Carmina Catulli: 1 – 7

What follows are the first seven poems of Catullus in Latin with humble translations by me; I also do a reading in Latin of Catullus 2: Passer. Hope you enjoy it and get a feeling for the sounds. The poems of Catullus come from a manuscript found in Verona around 1300. It vanished soon after, but not before three manuscripts were copied from it, surviving today, one in Paris, one at Oxford, and one in Rome. Catullus was the best loved poet of his time, but he would be lost to us if not for that one decaying manuscript found under some monastery’s floorboards or on a dusty forsaken shelf. I love Catullus. His poems are like sculptures, word hard that have remained through the years wonderful, funny, tacky, erotic, touching, obscene, smart and sometimes terrifying. Catullus was a friend of Julius Caesar, close enough to write awful things about him. He loved his hometown, his boat and his brother. He loved his friends and enjoyed making fun of them. He loved a woman very much. Perhaps that love killed him. Catullus died in his late twenties, a time when a man can still die of love.


I

Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas.
Iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis…
Doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis!
Quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli
—
qualecumque, quod, o patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo!

To whom am I giving my pretty new book
just now rubbed smooth with dry pumice?
Cornelius, to you because you’ve always felt
my scribblings were something
you who among us was the first
to write the history of the world
in three masterly books—Good work!
Now here is mine for what it’s worth.
It’s yours. O muse, may it last
after this generation’s passed.


II

Passer, deliciae meae puellae
quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare appetenti
et acris solet incitare morsus
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid lubet iocare,
et solaciolum sui doloris,
credo, ut tum gravis acquiescat ardor:
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
et tristis animi levare curas!
…
tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae
pernici aureolum fuisse malum,
quod zonam soluit diu ligatam.

Sparrow, delight of my darling
playing with you at her breast
offering her fingertip
provoking you to bite at it
I’m not sure of the games
my lovely lady needs to play
to comfort her her sorrows
and ease a bit love’s ardor
but I believe if I could play with you
as she my troubled soul would be lifted
gratefully as that swift virgin’s
stooping for a golden apple
undid her dress long tied.


III

Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque,
et quantum est hominum venustiorum:
passer mortuus est meae puellae,
passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quem plus illa oculis suis amabat.
nam mellitus erat suamque norat
ipsam tam bene quam puella matrem,
nec sese a gremio illius movebat,
sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illuc
ad solam dominam usque pipiabat.
qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc, unde negant redire quemquam.
at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis:
tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis
o factum male! o miselle passer!
tua nunc opera meae puellae
flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.

Mourn, you Venuses and Cupids
and all men of good heart
It’s dead, my girlfriend’s little bird
delight of my darling, her little bird
she loved more than her own eyes
her honey who knew her
better than a girl her mother.
It never left her lap
from fold to fold it hopped
singing only for her.
Now it goes on that shadowy road
from which they say no one returns.
Black wicked death, your are the worst
devouring all beautiful things
even little birds
Look what you’ve done
making my lady cry
swelling red those lovely eyes!


IV
Phasellus ille quem videtis, hospites,
ait fuisse navium celerimus,
neque ullius natantis impetum trabis
nequisse praeter ire, sive palmulis
opus foret volare sive linteo.
et hoc negat minacis Hadriatici
negare litus insulasve Cycladas
Rhodumque nobilem horridamque Thraciam
Propontida, trucemve Ponticum sinum,
ubi iste post phasellus antea fuit
comata silva: nam Cytorio in iugo
loquente saepe sibilum edidit coma.
Amastri Pontica et Cytore buxifer,
tibi haec fuisse et esse cognitissima
ait phasellus; ultima ex origine
tuo stetisse dicit in cacumine,
tuo imbuisse palmulas in aequore,
et inde tot per impotentia freta
erum tulisse, laeva sive dextera
vocaret aura, sive utrumque Juppiter
simul secundus incidisset in pedem;
neque ulla vota litoralibus deis
sibi esse facta, cum veniret a mari
novissimo hunc ad usque limpidum lacum.
sed haec prius fuere: nunc recondita
senet quiete seque dedicat tibi,
gemelle Castor et gemelle Castoris.

That ship you see, strangers
says she was the swiftest
and there is nothing floats
whether with sail or oar
overtook to sink her.
Do the Cyclades deny it?
The Adriatic coast?
Does noble Rhodes? Horrible Thrace?
The treacherous Gulf of Pontus?
That is where she was born
a tree she says before a boat.
Her leafy branches fluently spoke
in the languages of wind in them.
Black Sea and Forest of Cytorus
she says she knew you first
that in your hills you know she stood
in you first tried her little oars
to carry her master over the storm
whatever the winds blew right or left
or Jupiter sent into her sails
she never had to make
vows to any little shore gods
as she’s come off the sea
up to this limpid lake
all that before, now she’s retired
quietly grows old, your servant
twin Castor and Castor’s twin.


V
Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis 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.

Lesbia, let’s love and live
no matter what old men tell us
it isn’t worth a cent.
Suns rise and fall all that they want
but when our little light goes out
night’s sleep goes on and on.
Give me a thousand kisses, give me a hundred
give me a thousand others followed by two hundred
followed by another thousand then another hundred
until we’ve kissed so often
no one will know, not even us
nor anyone evil who’d want to curse us
with the number of our kisses.


VI

Flavi, delicias tuas Catullo,
ni sint illepidae atque inelegantes,
uelles dicere nec tacere posses.
uerum nescio quid febriculosi
scorti diligis: hoc pudet fateri.
nam te non uiduas iacere noctes
nequiquam tacitum cubile clamat
sertis ac Syrio fragrans oliuo,
puluinusque peraeque et hic et ille
attritus, tremulique quassa lecti
argutatio inambulatioque.
nam inista preualet nihil tacere.
cur? non tam latera ecfututa pandas,
ni tu quid facias ineptiarum.
quare, quidquid habes boni malique,
dic nobis. uolo te ac tuos amores
ad caelum lepido uocare uersu.

Flavius, if your girlfriend were elegant
you would show her to Catullus.
You’re the type who can never keep quiet
and the truth is you’re silent. Friend, what hot depths
you’ve sunken in you’re ashamed to confess.
You’re getting it, that’s obvious.
Your silent bed still shouts
fragrant with Syrian oils, flowers
and squashed pillows thrown around—
Not long ago I heard it shake, rattle and roll.
Is that a tired whore now snores under the covers?
Come on, open up, show her to Catullus.
Whether she’s worthy or not
you know my verses can
make you and her a constellation in heaven.


VII

Quaeris, quot mihi basiationes
tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
oraclum Iouis inter aestuosi
et Batti ueteris sacrum sepulcrum;
aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox,
furtiuos hominum uident amores:
tam te basia multa basiare
uesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi
possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

You ask how many of your kisses, Lesbia
are more than enough for me.
How many grains of Libyan sand
has the stink-weed Sahara cast
between the oracle of sweating Jove
and old King Battus’ holy tomb?
Or when the night is quiet
how many stars look down
on the liaisons of lovers?
More than enough for your crazy Catullus
would be more kisses kissed
than the curious could calculate
or the wicked tongued know to hex.

4 Comments

  1. dav id eberhardt
    Posted 13 Oct ’12 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Thank u o thank u for this- with all the drivel on this site (mine included)- just to have such a master- it’s a balm to sore ears! Pound also translated Catullus, as, I’m sure, you know,

    • Posted 13 Oct ’12 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the poems!

  2. Posted 7 May ’15 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    These are wonderful,Don. Thank so much for sharing. It brings back memories of my summer at Harvard back in 1993 with Prof. Greg Nagy. We studied the lyrical poems of Catullus and the odes of Horace. I enjoyed your reading as well.

    • Posted 7 May ’15 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much for letting me know that you enjoyed them. I appreciate it. I’ve always liked Latin class. Best.

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