I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that ancient Rome was so louche. Latin has a lofty air of the regal, but when it wants to it can be as vulgar, and better, than the rest – at least if the The Poems of Catullus translated by Charles Martin are any indication. Catullus leaves one a little breathless, laughing, with eyebrows raised saying, Oh my my my. Really!? Why I never!
Greetings to you, girl of the nose not tiny
the feet not pretty, eyes not darkly-shadowed,
stubby fat fingers, mouth forever spraying
language that shows us your lack of refinement,
whore of that bankrupt wastrel from Formiae!
Is it your beauty they praise in the province?
Do they compare you to our Lesbia?
Mindless, this age. And insensitive, really.
Do not piss this poet off – he has a quill and he knows how to use it. One poem after another not only decimates his irritant du jour, but threatens with more poem-bombs to come, if provoked.
Veranius, more dear to me than any
300,000 of my many dear friends, – from 9
How touching. Catullus is unashamedly obnoxious (thank god he’s dead or who knows how viciously he might skewer me). But he is also very funny. In poem 50 he relates a wonderful evening spent with his friend playing around writing (according to him, naturally) hilarious erotic verse. He’s so exhausted from the exertion he begs his friend to come to him the next morning to continue their fun:
I beg you to be kind to my petition,
darling, for if you aren’t, if you’re cruel,
them Nemesis will turn on you in outrage.
Don’t rile her up, please – she’s a bitch, that goddess.
Nemesis was the Greek god of retribution the end notes helpfully tells us. The poems are full of whining, lamenting, competitive bitching, lust of both the hetero and homosexual brands – and then there is Lesbia. He does go on about Lesbia. The end notes inform us that Lesbia is actually “the notorious” Clodia Metelli, sister of the populist demagogue no one cares about anymore (Publius Clodius Pulcher). The name “Lesbia” conjures up the esteemed, sensual Greek poet Sappho, we are also reminded. Catullus’ Lesbia, married and apparently fickle, keeps his quill (both) quite engaged.
My woman says there is no one whom she’d rather marry
than me, not Jupiter, if he came courting.
That’s what she says – but what a woman says to a passionate
ought to be scribbled on wind, on running water.
Written on running water– that’s quite nice. Never the less, I don’t think I can muster up much sympathy for our debauched meany, Catullus. Even if it would take “as many sandgrains in the desert” of kisses from Lesbia to “sate your mad Catullus!” his love of loves. He’ll be just fine keeping busy with the whores and fellows:
I beg of you, my sweet, my Ipsilla,
my darling, my sophisticated beauty,
summon me to a midday assignation;
and, if your willing, do me one big favor:
don’t let another client shoot the door bolt,
and don’t decide to suddenly go cruising,
but stay home & get yourself all ready
for nine – yes, nine – successive copulations!
Honestly, if you want it, give the order:
I’ve eaten, and I’m sated, supinated!
My prick is poking through my cloak & tunic.
*Title from poem 27