Written in Sapphic meter

Furi et Aureli, comites Catulli
sive in extremos penetrabit Indos,
litus ut longe resonante Eoa
tunditur unda,
sive in Hyrcanos Arabasve molles,
seu Sagas sagittiferosve Parthos,
sive quae septemgeminus colorat
aequora Nilus,
sive trans altas gradietur Alpes,
Caesaris visens monimenta magni,
Gallicum Rhenum horribilesque ulti-
mosque Britannos --
omnia haec, quaecumque feret voluntas
caelitum, temptare simul parati,
pauca nuntiate meae puellae
non bona dicta:
cum suis vivat valeatque moechis,
quos simul complexa tenet trecentos,
nullum amans vere, sed identidem omnium
ilia rumpens;
nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
tactus aratro est.


Translation:

This is the 'literal' translation that I did for my AP class.

Furius and Aurelius, companions of Catullus,
Whether he will venture into the furthest India
Where the shore is beaten by the Eastern wave
resounding far and wide
or (venture) into the Hyrcani or the soft Arabians
or the Scythians or the arrow-carrying Parthians
or into whatever water the seven-mouthed
Nile colors,
Or whether he will walk across the high Alps
seeing the monument of great Caesar,
Gallic Rhine, dreadful and distant,
British,
All these, whatever the will of the gods
will bring, be prepared together to try to
announce a few not good words
to my girl:
Let her live and thrive with her adulterers,
300 of whom she embracing holds
loving not any truely, but repeatedly bursting
all groins;
Let her not expect my love, as before
which has fallen due to her fault just as
a flower of the distant meadow after it has been
touched by the plowshare passing by.

Notes:

Line 1: Furi and Aureli are in the vocative.
Line 2: the -ve of sive indicates there will be a number of choices.
Line 3: ut + present indicative = 'where'
Line 6: The Scythians where fierce enemies of the Romans.
Line 9: gradietur is deponent
Line 10: Enclosed line
Line 11: Asyndeton (lack of connecting word)
Line 13: feret is future indicative
Line 15: nuntiate takes the dative and is imperative
Line 16: non bona is lytotes
Line 17: vivat is present subjunctive
Line 18: Enclosed line, complexa is deponent, '300' is hyperbole
Line 20: Insinuates sexual intercourse.
Line 22: velut introduces a simile.
Line 24: aratro is ablative of means

Synopsis

This is one of Catullus' 'I hate Lesbia, she's a whore' poems. Catullus addresses this poem to two of his friends, Furius and Aurelius, to whom he charges that no matter where he himself goes he expects his friends to 'announce a few not good words' to Lesbia. Catullus says he now longer loves Lesbia because of her many affairs (of course, she was having an affair with Catullus) and using a beautiful simile, compares the 'fall' of his love to the fall of a flower mowed down by a passing plowshare (Lesbia).

"Last message to Lesbia"

The following is my own translation. You will notice that while I have tried to mimic Catullus' form, I have added an extra line to each stanza to make up for the fact that Latin is often a much more concise language than English.

Furius and Aurelius,
always my companions,
whether I go as far as India,
where the eastern wave pounds the shore,
echoing far and wide,

or to the luxury-loving
Hyrcani and Arabs,
or the Sacae or arrow-throwing Parthians,
or any waters coloured by the seven
mouths of the Nile,

or if I cross the high Alps,
and see Caesar's great memorials,
and the Gallic Rhine, that
horrible water1, and the Britons,
at the end of the world.

Since you are both prepared
to face all these things,
whatever the will of the gods,
send a few unkind words
to my girl:

Let her live, and good luck to her,
as she holds three thousand debauchers
to her breast, loving none truly,
but again and again
bursting their balls;

Let her not seek my love again,
which has fallen by her fault
like a flower on the edge of a meadow,
which has been touched by the plough
as it passes by.


Commentary

Many commentators see this poem as Catullus' last communication with Lesbia. It is fitting, then, that it is written in the Sapphic metre which characterised what many see as his first Lesbia poem, 51 ('ille mi par deo esse videtur'). The poet has run the full circle of his feelings towards Lesbia, and this poem marks the end of the cycle, tying up the body of poems. Were one inclined to apply the faddish terms of modern psychology to ancient art, one could describe this poem as the moment where Catullus finds 'closure'.

Of course, this would not be wholly accurate. We see from other poems in his corpus that Catullus finds himself unable to forget Lesbia.2 Also, we see Catullus still referring to Lesbia in this poem as 'mea puella'. The last stanza, too, conveys his self-pity.

Who, then, are the 'Furius and Aurelius' of this poem? They appear elsewhere in Catullus, either separately or together, in six other poems (15, 16, 21, 23, 24, 26), usually in a scornful or abusive way. Furius has been identified with Furius Bibaculus, a poet from Cremona, who was certainly someone who would fit in well with Catullus' 'novi poetae'. Aurelius has not been positively identified.

Although the identification of Furius might lead us to believe that Catullus is sincere in his expressions of friendship, most commentators3 have seen the first three stanzas as ironical in their tone, meant to contrast with the scathing message given to Lesbia.

However, the much outspoken Fordyce has this to say for himself:

"...But if these lines are ironical, they are a very complicated kind of irony, containing as they do what can only be a genuine compliment to Caesar. Horace did not recognize irony in them, if, as seems more than likely, he was thinking of them when he wrote the opening of his Sapphic ode to Septimius (ii. 6), Septimi, Gades aditure mecum. We would do well to be cautious about taking light-hearted abuse, however coarse and outrageous, at its face value as evidence of animosity. Catullus' society is not the only one in which convention has permitted friends to call one another names and write scurrilous verses at one another's expense.4"

Although Fordyce raises some interesting points here, it is hard to see the description of large monuments - presumably tombs - as a great compliment. It seems more likely that it refers to the large number of deaths inflicted by the Gallic campaign5. Nonetheless, whether it is a compliment to Caesar or not, it does not affect whether or not the first three stanzas are ironical. A compliment would only serve to build up the grandeur of the passage even more.

Also, the suggestion that the lines are not ironical merely because Horace may have had them in mind when writing one of his poems is incredibly tenuous. Fordyce seems desparate to show that he has new ideas. His seeming acceptance of banter between friends only serves to highlight the prudishness that led him to eliminate a third of Catullus' work from his edition with the justification 'a few poems which do not lend themselves to comment in English have been omitted.'6

The image of a flower on the edge of a meadow being chopped down by a passing plough is not a new one in Catullus' work - it appears in Homer describing the death of young warriors. It is Catullus' genius, though, to make it personal, and apply it to the pain of a broken heart. Vergil imitates the personal nature of the image in his description of the death of Euryalus in book 9 of the Aeneid.7

Catullus' references help us to date this poem to no earlier than 55 B.C. It was in this year that Caesar crossed the Rhine and reached Britain. Gabinius had restored Ptomely to his throne in Egypt in the spring, and Crassus had set out to the east in November of that year.

Textual criticism

Catullus, as usual, uses literary devices to conjure up images in our minds with only the sound of his words. Placing 'tunditur unda' in the half-line at the end of a stanza adds weight to the words and draws our attention to the onomatopaeic effect created.

The second stanza's first three lines all begin with 'seu' or 'sive', which adds to the build-up in Catullus's words. When, in the next stanza, he uses hardly any conjunctions at all, we see how effectively this builds us to a climax.

Immediately before the bathetic denunciation of Lesbia, Catullus uses the word 'caelitum', an archaic word which adds even more grandeur to the preceding sentiments.

The last message to Lesbia is typical Catullan fare, with its hyperbolic accusations and coarse imagery. cf. 58 for another example of a grand build-up followed by this kind of imagery.

The last two stanzas contain a number of alliterative pairs of words, e.g. 'vivat valeatque', 'tenet trecentos', 'culpa cecidit'. These all add to the passion and speed of the poetry, as well as the venom with which Catullus delivers his message.


1 Fordyce takes this line as 'Gallicum Rhenum horribile aequor ulti-', going against the text of the manuscripts, saying that the hiatus caused in the metre and 'the coupling of two disparate epithets' both point to corruption. The emendation is Haupt's.

2 cf. 8 ('miser Catulle, desinas ineptire') and 72 ('siqua recordanti priora benefacta voluptas').

3 The case was most strongly put by Wilamowitz in his Hellenistische Dichtung in der Zeit des Kallimachos.

4 C. J. Fordyce. Catullus - A Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

5 For rough figures of deaths in the Gallic Wars and other Roman campaigns, see the very biased http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/romestat.htm.

6 C. J. Fordyce. Catullus - A Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

7 Aen. ix. 435, 'purpureus veluti cum flos succisus aratro / languescit moriens'

The plough metaphor in Catullus 11.

A poet of the first rank, Catullus controls his language closely enough to simultaneously achieve multiple effects. So although Mortice quite rightly asserts:

The image of a flower on the edge of a meadow being chopped down by a passing plough is not a new one in Catullus' work - it appears in Homer describing the death of young warriors. It is Catullus' genius, though, to make it personal, and apply it to the pain of a broken heart. Vergil imitates the personal nature of the image in his description of the death of Euryalus in book 9 of the Aeneid.

we do not have to limit ourselves to this obvious metaphor of the flower of callously rejected love shoved aside by the plough. Catullus rarely hides his anger and indignation: in fact he's always remarkably direct. It would seem a little bathetic if the following fiery verses just led to a quaint (if pathetic) flower metaphor:

cum suis vivat valeatque moechis,
quos simul complexa tenet trecentos,
nullum amans vere, sed identidem omnium
ilia rumpens;

literally translated by Lalage

Let her live and thrive with her adulterers,
300 of whom she embracing holds
loving not any truely, but repeatedly bursting
all groins;

Catullus angrily sets in our minds an image of Lesbia serially taking on one sexual partner after another, machinelike, wearing them out (the wavelike undulation of copulation feeds a metaphor of waves breaking on rocks--famously cold, barren, and heartless in Roman poetry).

But having set Lesbia up as a heartless machine of fornication, he wants self-pityingly to portray his victimhood, and as we know, he likens his love for her to a tender flower:

nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
tactus aratro est.

translated literally by Lalage

Let her not expect my love, as before
which has fallen due to her fault just as
a flower of the distant meadow after it has been
touched by the plowshare passing by.

People have almost always viewed the opening of a furrow in "mother" Earth--for the generative act of inserting seed (and producing new life)--as an analogy for sexual activity. And it turns out that the plough is of greater interest here than the flower. The flower of Catullus' love has been touched casually but fatally by the heartless mechanism of the plough as it passes along engrossed (as it were) in its business.

So in fact, Catullus continues his bitter, nasty invective right to the end of the poem. His misfortune was to get in the path of the great heartless fucking machine that was Lesbia, which destroyed him as it passed in its career of devouring lovers (who break in their great numbers like waves on flinty rocks). Of course, we shouldn't take Catullus' portrait of Lesbia uncritically!

(For the record, I think Catullus and the persona who speaks in his poems are about the same, but many would disagree.)

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