Comparing Catullus 51 with Catullus 5

by Renna Gottlieb

Catullus 51 and Catullus 5 really couldn’t be more opposite; I guess that’s partly the reason why I chose to analyze both of them.

Catullus 51 is a poem of desire. The desire Catullus reveals, however, shows that he really knows nothing of Lesbia, but for her radiant beauty; he is initially attracted to her superficial characteristics. For instance, Catullus writes “Lesbia, aspexī, nihil est super mī…,” meaning something along the lines of “Lesbia, when I first caught sight of you….” At this point in his writings, Catullus really knows nothing of Lesbia’s personality, but was rather in awe at her beauty and “dulce rīdentem” (sweet laughter).

Catullus 5 is written during a completely different time of the couple’s relationship (or rather, affair). Here, Catullus and Lesbia have moved much farther along in their relationship. Catullus demands kisses from Lesbia, thousands upon thousands (“Da mi basia mille, deinde centum, dein mille altera, dein secunda centum, deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum”), and he doesn’t care who becomes envious after they’ve heard about how many kisses they’ve shared. He knows that their days may be brief, so they must embrace every day they spend together. Catullus 5 is no longer a superficial attraction for Lesbia, but moreover a depiction of the deep love Catullus has for her.

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