Poetry alert—why we should all be reading Catullus

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
Sing of the rage, goddess, of Achilles, Pelleus’ son.

The first words of Western literature. The first words are a calling to the Muse to inspire the tragic story about to be unfolded. As I said last week, it’s the Muse who ultimately drives our creative efforts. None understand this better than poets and I’d like to take some time here to explore one of the most inspirational poets for the modern world: the Bob Dylan of the ancient world: Catullus.

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus …
Soles occidere et redire possunt:
Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
Nox est perpetua una dormienda

Let us live, my dear, and let us love…
Suns are able to rise and set
But when our brief flame dies
There’ll be nothing but night; one long sleep for eternity

For those of you who can read Latin you’ll already know in  my translation I’ve emphasised certain things and not others. It’s not the most literal translation, the last line being better rendered as, night is one perpetual sleep. And yet, There’s so much to Catullus. There’s so much to how his words play upon each other that no literal translation can come close to the power of his words. This is a man inspired by literature, driven from suffering and yet, ultimately, a slave to the voice of the Muse.

We start off reading Catullus’ love poems early on. He tells us how their kisses can go on forever and he’ll never get enough of them. He makes dirty jokes with his girlfriend, starting one poem with effectively, “O budgie, who art in heaven” if you were to transpose it into modern Australian English. And yes, budgie as in budgie smugglers. And yet, it all goes tragically wrong. She stops seeing him, sleeps with other men and, to top it all off, keeps some of his best poems. The entire experience inspired some of the most haunting lines such as odi et amo… and my personal favourite,

dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam,
sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos

I loved you then, not as the mob loved a whore (though we did have our fair share of fun)
But as a father loves his children and their beloveds

And yet, what’s the point? What’s the big deal? No one with a heart can argue that Catullus’ poetry isn’t deeply moving. He may be childish at times and outright offensive to modern ears at others, but at heart he’s a man expressing his suffering through poetry. That itself is something timeless. It is a reminder to all of us that tapping into the Muse and creating something can be a helpful way of expressing our greatest joys and coping through our greatest sorrows. But it goes even further than that.

Catullus was incredibly professional in his writing. Everything he wrote was in some form of metre, the words not only interplaying with the vast panoply of poetic techniques, but doing so within an incredibly tight structure. While he mentions spending a whole day writing poetry with his friend, he goes on to say he then spent the whole night editing it. His very first poem mentions polishing the collection—a reference both to the shiny new scroll it was written on, and to the perfecting of the poems within. He’s someone who draws from his own experiences, taps into the creativity of the Muse and yet maintains a strong attitude of discipline. As a result, he presents his work as polished as can be, so much so that it is still read and enjoyed thousands of years later.

And isn’t that something to be inspired by? Isn’t that, at heart, an example of a writer who shows us what it takes to write well? It’s worth noting a downside to his creative pursuits, however. Catullus reminds us the writer’s life can devour you if you let it. We learn from two poems that his brother has died. In what is usually taken to be the first one written about it, Catullus 68, he starts off quite poetically, talking about how that loss has ruined his happiness and that of his family. But he goes on, however, and starts making all these allusions to Greek mythology, something he does quite a lot, and the poem becomes long and convoluted. The Muse may well have taken over but it was no longer about his brother but in a sense how the Muse could create something clever out of playing upon his pain over his brother. Compare that to Catullus 101. This is a much shorter poem and almost completely devoid of grand mythological references. It’s still deeply poetic, giving us another of his more well-known lines—atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale (And so I guess it’s… forever… brother… hello… and goodbye…). The key thing being though that here he mastered the Muse to help him write what he wished rather than the other way around. And that, as writers, is also something we also need to learn how to do.

I hope I’ve fired you up to all go out there and start reading Catullus, even if you can only read a translation available online. Besides what we can learn from Catullus himself, there’s something incredibly beneficial in learning different languages, especially poetry in different languages. It teaches us so much about how we can grow in our own writing. In that vein, I plan to continue discussing more poetry in the oncoming weeks and see what we can learn from it together.

(Photo sourced from Wikipedia)

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