Okay, so poetry has been happening for quite some time, you guys. Like longer than the internet, for sure. Gaius Valerius Catullus lived from around 84-54 BC, growing up in Cisalpine Gaul, a province just south of the Alps, and spending most of his adult life in Rome. He seems to have come from a rather wealthy family, shockingly, and all references to ‘poverty’ in his work are laced with a knowing irony.
The poems we still have access to survived the dark ages in a single manuscript, now kept safely in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and is subject to more speculation as to its integrity than most of Catullus’ contemporaries. An early scribe some time around the turn of the 15th century went as far as to place a lengthy caveat to any unsuspecting readers: “[the scribe] decided that it was better to have it in a corrupt state that not to have it at all.”
Regardless of the debate, what we are left with is an account of a relationship with the poet’s great love – in the work identified as ‘Lesbia’ after the home island of the Greek poet Sappho, in reality often conflated with Clodia Metelli, a Roman noblewoman with a pretty fascinating history herself – of remarkable psychological insight and occasional childish humour. Have a look at “Aurelius and Furius, true comrades” for a note-perfect example of lovelorn bitterness.
Today’s poem is “Let Us Live”, a straightforward but utterly memorable poem that demands being read in Latin first, even if (like me) you aren’t exactly fluent. It is at once hopeful, passionate, and keenly aware of the societal restrictions that bind their affairs. Few contemporary poets ever achieve this fluidity of feeling and argument, and that its very survival has depended so much on chance simply adds to its fleetingness, the contingency of the relationship between Catullus and his lover.
Let Us Live
Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum seueriorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit breuis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.
Let us really live, my Lesbia, that is to say, let us love,
and all the muttering of old men of the sterner sort
let us value at one cent!
Suns can set and rise;
to us, when once this evanescent light sets,
one eternal night must be slept.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then straight on to another thousand, then a hundred.
Then, when we have added up many thousands,
we will go bankrupt, lest we know how much
or lest anyone wicked can cast the evil eye,
inasmuch as he knows what the total of our kisses are.