both good and jaded boys. Shake it wherever you please, as much as you please, whenever it is ready in doorways or abroad. I save this one boy from your harassment, as I think, modestly.”

At the end, Catullus reminds Aurelius of the punishment that awaits him if his infatuation and madness “will have driven forward” (a literal thrusting translation) into this culpam (crime or fault).  The punishment is an act involving radishes and mullets.  The editor, who doesn’t care to mention buggery,  refers us to Aristophanes, Horace, and Juvenal.  No one tries a periphrasis to translate Juvenal, who mentions an adulterer with a “mullet up his backside.”

Herculaneum fresco

On a lighter note, here is my translation of Catullus’s famous kissing poem, (No. 5).   He addresses Lesbia, his girlfriend,  often thought to be the Roman adulteress, Clodia Metelli.

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
Let us count the rumors of old men meaningless.
Suns can rise and set;
For us, when the brief light sets,
one perpetual night must be slept.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand, then a second hundred,
Then straight on to another thousand, then a hundred,
And when we have made thousands of kisses,
we will mix them up, so that we don’t  know the count,
and so no enemy can cast the evil eye,
because he knows the number of our kisses.

Reading Latin in an Industrial City & the Kissing Poem of Catullus

Many years ago, I lived and read Latin poetry in an industrial city on the shores of one of the lesser Great Lakes.  You will not have heard of this provincial city because it is tucked away in flyover country.  You would never visit because it is intensely ugly, completely flat, and usually overcast.  As we approached the outskirts in our rented Ryder truck, I was startled by the flames rising from the stacks of steel plants and factories.  It was as though they proclaimed, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

“Is this the Inferno?”  I asked my husband.

We all have to live somewhere.  We follow our spouses, we go where there are jobs, we adapt to inclement weather and pollution.  In summer there were compensations:  you could picnic on the scrubby beach and watch the the waves; in winter you were awed by the frozen waves. In summer the light was wan, while the dark winters lasted five or six months.  When it snowed in May, we took day trips to nearby city where spring began at the normal time.  

Weather is surprisingly important.  People who grew up in that city didn’t mind the sunless days. It was more difficult for those of us from sunnier places.  There were three solutions to the so-called Seasonal Affective Disorder, as I saw it: antidepressants, alcohol, or a hobby.

I opted for the hobby:  I immersed myself in Latin, the language and literature I taught for years and read for decades.  I lounged with my Catullus, Ovid, and Apuleius, surrounded by pillows, dictionaries, and endless cups of tea.  For a while, I forgot the gray skies.

Reading dead languages is a dying art.  Classical literature spans several centuries, and there is no easy “Hemingway-esque” starting point:  you begin with the complicated and sophisticated, in  a world without  Dr. Seuss or Little Women.  It’s as though you learned the basics of English and jumped into Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf.   Vocabulary, dialect, style genre:  all completely different with each author.

Latin is no longer spoken, except at wacky conventions organized by the equivalent of WorldCon’s SF fans, but the literature is fun and various and more than 60% of English words are derived from Latin.  If you love dictionaries, this is the language for you.

A good Roman poet to start with is the slangy Catullus, whose charming love poems are universal.   Here is my translation of his famous kissing poem, (No. 5).   He addresses Lesbia, his girlfriend, who is sometimes thought to be the Roman adulteress, Clodia Metelli.  (Some of us think Lesbia is a fictional character.)

Here’s the poem:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,

Let us count the rumors of old men meaningless.

Suns can rise and set;

For us, when the brief light sets,

one perpetual night must be slept.

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,

Then another thousand, then a second hundred,

Then straight on to another thousand, then a hundred,

And when we have made thousands of kisses,

we will mix them up, so that we don’t  know the count,

and so no enemy can cast the evil eye,

because he knows the number of our kisses.

Now I live in a sunny city where I continue to read my Latin. But I admit, there are times when I’d love to see the Great Lakes again.