Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentines from Antiquity

Sappho, as imagined in a Roman wall-painting recovered from Pompeii

For Valentine's Day, a couple of test-drive translations of some love poems from antiquity:

Catullus was a lyric poet of the early first century b.c.e. We don't have a ton of biographical details, but a lot of suggestive gossip survives. He fell terribly in love with a Roman courtesan who was beautiful but cruel and unprincipled, a belle dame sans merci. We think she may have been a woman named Clodia Metelli, but in his poems, Catullus only addresses her by the pseudonym Lesbia. His poetry to her turns bitterly hateful and despondent by the end of their stormy affair, but the early poems were optimistic and carefree:
Let's live, my Lesbia, and love, and laugh off
all the grumpy old men's worthless gossip!
Suns may set and then come back again,
but our brief light will only go out once;
we all must sleep that single endless night.
So give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred—
then another thousand, then a second hundred—
then another thousand all over, then a hundred more—
then, when we've kissed so many thousand kisses,
we'll scatter them, so even we can't count,
and no one bad can ever envy us
when he adds up how many kisses there are.
—Catullus 5
It's like seeing a young Mozart at work: the poem's like hearing the pageboy Cherubino sing in The Marriage of Figaro, or a pop song whose simplicity makes it all the better because it's about a kind of crazy simple clarity of the emotions. The Latin's simple, easy, almost like hearing a little kid talk. So much translation out of Latin archaizes ("Let us live, O my Lesbia! and may we love, / and reckon the value of the rumors of the sterner old men...") and ignores the way the language can sound slangy, silly, or struck stupid with the naïvest kind of love. I wanted this to have something of a pop song about it—colloquial, catchy, unsophisticated, sincere.

Sappho was a Greek poet who was already ancient when Catullus lived; she died some five centuries before he was born. Her poetry, much of it about love and heartbreak, survives mainly in fragments, but glorious ones. We actually have more of the poem below than what I've translated—a kind of imagined hymn of praise or love letter to Helen of Troy—but it's such a pyrotechnic four lines that I thought they stand gracefully on their own.
some, an army of horsemen; others, one of infantry;
and still others think a fleet of boats, on black Earth,
is what's most beautiful—but I say it's the thing
with which one falls in love
—Sappho, Lobel-Page fragment 16, vv. 1-4
It's a flash of what love felt like twenty-six centuries ago: a different range of metaphor, a different sense of the beautiful—but the same burning conviction, preserved on crumbling bits of papyrus and parchment across time, letter by letter. To quote a different poet, "What will become of us is love."


  1. The first five lines of the Catullus poem remind of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress": "Had we but world enough and time..."

    Thanks for the link to Larkin - I hadn't read that poem by him. It's rather un-Larkin like, when you compare it to a poem like "High Windows" - - although the last quatrain of High Windows does suggest similar sentiments.

  2. I love the comparison to Cherubino's aria! That's very canny. I've heard that the aria is supposed to be based on a Petrarch poem - would Petrarch have read Catullus, do you know?

    1. Hmm, that IS really interesting... Well, a little fast Googling brings up the suggestion, from Piero Boitani's "The Tragic and Sublime in Medieval Literature" (Cambridge, 1989: 63-64), that Sonetto 84, "Pace non trovo," is so obvious a link between da Ponte's libretto and Petrarch that one can't help but conclude that "Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte fully recapture the essence of the Petrarchan topos." Though that's entirely an artistic, rather than an intellectual-historical, interpretation, obviously.

      But as for Petrarch and Catullus: from what little I know about Catullus, it seems unlikely but not entirely impossible. Catullus was nearly entirely lost to us; there was a manuscript that suddenly emerged in (appropriately, since it was his hometown) Verona circa 1290, and that the Veronese knew it, but it's unclear whether Petrarch, a Tuscan, would have. (Unless I'm very mistaken, Dante apparently didn't—vis-à-vis the "poets in limbo" scene of the Inferno.) We no longer have the Verona manuscript, but two out of the three earliest manuscripts we do have are its descendants. Unfortunately, you'd have to be a better scholar of textual transmission and intellectual history of the early Renaissance than I am in order to pull this off authoritatively!