For Valentine’s Day today, some Roman poetry that is both bawdy and touching.
Catullus (c. 84 – 54 BC) was a Latin ‘neoteric’ poet in Republican Rome – focused on smaller scale stories borne from personal experience, in stark contrast to the ‘Homeric’ poetry which portrayed the feats of classical heroes. His poems were written for his circle of friends and, as well as containing all the characteristics of the neoteric style – tight construction and punning in particular – they are also RATHER NAUGHTY. Needless to say, while his poetry influenced some greats such as Ovid, Horace, and Virgil, he was never going to be on the GCSE syllabus with gems such as this:
Cato, it’s ludicrous, too absurd!
Do listen, it’s worth chuckling over.
If you hold Catullus in affection,
Laugh, Cato, for what’s just occurred
Is the funniest thing you have ever heard.
I caught a tender little lover,
Bottom up, rogering his bird,
And, brandishing my own erection
(Venus forgive me!), made a third.
Yep. You read that right. Romans rogering. Three in a bed. Voila Catullus. There’s plenty more where that came from.
But Catullus also has the feels, which is why I’ve chosen this book in tribute to the most lovey-dovey day of the year (#corporatescam too but let’s leave that for now). His love poems, centred on his troubled relationship with ‘Lesbia’, show how the trials and tribulations of that Crazy Little Thing Called Love that we agonize over in long Facebook messenger conversations with our besties or comfort strangers about on the Night Bus home (man or woman, I’ve listened to many a male tale of woe on the N279) were equally familiar over 2000 years ago in Rome. The adoration:
No woman can
That any man
Ever loved her
As I loved you.
No lover bound
By pledge of heart
Was ever found
True on his part
As I was true
And, as so often is the case, the disappointment:
She swears she’d rather marry me
Than anyone – even Jupiter,
Supposing he were courting her.
She swears; but what a girl will swear
To the man who loves her ought to be
Scribbled on water, scrawled on air.
Mr ‘I love to roger, but I do have feelings you know’ Catullus summed up this conflict in four lines that have stayed with me in the almost 20 years since I first read them:
I hate and love. If you ask me to explain
I can’t, but I feel it, and the pain
These lines touched me so much that as a teenager I wrote them on my bedroom door, along with some other verse from Plath, Thomas, Wilde, et al, which my mother has refused to paint over, in a mixture of maternal adoration and a resolution that all adults should be reminded of the pretentious teenagers from whence they came.
But as a naive 17 year old I thought these four lines alluded to the most dramatic instances of ‘love conflict’, like Catullus’ infatuation with the love-cheat Lesbia, or the Eastenders-Phil-and-Shirley-ish ‘can’t live with you, as we drink too much vodka, can’t live without you, as I love vodka too much’ type shenanigans. As an older, supposedly adult individual, I realize they can also apply to those more mundane disagreements of lovers’ co-habitation which can fuel some intense emotions if left unchecked. Consider this bedroom chair, for example:
Looks tidy now, doesn’t it? Readers, it has taken three years of living together to get to the point where this chair does not have at least two pairs of pants, three pairs of jeans and five identical black t-shirts piled sky high on it in a structure akin to Bruegel’s depiction of the Tower of Babel. This chair has been my version of the love and hate collision Catullus describes above. But, readers, I still love him…and expect I create the same distress with what has been described as my Mistreatment Of The Order of The Cutlery Drawer.
Love: sometimes it’s all rogering and excitement, other times it’s taking on the battle to encourage someone to put their clothes in the wardrobe and recognizing the importance to a beloved of forks being in the fork section of the cutlery drawer. It’s worth it though. Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.