Dave Purdy: Catullus 51 & 5

by Dave Purdy
(bedford, NY, USA)

Catullus’ poems are important landmarks in the history of poetry. His use of Greek rhythm in the Latin language is unique and innovative for a poet of his time. For example, in Catullus 51, he replicates Sappho’s structure and rhythm into Latin, something never before attempted by a Latin-speaking poet. His passion and painful emotions spill into his writing as well, adding a personal component to his poetry. Mainly, his poems written to Lesbia (Clodia) express such passions.

In poem 51, Catullus is clearly apprehensive about speaking to Lesbia directly. Instead, he speaks to the man sitting beside her, expressing his envy and admiration for him; because a man worthy of Lesbia’s love must be worthy of respect. As he says in the beginning of the poem, “ille mī par esse deō vidētur, ille, sī fās est, superāre dīvōs.” In this segment, he speaks of how the man sitting next to her must be equal to a god, if not superior to one. For who else could be deserving of her love. He then goes on to talk about the small things about her, like her sweet laugh, which have the power to strip him of all senses. Things like this show how, at this point, Lesbia seems like an intangible goddess, far out of his league. This attitude soon changes, as shown in his later poems, as he becomes more comfortable around her; even comfortable enough to address her directly.
In poem 5, he makes the bold move of proposing an affair with Lesbia. He seems to lose all inhibitions, not caring what rumors the old men would hear about them. He seems very content and happy in this poem, finally at Lesbia’s level and able to express his feelings for her. This happiness, however, is short-lived, and ultimately brings only pain and suffering to Catullus. Because little did he know, Lesbia was in fact a promiscuous manipulator who (as told by historians) had little to no morality.

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