Bill Long 10/23/04
Modern Thoughts on an Ancient Poet
At one time Catullus was actually read, not simply by Classics majors but by the general educated public. In his 1928 book on Catullus and Horace, for example, Tenney Frank doesn't even translate Carmen 101 because it is "so familiar" to people (I doubt if its familiarity was too widespread, even in 1928, however). Yet former New York Times columnist and Pulitizer Prizer-winner Chris Hedges recited 101 to an audience at the Salem (OR) Peace Lecture as part of his forceful talk on the elixir and betrayal of war. So unexpected was this recitation that the emcee of the event afterwards confessed that he didn't know that Hedges was a poet. Indeed, Hedges is not; he was quoting Catullus. But, I suppose that the emcee's comment reflects the fact that if someone utters the word "Catullus" in public speech today, someone must think he is sneezing.
Hedges' reference to Catullus encouraged me to return to him, the founder of the so-called Neoteric School of Latin poetry in the 1st century B.C.E. Catullus is generally regarded as the "third" Latin poet, behind Virgil and Horace, but he brings to his poetry a sense of intensity, visuality and fully-expressed emotion that is absent in the others. Poem 101, which Hedges quoted, is Catullus' moving and elegiac tribute to his brother who died not far from Troy in 58 B.C.E. The poem was written in the wake of Catullus' visit to give him proper burial the next year. Unforgettable are the lines where he says he is present at his brother's "unworlding" to give the traditional offerings for him. These offerings are a sorrowful tribute, drenched in the tears of a loving brother, to one who had unexpectedly died. The funereal tone and sense of enormous loss suffuses the 10 lines.
Putting 101 in Context
Though grateful for Hedges' resurrecting of Catullus on the theme of loss and death, I wanted to search further, and I concluded that really the best way to understand the power of 101 was to see it in the context of a few of Catullus' "journey poems." By so comparing these poems, we receive a fuller and deeper exposition into how Catullus thought about overseas trips, including the fateful one to Troy for his brother's obsequies.
As Brown University Classics scholar Michael Putnam has argued, Poems 31, 46 and 4 present a triad of poems that describe Catullus' feelings towards travel overseas. Though Putnam doesn't mention Poem 101 in this connection, I am adding to Putnam's argument to contend here that Poem 101 gives a different "slant" on travel than the other three. However, 31, 46 and 4 create the proper intellectual and emotional world to understand Poem 101. Poem 46 describes a longing to travel overseas, Poem 31 relates a yearning to return, and Poem 4 describes the retiring of a ship, the fleetest of the ships, on which people made journeys across the Mediterranean.
His emotions of expectation flow freely here as he contemplates a Springtime trip. Spring's "balmy warmth" has returned; the "sweet gales of Zephyr" hush the rage of the violent Winter storms. He longs to travel, perhaps to Phrygia (in Asia Minor). "Now my soul flutters in anticipation and yearns to stray." In his longing to travel his "eager feet rejoice and grow strong." The faraway trip to Turkey is seen as a lure, something that excites and charges the heart.
This is his great poem of return, of longing for the familiar and inviting confines of his native Sirmio in northern Italy. "How willingly and with what joy I revisit you." Then, "what is more blessed than to put cares away, when the mind lays by its burden, and tired with labor of far travel we have come to our own home and rest on the couch we longed for?" Now the heart longs to return to the familiar place, and the thought of reclining on one's familiar couch is alone worth all the toils of travel.
The one who yearns to travel and return from travel must have something on which to embark. So, he pens a hymn to the bark which was "once the fleetest of ships, and that there was never any timber afloat whose speed she was not able to pass." His ebullient words show his deep appreciation for the sea, travel and for this noble means of conveyance.
Putting it all Together
Now we are truly able to understand Poem 101, because it fits into the genre of journey poems of Catullus. But we see how awkwardly it fits--because Catullus is a poet who is full of life, who loves to travel, who years for the East and then, after a bracing visit to the East, longs for return home. He is a man of overflowing emotion, whose heart is restless to travel and return. But Poem 101 shows none of that restlessness or eagerness or longing.
Rather than eagerly seeking a journey, he is "dragged" or "drawn" to the East for the brother's funeral rites (vectus); rather than a heart alive with hope, it is a heart that comes to offer "sorrowful obsequies"; rather than imagined glories of ancient lands, he wets the funeral sacrifice with the "many tears of a brother." Travel now takes life out of him rather than renews him. It cuts the chain of longing rather than strengthens it. It leads to the subdued, rather than the skipping, heart.
So does loss take the life out of us all. It is all the more poignant when we know how vibrant was the person who suffered the loss.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long