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Do you know Catullus? He is a Latin poet from the first century BC. He is roughly contemporary with Cicero, who I have a bit of a Latin crush on (you can’t not when you read all of his sass with a minorly insane Cicero expert as your professor). Wikipedia can be your friend.
This semester I am taking my last Latin course for my major, a 300-level (my school has 3 levels – 100, 200, and 300) course on Latin Lyric. We started the semester with Catullus. This was nice. We read some of his work in intermediate Latin and his poems are fairly easy to translate. They are also hilarious.
You see, the Catullus we read about in intermediate is a lovesick puppy. He loves Lesbia so much, and just wants to be with her. He is jealous of her sparrow because she loves is so much (no, really, we read two poems dedicated to her passer). Then she spurns him and you get some very colorful hate poems.
Anyone who has been in school knows that the more advanced your class is, the more fun you get to have. Which is why this semester, in addition to reading about lovesick Catullus, we also got to read his raunchy stuff. And I mean, wow! Romans had some creative derogatory terms for men. Where Cicero makes his sassy insults beautiful and descriptive, Catullus just lays it out there.
This was the Catullus my class knew and was amused by when we entered his long poems. We read poems 63 and 64. They were beautiful, reminiscent of the Vergil I read last semester. Except, Vergil comes after Catullus and was likely influenced by him! Yeah, the brilliant mind behind The Aeneid was influenced by the man who writes poems about Spaniards brushing their teeth with urine.
The descriptions in the poems truly were beautiful. The story was deep and the construction of the poem was intricate. They were truly works of art, not something we would ever have expected from Catullus.
It’s pretty cool that someone can do something like that. I mean, I’m amazed by his ability to compose such gorgeous and descriptive poetry. You wouldn’t even need to adapt this stuff to the screen. Just translate it into English and you have a screenplay and set descriptions ready to go (we frequently talk in class about how these types of poems would make great movies). But there is something about doing that in the same book as poems whining about how Lesbia doesn’t love you.
So the lesson for the week is don’t judge a book by its cover. I thought I knew Catullus, but I had only scratched the surface. He is capable of so much more than I ever gave him credit for before last week.
And now, I will close with a few lines from my favorite Catullus poem (poem 5, lines 7-13):
Da mi basia mille, deinde centum;
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum;
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
Dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred;
then another thousand, then a second hundred;
then yet another thousand, then a hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will throw them into confusion, lest we know,
or lest anyone evil is able to envy,
when he knows how many kisses there are.
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