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
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
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
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.)