Sparrow, delight of my beloved, Who plays with you, and holds you to her breast; Who offers her forefinger to your seeking, And tempts your sharp bite;
I know not what dear jest it pleases my shining one To make of my desire!…
For a while he was consumed with happiness, played attendance upon her daily, read his poems to her, forgot everything but his infatuation.
Let us live, Lesbia mine, and love, And all the mumbling of harsh old men We shall reckon as a pennyworth.
Suns may sink and return;
For us, when once our brief sun has set, There comes the long sleep of everlasting night. Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, Then another thousand, then a second hundred, Then still another thousand, then a hundred.
And when we shall have reached many thousands We shall confuse the count, lest we should ever know, Or some mean soul should envy us, Learning the great sum of our kisses.
We do not know how long this ecstasy lasted; probably his thousands wearied her, and she who had betrayed her husband for him found it a relief to betray him for another. Her benefactions now ranged so widely that Catullus madly fancied her “embracing at once three hundred adulterers.” In the very heat of his love he came to hate her ( odi et amo ) and rejected with a Keatsian image her protestations of fidelity:
A woman’s words to hungry lover said Should be upon the flowing winds inscribed, Upon swift streams engraved.
When sharp doubt became dull certainty his passion turned to bitterness and coarse revenge; he accused her of yielding to tavern habitues, denounced her new lovers with obscene abandon, and meditated suicide, poetically. At the same time he was capable of nobler feelings: he addressed to his friend Manlius a touching epithalamium or wedding song, envying him the wholesome comradeship of marriage, the security and stability of a home, and the happy tribulations of parentage. He snatched himself from the scene by accompanying Memmius to Bithynia, but he was disappointed in his hopes of restoring there his spirits or his purse. He went out of his way to find the grave of a brother who had died in the Troad; over it he performed reverently the ancestral burial rites; and soon afterward he composed tender lines that gave the world a famous phrase:
Dear brother, through many states and seas Have I come to this sorrowful sacrifice, Bringing you the last gift for the dead…. Accept these offerings wet with fraternal tears; And forever, brother, hail and farewell.
His sojourn in Asia changed and softened him. The skeptic who had written of death as “the sleep of an eternal night” was moved by the old religions and ceremonies of the East. In the rich and flowing verse of his greatest poem, “Atys,” he described with vivid intensity the worship of Cybele, and caught an exotic fervor in the lament of the self-emasculated devotee over the joys and friends of his youth. In “Peleus and Thetis” he retold the tale of Peleus and Ariadne in hexameters of such melodious delicacy as even Virgil would hardly equal. In a small yacht bought at Amastris he sailed through the Black Sea, the Aegean, and the Adriatic, and up the Po to Lake Garda and his villa at Sirmio. “Oh, what happier way is there to escape the cares of the world,” he asked, “than to return to our own homes and altars, and rest on our own beloved bed?” Men begin by seeking happiness and are content at last with peace. We know Catullus more intimately than most Roman poets, because his subject is nearly always himself. These lyric cries of love and hate reveal a sensitive and kindly spirit, capable of generous feeling even for relatives, but unpleasantly self-centered, deliberately obscene, and merciless to his enemies. He published their most private peculiarities, their pederastic propensities, their bodily odor. One of them washes his teeth with urine, after an old Spanish custom; another is so foul of breath that if he should open his mouth all persons near him would fall dead. Catullus oscillates easily between love and offal, kisses and fundaments; he rivals Martial as a guide to the street-corner urology of Rome, and suggests in his contemporaries and his class a mixture of primitive coarseness with civilized refinement, as if educated Romans, however versed in the literature of Greece, could never quite forget the stable and the camp. Catullus pleads, like Martial, that he must salt his lines with dirt to hold his audience. He atoned for these faults by the conscientious perfection of his verse. His hendecasyllabics leap with a naturalness and spontaneity that escape the artifices of Horace and occasionally rise above all the graces of Virgil. It took much art to conceal his art, and Catullus more than once refers to the painful toil and care that produced his quick intelligibility and apparent ease. His vocabulary helped him to this end; he molded the words of popular speech into poetry, and enriched the Latin of literature with affectionate diminutives as well as tavern slang. He avoided inversions and obscurities, and gave to his lines a limpid fluidity grateful to the ear. He pored over the poets of Hellenistic Alexandria and ancient Ionia: mastered the smooth technique and varied meters of Callimachus, the lusty directness of Archilochus, the vinous exuberance of Anacreon, the amorous ecstasy of Sappho; indeed, it is largely through him that we must guess how these poets wrote. He learned their lessons so thoroughly that he became, from their pupil, their equal. He did for Latin poetry what Cicero did for Latin prose: he took it as crude potency and lifted it to an art that only Virgil would surpass.
IV. THE SCHOLARS