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Catullus 51

Catullus’s famous Lesbia poem, 51, imitates Sappho, the Greek poet whose work was almost completely destroyed by the early Christians who thought she was perverse. Scholars imagine that the real woman Catullus was addressing would have known Sappho’s poem, and understood full well that Catullus was wooing her. Sadly, we have very little Sappho today, one of the greatest poets who’s ever lived. Catullus, on the other hand, hid under some floorboards in Verona for about a thousand years, one manuscript that was discovered around 1300. If not for that, we’d have very little Catullus as well. Very little lasts. Poets today ought to keep that in mind and work to have whatever they write be worthy enough to be written in stone. I like to think that a manuscript of Sappho is in an urn nicely preserved waiting to be discovered somewhere in a desert in Egypt or the Mid-East. My translation isn’t word for word, that’s for sure, but hopefully hits a nail on the head.

ille mi par esse deo uidetur.
ille si fas est superare dios.
qui sedens aduersus identidem te
spectat et audit.
dulce ridentem misero quod omnes
eripit sensus mihi. nam simul te
Lesbia aspexi nihil est super mi
uocis in ore.
lingua sed torpet. tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat. sonitu suopte
tintinant aures. gemina teguntur
lumina nocte.
otium Catulle tibi molestum est.
otio exsultas. nimiumque gestis.
otium et reges prius et beatas
perdidit urbes.

That fellow must be Jupiter
or even greater if that’s possible
because he can sit beside you
and simply watch you laugh
while I can’t even talk—
at the first sight of you
my tongue is ripped out
by its roots
shot through every limb
with hot shivering
Lesbia, my ears ring
my burning eyes see nothing
You leave no peace
Peace would be bad for me
Peace has destroyed formerly
cities of fortunate royalty.

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