No. 69: I Hate and I Love, Catullus

WARNING:

The following post contains erotic content!

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(Photo credit: My friend Poppy. Cheek in the ruins of Carmo Convent, Lisbon. See last week’s post for more of our Lisbon-based literary antics). 

Catullus is a naughty man. You have been warned.

BACK TO THE NORMAL SCHEDULE

This week’s post is awash with provocative sex scenes, a tremendous coincidence and tales form foreign shores. So please stick with me for this one – you won’t regret it. Let your hair down, nestle back in your chair, take a sip of your cup of tea (some might prefer something a little stronger), and let me and Catullus entertain you.

March was a revelrous month, what with a trip to Lisbon and the extended Easter weekend. It was restorative to have a quiet weekend in my flat at the beginning of April, the perfect environment to familiarise myself with Catullus.

I had not heard of Catullus prior to reading this Little Black Classic. A quick flick through revealed this is a collection of poetry, the perfect reading to dip in to.

The main focus of this poetry collection is Catullus’s infatuation with a woman called Lesbia, who he addresses directly in a number of his poems. Take his preoccupation with kissing her in the second poem:

“Kiss me now a / thousand times & / now a hundred / more & then a / hundred & a / thousand more again / til with so many / hundred thousand / kisses you & I / shall both lose count”

Sweet love!

Two poems later, and Catullus is back in the same frame of mind:

“as many as / the sky has stars / at night shining / in quiet upon / the furtive loves / of mortal men, / as many kiss- / es of you lips / as they might slake / your own obsessed / Catullus”

True romance!

But relations turn sour; it’s clear that Lesbia and Catullus quarrel. His tone changes – his writing is abrupt and disjointed. He tries to convince Lesbia that he doesn’t miss her:

“Not again, Lesbia. / No more. / Catullus is clear. / He won’t miss you.”

Methinks he doth protest too much. Surely this heartache and denial is familiar to all of us.

His misery evolves into anger. In a particularly violent poem, Catullus says that, while he casts off his grief and travels the world, he hopes the “tart” Lesbia is enjoying new relationships. He’s sarcastic and cutting, imagining her in brutal and rape-like sex orgies, “dragging the guts out.”

It’s seriously graphic. I won’t include it here (my Grandma reads this) but this is, essentially, 2,000 year old revenge porn.

Ancient art and literature show that civilisations were openly experimental sexually, but I’ve not yet come across any ancient text that’s quite so violent or venomous. I felt completely awful for Lesbia. A past lover publicising sexual scenarios is a terrifying, haunting prospect.

Later, Catullus implies Lesbia is a prostitute, as she “loiters at the cross roads / and in the backstreets”. He’s clearly obssesed with her but moves on, distracting himself with Ipsíthilla. He requests she “Call me to you / at siesta / we’ll make love” and “stay at home / & in your room / … I’ll come at once.”

Ahem.

Despite Ipsíthilla’s appeal, Catullus can’t shake off Lesbia. He’s conflicted – his hatred transcends into love and vice versa.

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Half of his references to Lesbia are degrading, as described above; the other half are ardent. Toward the end of the poetry collection, for example, he says “Lesbia is loveliness indeed” and compares her to the goddess Venus.

The final poem concludes with Catullus finding love with another, although insecurities bubble beneath, as he hopes

“God let her mean what she says, /  from a candid heart, / that our two lives may be linked in their length / day to day, / each to each, / in a bond of sacred fidelity.”

This is a wonderful collection of poems. It might be 2,000 years old, but it perfectly displays the contradictions of love – how it can be both profound and beautiful, painful and ugly. It makes both poets and monsters of us all.

One of my greatest loves is Italy. It’s my favourite country – the cities, the countryside, the art, the food, the drinks, the gelato. *Sigh.

Two weeks ago, my friend Thom and I returned from a short break in Italy, where we first spent a couple of days in Sirmione on Lake Garda, before we moved on to Milan. It was idyllic – we scaled cathedrals and castles, swooned at godly statues and consumed numerous Aperol spritz. We also decided that a boat trip was essential – a few hours on the lake, basking in sunshine, with a picnic and poetry. Perfect.

At university, where we met, Thom and I read from two breeze-block books – the Norton Anthologies of English Literature. Through our three years at uni we studied a huge number of erotically charged texts (there’s no escaping them) and joked that, one day, we could collate all those erotic writings and publish an anthology of our own for future students. We dubbed it the Naughty Norton.

As I read Catullus, a week prior to our trip, I decided I had to take him with me with Italy. He was an excellent candidate for the Naughty Norton.

I researched him a bit more to garner more about this Italian heritage. In a weird twist of fate that I’m crediting to the Roman Gods, Catullus is rumoured to have come from Sirmione, where Thom and I had booked to stay.

No, I am serious.

Spooky.

I was thrilled to find a bust of the poet standing not fifteen paces from the door of our B&B.

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There is a villa, called the Grotto of Catullus, jutting out onto Lake Garda at the very tip of Sirmione, where Catullus is rumoured to have lived. This has since been disproved, but it is understood that his parents did own a villa in Sirmione and so Catullus inevitably visited. Unsurprisingly, the local scenery inspired much of his poetry…

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We rented a boat in the morning (an experience that was completely brilliant but not the calm idyll I had evisaged. No poetry was read, rather camp 80s music videos re-created) and visited the ruins of the villa in the afternoon.

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We could hear the waters of the lake lapping as we strolled around the ruins. The sun spilled out overhead. Italian conversation lingered. It was compeltely idyllic.

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A big thank you to Gemma the Gem for choosing this week’s Little Black Classic, and thank you to Thom for letting me march him around Sirmione in search of Catullus!

Next time I will be reading Samuel Pepys’ The Great Fire of London.

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