Catullus 76



Si qua recordanti benefacta priora voluptas / if a man takes any pleasure in
est homini, cum se cogitat esse pium, / recalling his good deeds of old, at a time when he
nec sanctam violasse fidem, nec foedere in ullo / considers himself dutiful, having
divum ad fallendos numine abusum homines, /  neither violated some holy pledge nor
multa parata manent in longa aetate, Catulle, /   abused the divine
ex hoc ingrato gaudia amore tibi./ power of the gods to deceive people in some contract, if, I say,
nam quaecumque homines bene cuiquam aut dicere possunt / such pleasure exists, Catullus, 

aut facere, haec a te dictaque factaque sunt: / then much lies ready and waiting for you across
omnia quae ingratae perierunt credita menti. / your long old age, many joys, that is,
quare cur tu te iam amplius excrucies? / in recompense for your love, the love that went
quin tu animo offirmas atque istinc teque reducis / unappreciated;  for what-
et dis invitis desinis esse miser? / ever men can either say or do that is to another's
difficile est longum subito deponere amorem; advantage has been said and done by
difficile est, verum hoc qua libet efficias. you. It is difficult overnight to lay to rest a
una salus haec est, hoc est tibi pervincendum; long-standing passion; it is difficult  

hoc facias, sive id non pote sive pote;  but you need to do this whatever way you
o di, si vestrum est misereri, aut si quibus unquam; can, this is your one path to
extremam iam ipsa in morte tulistis opem, salvation, you have to bring this to pass;
me miserum adspicite et, si vitam puriter egi, this you must do whether it is possible
eripite hanc pestem perniciemque mihi! or impossible. Oh gods, if you have the power to
hei mihi subrepens imos ut torpor in artus pity. or if you have brought help to anyone
expulit ex omni pectore laetitias. already at death's very door itself, then look upon me in
non iam illud quaero, contra ut me diligat illa, my sadness and, if I have lived a
aut, quod non potis est, esse pudica velit: blameless life, snatch from me this
ipse valere opto et taetrum hunc deponere morbum plague and destructiveness
o di, reddite mi hoc pro pietate mea. that, God help me, creeping like a numbness into the very marrow of my linbs, has driven out any moments of happiness from the entirety of my being; What I ask is no longer that she should requite my love, or that she should take to being faithful, an impossibility. I simply ask to be well and to shake off this foul disease. Oh gods, grant me this in return for my dutifulness'.

We, the inmates of Catullus 76, routinely take it upon ourselves to assess people for their fitness to read this poem. Some come before our tribunal claiming they feel branded internally by an iron,  as a result of which they now look out upon the world from beneath a sort of emotional cloud. These we immediately admit to our number. They will have no difficulty in making themselves at home within the walls Catullus has erected

Others meanwhile, we dissuade from reading Catullus 76 on the grounds of their relentless optimism and appetite for all that is joyous in life. To generalise, there will be certain times in the lives of certain individuals times when reading Catullus 76 will be either mandatory or counterproductive. The best that can be said of those that tackle the poem when it is contra-indicated, is that they may be lucky enough to be left cold and even repelled by its introspective tone and ruthless lack of poesy  That is not to say that the poem is a comfortable read even for those whose emotional lineaments match the starkness of its contours.

Whilst then it may be desirable for the long-term interests of certain individuals that they should deem this poem unapproachable,  those that find it utterly congenial will feel constrained to keep revisiting its message. That message is that the meeting of hearts between themselves and the poem will be as profound as the failure of the hearts of Catullus and Lesbia to cohere. Catullus' psyche and that of his sympathetic reader will be found to dovetail for ever & perfectly. Conversely Lesbia's heart, programmed like a psychic atom to produce incidental heat through erratic collisions with other such hearts, will be seen to traverse the confines of aristocratic Rome like a desultory bee. Hers will be a heart with no regulatory valves, incoherent, not cohesive, subscribing to the atomic theory of the psyche; a postmodern heart, occupying a far-too forgiving universe. For Lesbia, Catullus was an unwelcome fixity in a fluid universe. An uncircling, static, patient pole star, he allowed the other stars to rotate around the pivot of his single-heartedness

If you think all this is unnecessarily oracular, and even melodramatic, then you should avoid transgressing the pomerium of the poem. Keep your eyes and steps averted. Do not enter for it will not be a triumph you will celebrate.

Meanwhile, those of us incarcerated for life inside these unadorned but incinerating verses, find our fate reflected in the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee. Locked behind their capsule door, they confront a flashfire with a matter-of-factness in their voices. But had you told them death had ever been stalking the flammable fixtures of their cockpit, seeking the moment to spark an infernal rage, would they have acted differently? Death had ever been part of their life. Were they surprised to die?

Ginny, I love you. Do you love me?

I just knew you were getting heavy on me. Why do you have to spoil it all? Don't think you've got me sussed because you really haven't

You don't love me do you?

I'm sorry I've had enough. I put up with your fuzzy heads and now this. I'll speak to you when you're in a better frame of mind. No please, just leave it. I'm going back to my place.

I spend the rest of the night in a daze. So that is that? Alone again. I wake up next morning. bemused, reeling, stupefied. Then she appears at the door smiling,

I think we were just tired yesterday. I know you were.  I hope half a pizza each will do. There's been a pre-Christmas rush. The frozen aisle was mostly empty.  Oh, I picked up a video as well. Have you seen Sophie's Choice?

She's conciliatory, warm. It's just a blip. It's really ok. 

Or is she anxious perhaps to paper things over? Somehow, smoothly, she's dictating the tone like someone determined not to be sussed (whatever that means). She's leaving tonight to spend Christmas en famille. As the film ends, darkness falls, Soon she is gone. Something starts to writhe quietly inside of me.

Grisson, White, and Chaffee had been faced with a one-way way-out, which could not be opened from the inside. They had known everything and had necessarily trusted nothing. A spaceflight was meant to be the pinnacle of their careers but in embracing life they entombed themselves. Secreted away behind their hatch, they drew down upon themselves that four and a half minutes of eternity. We mean the greatest respect to Grissom, White and Chaffee. In our pages their death becomes not just a lesson to those eaten by hasty ambition, but also a Dantean allegory of 'amour fou'. Or are those two things subtlely the same? 

Ginny. Yes? I 'm really missing you. Can I see you at yours even just for a  day? 

Yes, sure.

She sounds fine. I'm relieved, for a while. Then my stomach rediscovers its pit. For the first time in our relationship, I'm desperately insecure. Light fades into anxious night. I pray 'Let everything be ok'. Hours later she greets me brightly as I exit the darkness of the train. But her tone is different, distant, disarming. I feel I'm being entertained at a children's Christmas party.

Ginny, it's me Brian, you're making me feel we've just met. I don't need a guided tour. It's dark. Can't I just take you for a meal somewhere?

I can't believe you sometimes.You're so ungrateful. Can you do me one favour?Just cheer up for my parents.

Please God don't let this be happening. She's slipping away. Who is she? I prefer her when she's being spiteful though that's hard too.

Next morning, following a phone call, there is an exchange:

Were you talking about me just now? You were weren't you? Look, I heard you Ginny. You were laughing about me. You were saying you could be going back to Mr Ex at this rate. 

Oh so what if I was. Serves you right for listening in on other people's private conversations. I wouldn't dream of doing that as a guest. Aren't you ready yet? I thought we were going by 10.

Just take me to the station. 

What? You told me you were really looking forward to seeing this place? 

I came to see you but you're not here any more

That's just pathetic. You should hear yourself. I'm sorry but I'm sticking to the plan.

She's determined to cast me in the role of the one who's behaving strangely for no reason. The perfect hostess meets the nightmare guest. I know it all but I can't speak because she's past listening. Much later she's seamlessly in control at the station. So kind, so heartless, so not sussed.

She can't wait for me to shut the car door. That smile, it reminded me of when I first saw her when she had been brought round by her departmental head to see whether she could rent a room off me. I had found an excuse to disappoint her. I knew she would be trouble. Beauty had always lain in wait for me. Yet, I should have capitulated then. I'd have had two extra months when all could have been everlasting.

The train took me agonizingly from her, second by second.  I was trapped in myself, too deeply found out by myself to rise above myself. I loved her. I hated to love her. But I loved her. The tap had seized in the open position. The heart's valve pointed along its pipe. I was one whole wound, unstaunched and gushing. Lost in love's tangled, holly-oak forest I simply bled.

Catullus 76 is concerned with the human psyche's limited capacity to endure an emotional living-death. Cocooned within his torment, Catullus universalises it. An inner sanctum instead of providing sanctuary had imploded, taking the asylum-maker with it. We wonder how Catullus might have felt when he laid the stylus down that night. 'Mea' the last word of poem 76 means 'mine'. But it can also read 'me! a!' ('oh, my pain'). Convulsed by a bludgeoning loneliness, not knowing what to do under the awful weight of his own existence, Catullus will have slept in that burnt-out psychic shell in which he endured to exist. He knew that 'missing', 'longing', 'desiring' were killers in his own home, yet for an afternoon he'd invited them back in.

And he invites us to accompany them. Brought inside, we, the initiated, know at heart we will never leave. Suddenly inducted into the culture, history, language of unrequited love we cannot remain aloof, high above the words. There's no room after all. Once the hatch closes behind us, it's too late to think of the return journey. We might try to cast 'a cold eye on life, on death, letting Horsemen pass by'. But none of us, least of all Catullus, will succeed

Experience teaches wisdom, but the waiting involved is disproportionate.  Growing long in the womb we are prepared to begin a lifetime of preparation for death. Death is the ultimate wisdom, worth waiting a lifetime to experience. But along the way there will often be a microcosmic 'pathos' that allegorises the process of living to die. That is, embracing for the rest of your life the strangulation of your love is to reconcile yourself to the seamless onwards trajectory of death after life. But you can't just import that defining experience at will, just as you can't predict a Vesuvian eruption. The triggering event that releases that cataclysmic internal explosion may be almost anything, coming at any time. Much will depend on the the nature and speed of the lines of convergence. If a spark in your capsule sets light to a ruptured fuel-line to the heart then it will be yours to endure an endless series of 270 seconds. 

Catulle ... obstinata mente perfer, obdura. 

The drifters through life do not feel obliged to keep appointments with destiny. If they cannot avoid them however, they will resist making them the keystones of their psyche's vaulted cupola. Others will reflect on 'that defining moment' every time the tube doors clang shut on a sealed compartment. Lesbia was the making and unmaking of Catullus. Like a blazing fireship that had first broadcast its irridescence across the celestial cloud, she had drifted up from the estuary, infiltrated the poet's defences, and exploded within his coruscating lines.

Meanwhile we had been plunged into the abyss. There a sheer all-encompassing future circled us like a wolf biding its time. Life now seemed to constitute nothing but a multitude of empty-handed insights that came from having given all of oneself to the beloved, from having desired every centimetre-squared of who and what they were. The heart had been drained, but still its pump pumped pumping out a nothing, an inner nothing left inside, that, in the end, abhorring the vacuum, started to collapse in on itself. Since that night when she had stood at the front door, her back to you, her laughter singing out, it had become impossible for you to conceive of life without the embrace of her fulness. That impossibility had given you to know yourself with clear-eyed certainty. You realised, that is, that the soft hunger that had lodged itself within your abdomen, could never be fully sated.

That first night she moved in, I stood long moments on the grass in the back garden. I looked up to the heavy October skies, mouth open, singing silently the words of 'A Girl from the North Country'. The rain fired itself into my mouth, an acid rain, which, unbeknown to me, pitted my insides with the poison of love. The poison ran along my lips and seeped in. Through all our yesterdays, a slow-burning fuse had been switching back tirelessly on a trajectory bound for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. To the impossibly high ether, it had always known its way. Now it was here

'Come in out of the rain' she pleaded. 'You're mad'.

The times before the flood, that everlasting Autumn, were the best of times and the best of those times. The even-keeled serenity of a quickly-rooting love created a seamless continuum of moments. An at-oneness. Amo. A settledness. I drove home, her car in front of mine knowing the words of 'Tonight I'll be Staying here with You'. We took tea and scones in Nuts and Honey. I stared into a tavern fire knowing its heat added nothing to the radiance I could feel around me. And all day a scent haunted all my days, a scent which one day would come to haunt all my days to come. 

Then, the waters shed themselves and the rock hung heavy on my side. There began the times of self-scourging. I hated to hate her. I hated to love her. I loved her. But I no longer loved to love her. I fought to make her give up her sudden, assumed pretence. Cursed with knowing the real, I was forced to cry the truth, sometimes alone. Yet all-aloneness sometimes begged me let it be. There were times when I had to capitulate, recapitulate, and relive. But the emptiness wouldn't fill.  More and more, resignedly, I ushered in the darkness of a long resistance. My love had meant 'this is me' and it deserved defending till the waters closed over.

'O, di et' ... oh gods and ... I love her ... 'o d[i]et' ....o, just let her say the word ...'

Catullus had tried the old lie 'Be strong for hers is the loss'. I too had put on that front of indifference at seeing her for the first time. But I wasn't protecting myself from myself. I was exposing myself to myself. Meanwhile, 'poor Catullus' would soon be reduced to seeking the Outside through a locked door. Like the hatch of Apollo 1 Catullus' door would be irreversibly closed once closed. For, on the one hand, it was hinged not to open outwards. On the other hand it would never have room enough to open inwards, there being a clutter of love stacked against it.

Catullus was soon to crave unlimited distance from Lesbia, knowing that every mile interjected would only bring her nearer. 'Poor Catullus' he said, to himself, 'it's just you and you now, here inside. Here are the options: sink with or without lead weights in your pockets; drown within the hearing of her laughter; lie on the sea floor your skiff bobbing on the ripples near the foreland.

Swim Catullus. Escape before you're engulfed. Swim out to sea.

For six months I battered a senseless front door senselessly. Sometimes too I wept from a streaming inner source. There was no reward for staying the course. Catullus' experiences had themselves led to no romantic plateau in a poeticised landscape. His journey was everything because he never arrived, In that sense it grimly allegorised the human condition. We are all faced with a death that, for ever, sets at nought the living heights reached. What does the sum of human realisation evaporate into? A puff of wind, a sigh, an expiration? 

Even when we were at our most resilient, shunning her much-frequented parties, refusing to open the door when the knock was soft, staying tight-lipped until she agreed to come back home, even at those times, especially at those times, all we were doing was making us love her more by deepening the single seam of silver that represented 'everything we've been through together'. Passionate love spends and wins, wins and spends, wins and loses, loses and wins, spends and loses, loses and spends, until finally spent (and lost) it burns through. The future doesn't exist, the past recedes, the present is all-encompassing

Even now the unanswered questions recur to us, interrupting the enduring suffering. Why had she swopped intimacy for this? How could she perform falsity after walking with the truth? Had there never been an honest scintilla in her eyes? To cut through her stage presence demanded finding a voice that told of how once upon a time, truly, deeply, and now madly, it had all had meaning. Every syllable of recorded time wasn't enough for my words, punctuated by her silence. Everything was left said. Every last plea and prayer, every last truth and hurt. I voiced it all, she heard it all. I spared her nothing. But she, a sounding board for my grief, resolutely echoed back to me the words I would one day compose: 'they told me I'd have everything, everything but her'.

Lesbia was Catullus' One and Only. His Real Thing. By contrast there was a legion of Unreal Lovers awaiting Lesbia, Lesbia who will have simply noted that the intense ones could be a problem. If she was going to read Catullus 76 then she was always going to be able to let it go past her, having an alleyway alongside her house where the sons of Romulus and Remus hung out.

You, in 1984, couldn't let it go past. Catullus 76 must have had you in its sights

That March afternoon, you had to supervise a class for 70 minutes. You had new bruises. There had been another one-way argument, another round in the fight for your love being worth fighting for. another volley of pain, articulated pain, but for all sense it made, a howl. You retreated to an upstairs room where you sat and stared. Still, you wanted to be with her. 'Let me always be with her' you pined 'for every second is a mile from her'.

The bell went. Mesmerised by hurt, you went down to do your duty. En route a colleague passed you a wafer-thin volume of poetry entitled 'Catullus the Lesbia Poems'. The colleague had found it whilst doing an inventory. Having nothing to mark that day you took it and, once the class had settled, you began reading. Lucretius would have stopped you there. But in that never-to-be-relived hour you read your own 'fatum' in that of Catullus. You saw yourself peering back from the pages. Once separated from your 'alter ego' by thousands of years but now by a mere foot and a half, you felt yourself cohere with Catullus. Every word of his was your word. Catullus in being brought to confront himself, found out who he was. He came to know you. You came to know him.You found out who you were. You knew each other. You both wanted to unknow yourselves. 

At the end, and in the end, Catullus prays the inner contagion and damage be taken from him. 'Please God', he says, 'I can't live like his'. He writes a final poem looking back over his life. The lines are stripped of imagery, telling it the way it is. Along the way he asks a little 'votum' of the gods, knowing the request is futile. But the verses also speak of me demanding I reciprocate with the unadorned truth. But how might I speak it unadorned?

Waiting for dawn at the edge of the bay, / the stars look down on a moonlit wave / And I begin to weep / cause I'm in so deep / nowhere I can leap / it's all too steep / I begin to weep / I begin to weep 

Kicking up stones lying in my way / I walk the sands where we used to play / And I begin to weep / cause I'm in so deep / nowhere I can leap / it's all too steep / I begin to weep /I begin to weep

'As a man looks back .. his devotedness scorned, he feels he deserves a joyous old age ... to enjoy which he must set aside a long passion even if that's impossible .... For myself, if, gods, you have ever brought help to one already on the very brink of death, please gods I beg you ... lift from me this timeless afterlife'.

Catullus 76 is Catullus saying goodbye.