CATULLUS

Translations by William Harris



In the world of Latin Literature, where in the list in Bardou's study of what has been lost, the losses overpower what we have preserved a hundred to one, where there are regrettable lacunae like half of Tacitus and more than that of Livy while preserving Pliny the Elder entire, with much piddling stuff like Gellius and company ---- it is sheer joy to find Catullus, a real poet, surviving. Not that there is much in that slim volume, nor is it all gold. But there is gold in there, slim gold which washes out, but the genuine stuff. Some of that I have translated in two ways. First, I can do a fairly straight translation, keep to the Latin as much as I can, and the some of these translations are in that spirit. Second, some can be re-formed, as it were, recast in form to get the English reader who does not have access to the Latin a sense of what the poem feels like, sounds like. These are experiments which I have tried, some still please me greatly after many years on the shelf, but they are not for all tastes. There are both kinds in the following pieces. --- I should add that the last poem, that frightening poem #63 is quite literal, and has furnished me material which I am currently adapting as a scenario for ballet with orchestra, a Rite of Spring perhaps for the end of this century.




I

Now spring brings back its chilly, balmy days,
Now March's changing, bitter madness goes away
And so we rest in pleasing summer's breeze.
And we should leave the Midwest's fertile fields.
The dampish savor of the rich ploughed land.
But let us fly to Washington in spring
And ancient Charleston's bud enchanted streets.
My eyes yearn for other sights to see,
My feet stretch forth to walk on other stones.
I'll see you, friends, in Baltimore in June,
The four of us whom separate ways delayed,
Now bringing back together once again.

II

Of all the isles and islets in the sea
Which tiptoe Neptune holds on fingertips,
You are the brightest eye I ever looked into,
Sirmio. I am just so glad to see you once again
Safely, escaped from the overcitied plains
Of Asia. What is better than put off old cares,
Slipping off the backpack of your thoughts
Tired of the toil of travel, and just come home
To the kitchen table, later go to sleep
In that old familiar bed you've been dreaming of.
For all life's labors that's the best reward......
I can see you, Sirmio, starting to smile at me,
Waves of your golden pond reaching up a laugh.
Coming up the path I hear them all in the house,
Family voices ringing out in welcoming.

III

Let us live, Maryann, and let us love,
And let's not give a damn penny to every
Snide whisper of the puritanical old men.
The day's light comes and sets, and then returns again,
But for us the brief light shines but once,
And night stretches forth in one long sleep.
Give me a thousand kisses, the a hundred more,
Another thousand, a second hundred or two,
A thousand and still a hundred hundred more.
Then when we have kissed a thousand thousand times
Let the countless number fly away before we pause
Counting, nor let some envious eye devise a plot
Knowing that so many kisses can be kissed.

IV

You ask how many of your kisses do I need,
Maryann, how many kisses will suffice.
As many as the grains of Libyans sands
That lie upon the perfumed Cyrenian plain
Between the sweltering shrine of fiery Jove
And the sacred sepulchers of ancient kings.
Or as many as the countless stars in quiet night
That stare down on the furtive loves of men.
Only such a number of your kisses, only this
Will be enough and above for your crazy lover,
Which neither curious eyes can number up
Nor evil tongues enchant to bind our play.

V

Life, liberty and the pursuit of love.....so, quick,
Maryann, give me a kiss, another, more......
Suns come and suns go, but when this small breath blows
Out, there's be little kissing, so kiss me quick
Handfuls, hundreds, a number beyond numbering,
Grains of sand, electrons filling all the void,
The whole wild world, this universe.
That's what I need, to sate and satisfy
Your crazy lover.
But watch out, sweet, the CIA
Will want those figures, feeding them night and day
Into computers to see if they can see
Something subversive in so much activity,
Spying on kisses for a foreign enemy.

VI

You damned dumb bastard, can't you see
It's over, finito, and it's going to stay that way?
Remember those sunny days a long time ago?
You'd go out for a picnic and she'd sort of
Come along (God, you really were in love then)
Now she sort of won't come along no more,
And you can't change that, so let it go.
Leave her alone, don't clobber up your life.
I really do remember those happy sunfilled days.
You've got to hold on, keep a tough upper lip....
You......you dirty hooker, how are you going to live?
Who do you think will want you after this,
Call you up, take you out to dinner, a dance,
Hold you in his arms, feel your body's heat,
Feel you, grab you, fumble to unhook your bra,
Biting your ear and neck? Wait a minute, you,
Hold on to yourself, you've got to toughen up.

VII

Joe and Jimmy, best friends in the world,
Whether I go to Afghanistan or San Salvador
Where the wide Pacific with its roaring wave
Pounds on the shore,
Or to the islands where war-canoes slide
Dangerous gliding over the coral reef,
Or where the Amazon pours its waters out
In Atlantic sea.
Or over the Alps or Himalayan peaks
Where famous climbers climbed and went to die,
Or plains where Mongols tamed their horses
Wild in conquering.
I know you'd keep step beside me, pals,
Faithful friends I believe, prepared for all,
Tell my girl, fellers, just a few brief things,
These few bad words.
"Live and be happy with your fucking adulterers,
Screwing them by the hundreds, in truth
Loving none of them really, but all the same
Busting their balls.
And look not back, as once, to my true love,
Which was let fall like the flower in the field,
Touched for a second by the passing plowshare,
Now gone, forgotten."

VIII

Ignace from Spain has real white teeth,
He smiles and shows them all over. At the court
When the defense jerks forth the jury's tears,
He smiles all over. At the funeral
Of an only son bewept by grieving mother,
He smiles. Any occasion, any location, and time,
He gives a great smile. I'd call it a disease,
And not a nice one, boorish and inept.
So I think I should remind you, Ignace,
That even if you were from Madrid or Barcelona,
Maybe a transplant from an isle of Greece,
Possibly Moroccan or from a Near East site,
From the north of Italy, like my own people perhaps,
Still I should tell you this is an ugly habit.
But it so happens you are from the islands, and there
There is a custom, to whiten up your teeth,
To use your piss each morning with a stiff toothbrush.
So just as your teeth are very clean and bright,
Your mouth is in equal degree odoriferous and foul.

IX

Ameana that fucked out whore
Is asking me for damages for ten thou'.
She's the one, you know, with the awful nose,
The girlfriend of that big Mafia mobster.
I think her relatives should be concerned,
Talk with her friends, take her to a shrink.
She's out of her mind, has no idea
What she looks like. She really needs
Something to set her straight --- a mirror.

X

Septimius, holding in his arms, Acme
Says "Acme my dearest dear,
I love you desperately and am prepared to die
If it's not forever, for all the days of my life,
If I lie, give me to a lion on the desert sands."
He spoke, and there was a love-sneeze
Somewhere as approval in the trees.
Now Acme lightly flicking back her hair,
And pouring kisses on the dear boy's eyes,
Kisses from that soft, vermilion lip of hers,
"My dearest love, Septimy, let us serve
The lord of Love forever, for I feel
Deeper even that you, this strong desire
Burning in my bones, in my deepest being. "
Love again sneezed in the trees, approvingly.
From this good beginning they proceed evenly
Loving and loved together, her he sees
Finer than any lady in this whole wide world,
She has eyes and soul for him alone, in him
She fashions all her dreams of love and fantasies.
Now tell me, have you ever seen anywhere
A better match, a more perfect love affaire?

(About the above poem, one must note that since the Renaissance
there have been arguments as to whether Catullus is admiring or
looking askance with light disdain at this Perfect Romance.
----Note also that this is a perfect Shakespearean sonnet, surely
a model for Classical conscious Elizabethans, with that last
punch line distich in Latin, a rhyme in English. But the punch-
line can cloy, take a look at W H Henly's poems In Hospital, where
he consciously de-emphasisizes the rhymed final couplet!)

XI

Piggy and little Socrates, the left-hand men
Of Mr. Big Politician, scratch and hunger of this world,
Did that big prick put you ahead of my pals
Little Joe Truman and Victor the Blab?
So you two are eating your hearts out half the day
At the boss's all afternoon, show-off buffet,
While my good friends walk up and the streets
Looking in vain for a dinner invitation.

XII

Hey, Mr. McHonest, why don't you just curl up and die.
Nixon is sitting in the chair in the Oval Room,
His right hand man lies about the tapes,
The other guy wants to burn them, too late now.
OK, McHonest, why don't you just curl up and die.

XIII

Rufa from Boulogne gives a quick blow job
To little Rufus, you know her, that fellow's wife.
You've seen her around. She steals the funeral cake
If it rolls down off the pyre, chasing it as it rolls,
And gets a good beating which she deserves
From the unshaved guy who set the pyre fire.




(This amazing poem No. 63 of Catullus, written in a strange meter found nowhere else, is an evocation of a cult which emigrated from Asia Minor to Rome in the 1 c. B.C. It is based on the worship of the turreted Mother Goddess, Cybele, who is served by emasculated priests called Galli/ae. As a study in religious frenzy it is matched only by Euripides' Bacchae in the Greek world. Reading it in the original, one cannot avoid shivering with anticipation and fear. One should note that cults involving practices as strange as self-emasculation have not disappeared in our time, on the contrary they seem to have a new half-life in this century.)




XIV "ATTIS"

Over the high seas in a quick boat carried, Attis
When he had reached the Phrygian forest, with desire
Touched with his foot the shore and came unto
The dark places of the goddess, hidden in deep forests,
Driven there by raging madness, his mind wandering away,
With a sharp piece of rock he tore off the weights of his groin.
And when he saw that his body was now without man,
Staining with fresh blood the soil of the earth,
Then with snow white hands he took the tambour up,
Your tambourine, O Cybele, O Mother your rites,
And shaking with slim fingers the hollow hide of the herd
Began to sing to her comrades in trembling tones this:
"Come, come together to the high forests of Cybele,
Come now, wandering herd of the lady of Dindymus,
Like exiles seeking a new home, seeking new places,
Following my lead, following me as leader, O my friends,
You have endured the raging water, the wildness of the sea,
And un-manned your bodies by greatest hate of Love.
Make you joyous the heart of our Lady with wandering steps,
Let hesitation disappear from your minds. Come now, follow
To the Phrygian home of Cybele, to the forest of the goddess,
Where the Phrygian player sounds a low note on his curving horn,
Where voice of cymbals clash, where the drums resound,
Where women wearing ivy wreath toss their heads in ecstasy,
With sharp screams performing the holy rites of Our Lady.
There the wandering band of Our Lady is forever fleeting"

As Attis, now a woman, sang these words to her companions,
The band suddenly with trembling tongues uttered a howl,
The tambour roared back, and hollow cymbals clanged,
The moving chorus with hastening feet now comes to Mt Ida,
Ever green. Wildening, breathing heavily, driving mind, Attis
The leader, with drum beating, goes through the darkest forest,
Leaping like a calf unused to the yoke, untrained, wild.
The devotees moving fast follow their fast foot leader,
And so when they touched the home of Cybele, exhausted
From great labor, even without eating they fall into sleep,
Slow slumber with sliding languor slipped over their eyes.
All the crazed madness of mind vanished in gentle restfulness.

But when with the radiating eyes of its golden face, the SUN
Gazed light over the bright sky, hard earth, the wild sea,
Drove off the shades of night with tramplefooting steeds strong,
Then sleep fleeting fast away left Attis now awake.
Lady Pasithea herself gathered him in her quivering bosom.
Now rising from soft rest, the wild madness gone,
Attis recalled in his heart those things he had done
And with crystal clear mind saw what he had lost forever.
With seething soul he traced his return back to the sea,
There gazing over the vast waters with streaming eyes
She called out to her homeland in misery, with this word:
"My country which bore me, my country which created me,
Country I left, fool, fleeing like a runaway slave, have I come
Bringing my footstep to the far forests of Ida's mount,
To live in the snow, in the chilling dens of wild beasts,
Approaching with madness all their wildening dens.
Where, O, in what place shall I think you lie, my land?
The pupil of my eye yearns to turn its gaze to you,
While for brief time my mind is clear of maddened thought.
Am I to be borne into these far off forests, far from my home?
Forever far from the town, the playing fields, the school?
Sadness O sad, complain again and again, my poor soul.
What kind of appearance is there which I did not once have?
Now I a woman? But I the youth, the boy, a child,
I was the flower of the playingfield, the pride of the olive wreath,
Our doors were crowded, the doorstep warm with friends,
Our whole house was cloaked with flowering garlands.
Only when sun was up had I to leave my chamber room.
Shall I now be priestess of the gods, handmaiden of Cybele?
Shall I be a Maenad, I just a part of myself, a eunuched man?
Shall I dwell in cold places of green Ida ever covered with snow?
Shall I live my life under the high cliff columns of Phrygia?
Now now I feel the pain of what I did, now now I rue."
The sound went quick from his rosy red lips
Bringing this message new to the goddess' twain ears.
And Cybele then, loosening the rein on her lions' neck,
Driving forth the herd's hard harmer, with these words, said:
"Go, wild one, go on, make frenzied fear get him now,
With the thrust of madness make him bring his footstep here,
He who thinks to freely flee my word and master's rule.
Whip tail over back, flagellate and endure the blows,
Make the places all resound with your roaring cry,
With that strong neck, O Wild One, shake your ruddy mane."
With threat she spoke and with her hand untied the rein.
Now the beast roaring himself on in his mind, with speed
Marches, bellows, breaks back the thicket with eager foot.
But when he came to the wet strand of the white-shining sea,
Attack! Attis out of his mind rushes back into the woods
To be the whole space of his life the handmaiden of the god.

Goddess, Great Lady, O Cybele, Lady of Dindymus,
Far from my family, Lady, may all you madness be.
Drive others crazy, I beg you, only drive others mad.


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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris