156. Poems by Catullus (c. 60-55 BC)

156. Poems by Catullus (c. 60-55 BC)

Plot:  An assortment of personal poems – love and hate, sometimes together.

I had two versions available to me for Catullus :  the Penguin classic translated by Peter Whigham (0140441808)  and the Oxford World’s Classics edition by Guy Lee (0192835874)

My thoughts:

I must confess I am not a poetry fan – and the more self-indulgent and ugly the poems, the less I like them. So Catullus does not rate highly with me and I was glad to reach the last page.

Catullus is reminiscent of Sappho, in that he uses his poetry very personally to express his love, lust, anger and hate, to praise his friends and to attack his enemies. His surviving poems are numbered (with some gaps) and organised by length and style, so each poem is different from the next, and the recurrent themes (his love for ‘Lesbia’ and their turbulent affair, his dalliances with other male and female lovers, his insults and his occasional poetic correspondence to friends) are mixed throughout the volume.

Perhaps most memorable are his addresses to “Lesbia” (the Clodia attacked so scathingly by Cicero in court for her promiscuity). Catullus’ feelings for her vary from deep love, to sniping insults at her and her other lovers, to recognising he cannot help but love and hate her, desperately wishing he could rid her from his system.

With two editions to compare, it becomes very apparent that an especially beautiful phrase that captures my heart is as much courtesy of the translator as the author : compare Catullus’ ode (#4) to his favourite yacht now beached and decaying on the bank:

“drawn up here, gathering quiet age”  (Whigham)  versus  “grows old in quiet retirement” (Lee)

Both are beautiful but Whigham manages to capture something special.

As I have said before, without my own knowledge of the ancient languages, I am reliant on the skill, accuracy and fidelity of the translator; and personal taste also comes into play. Especially with Catullus’ ‘colourful’ language such as on display in #6

“attenuated thighs betray your preoccupation” (Whigham) versus the “fucked-out flanks” (Lee)

There is a small number of short epic-like poems but they lost me. The highly considered #64 starts as a marriage celebration but was overshadowed by jarring tales of death and betrayal from Greek legends : Ariadne abandoned by Theseus after she helps him kill the minotaur, the deaths and destruction during the Fall of Troy, and the unhappy tale of Oedipus.

Favourite lines/passages:

I have reproduced Whigham’s translations of poems 32, 33  and 51 below; not as favourites but to give some idea of what is representative of Catullus  


Call me to you

at siesta

We’ll make love

my gold & jewels

my treasure trove

my sweet Ipsithila

When you invite

me lock no doors

nor change your mind

& step outside

But stay at home

& in your room

prepare yourself

To come nine times

straight off together

In fact if you

should want it now

I’ll come at once

for lolling on

the sofa here

with jutting cock

and stuffed with food

I’m ripe for stuffing you

My sweet Ipsithila.


Godlike the man who

sits at her side, who

watches and catches

that laughter

which softly tears me

to tatters, nothing is

left of me, each time

I see her.

… tongue numbed; arms, legs

melting, on fire ; drum

drumming in my ears ; head-

lights gone black.

Her ease is your sloth, Catullus

You itch & roll in her ease

Former kings and cities

Lost in the valley of her arm


Vibennius & son, renowned

among bath-hut pilferers


an adept at massage


of voracious if of hirsute buttocks

why not remove yourselves?

Those manual depredations

are common knowledge

the allurements of those bum-cheeks

a drug on the market

why not remove yourselves?

Personal rating:  3/10

The reads in between: 

  • Death comes as the End : Agatha Christie sets this murder whodunnit in Ancient Egypt around 2000 BC. For once I was well on top of the murderer, but since so many got knocked off along the way, there were not many suspects left to choose from. 😊
  • The Martian : Andy Weir’s first novel describes the survival efforts of an astronaut left behind on Mars, and the rescue options NASA comes up with. Saw the movie last year. Looking forward to getting his next book Artemis about a bank heist on the Moon.
  • Mike : Another early Wodehouse about cricket and private schools. Entertaining if you love … well, Wodehouse or cricket.

Next :  Selected letters from Cicero.


2 thoughts on “156. Poems by Catullus (c. 60-55 BC)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s