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, when he
nec sanctam violasse fidem, nec foedere in ullo / considers himself dutiful and has
divum ad fallendos numine abusum homines, / not violated a holy pledge nor has
multa parata manent in longa aetate, Catulle, /  in any contract abused the divine
ex hoc ingrato gaudia amore tibi./ power of the gods to deceive people then
nam quaecumque homines bene cuiquam aut dicere possunt /  Catullus, much lies
aut facere, haec a te dictaque factaque sunt: / 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 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 not. 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, 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 routinely assess people for their suitability to read Catullus 76. In your case, you say you've been branded internally by an iron,  and that you look out on the world from below a sort of emotional cloud. We are surprised you are only now coming to the poem as you seem somewhat overqualified. Now that you're here however, you need to make yourself at home.

Meanwhile for others, reading Catullus 76 will be ill-advised on the grounds of their relentless optimism and appetite for all that is joyous in life. On the other hand however, even for these it will never be too late to reach a stage where the poem becomes a window upon pared-down, self-knowledge. The truth is there will be times, but not universally-agreed times, when reading Catullus 76 will be either mandatory or counterproductive. One's age won't be decisive. Meanwhile if you do decide to tackle the poem when it is contra-indicated, you should count yourself lucky if the introspective tone and ruthless lack of poesy leave you cold, or better still, drive you away. That is not to say that the poem will be a comfortable read for those who match its contours.

It might be best for the individual if this poem is found, and remains, unapproachable. If you do, however, find it utterly congenial - and you needn't keep revisiting it to see -  the reason for the meeting of hearts between you and the poem will be the failure of the hearts of Catullus and Lesbia to meet. Catullus' psyche and that of his sympathetic reader will dovetail for ever & perfectly. Conversely Lesbia's heart (if she ever had one) will have been programmed as a sort of psychic atom to produce incidental heat through its erratic collisions with other atoms that wander their confines like desultory bees.No cohesion, no coherence, a surrender to the atomic theory of the psyche. Everyone a postmodern particle in a far-too forgiving universe. For Lesbia Catullus was an unwelcome fixity in a fluid universe. An uncircling, static, unforgiving pole star which yet rotated, never letting the heavens be.

If you think this is unnecessarily oracular, and even melodramatic then you should avoid transgressing the pomerium of the poem. Keep your eyes averted. Stay envied

Meanwhile, those of us incarcerated for life inside these incinerating verses, find our fate allegorised by the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee. We know them as Grissom, White, and Chaffee

Behind, their capsule door, meeting a flashfire with a matter-of-factness in their voice, not quite aware yet in those first few seconds that death was stalking the flammable fixtures of their cockpit, looking for the moment to spark an infernal rage

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.

The rest of the night spent in a daze. So that's it? Alone again. Woke up next morning. bemused, reeling, stupefied. Then she appeared at the door smiling. 

I think we were just tired yesterday. I know you were.  I hope half a pizza's ok. There's been a pre-Christmas rush.  I picked up a video as well. Have you seen Sophie's Choice?

 Conciliatory, warm, just a blip. It's really ok. 

Or, anxious maybe 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 and something starts to writhe quietly inside of me.

Faced with a wrong-way, one-way, way-out, they had known everything and therefore had not necessarily trusted anything. It was meant to be the pinnacle of their careers but they had always known deep down (though they would not confess it even to themselves) that the Command Module was a death-trap. They died where they should have felt most alive. Their world killed them and kept them entombed for four and a half eternal minutes

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

Yes, sure.

Sounds fine. A relief. But you're on edge. For the first time, you're desperately insecure. A long journey, the light fading into anxious night. Please let everything be ok. She meets me off the train but her voice is different. 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 being spiteful though that's hard too.

Next morning after a phone call

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 make me 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. She's so in control finally at the station, so heartless, so not sussed.

She can't wait for me to shut the door. That smile. The train took me agonizingly second by secound away from her.  Trapped in myself, so deeply found out by myself, I couldn't rise above it. Hating her. Hating to love her. Knowing everything, trusting nothing. 

Using those astronauts as an allegory for a destructive passion is meant with the greatest respect. Catullus's poem 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 felt when he laid the stylus down that night. Convulsed with the not-knowing-where-to-turn-now. He will have slept in that that burnt-out psychic shell where he somehow existed. 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. Knowing the culture, history, language we can't just stay high above the words. There's no room after all. When the hatch closes behind us, it's then 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

I once complained that 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 single defining 'suffering' (the long-term endurance of something suffered) that pre-enacts 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 releasesthat cataclysmic internal explosion may be almost anything, coming at any time, depending on the the nature and speed of the lines of convergence. If a spark in your capsule sets light to a rupturedfuel line to the heart then it will be yours  to suffer for the duration.

The drifters through life don't feel obliged to keep appointments with destiny. If they can't avoid them however, they will resist making them the keystones of their vaulted cupolas. Others will reflect on 'that 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 on a canvass of cloud, she had heaved up from the estuary, infiltrated defences, and exploded within the poet's lines..

After the 'deluge' came the flood, and with flooding came the likelihood of further flooding for ever thereafter. Is this what love promised? Count the legacy of that fatal damage in the heart. Nothing but a multitude of vain insights that come from having given all of yourself to the beloved, from having desired every centimetre-squared of who and what they were. Your heart is drained but still its pump pumps pumping out a nothing, an inner nothing left inside, that, in the end, abhorring the vacuum, starts to collapse in on itself. But you realised this long ago that night when she, standing at the door, her back to you, laughing, made it impossible for you any longer to conceive of life without that fulness in your arms, forcing you to know with clear-eyed certainty that life was now never going to be the same again. You realised, that is, that a soft hunger would never be fully sated. 'Just don't let me starve altogether' you whisper.

Miser Catulle!' 'Depressed Catullus!' How like me were you? Did it all happen organically as part of an inevitable convergence of circumstances? Had you found your way in life? You had a house, you wrote poetry. So you were ready to love or be destroyed on the inside. Meanwhile we stood in our courtyard, looking up to the heavy October skies, mouth open, singing A Girl from the North Country, as the rain poured in, an acid rain, pitting insides with the poison of pre-love, running back up along lips and seeping in again  And through all our yesterdays, that slow-burning fuse switched back tirelessly on a trajectory bound for tomorrow and tomorrrow and tomorrow.  From the impossibly high ether, it always knew its way. 

We went in out of the rain

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 creating a seamless continuum of those moments. An at-oneness. Amo. The settledness. Driving home with her car in front of yours knowing the words of Tonight I'll be Staying here with You. Tea and scones in Nuts and Honey. Staring into a pub fire knowng its heat added nothing to the radiance you could feel around you. And a scent that all day would haunt all days and that one day would haunt all days. 

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. I fought to make her give up her sudden unlistening pretence. Knowing the real, cursed with knowing the real, I was forced to cry the truth, sometimes  alone. But discretion 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 yet at the same time ... o d[i]et .... just let her say the word ... and...

Catullus had tried the old lie 'Be strong. Hers is the loss'. The same way you had put on that front of indifference at your first sight of her. Not protecting yourself from yourself, but exposing yourself to the inevitable. Poor Catullus, desperately seeking the Outside through a locked door. Craving unlimited distance, 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. Swim, or 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 befoe you're engulfed. Swim out to sea.

For the six months you battered a senseless front door, when you should have been pining on a back seat. There was no reward for staying the course. Meanwhile Catullus' experiences along the Lesbia road led to no romantic plateau in a poeticised landscape. His journey was everything because he never arrived. A grim allegory of the human condition which is faced with a death that, at the time and maybe for ever, sets at nought whatever heights you had held and even hold still. 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 parties, not opening the door when the knock was soft, refuslng to speak to her until she agreed to come back to us, all we were doing was making us love her more by deepening the single-seam mine of 'what 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, spent and lost burns through. The future doesn't exist, the past recedes, the present is all-encompassing

Even now the unanswered questions recur 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 those words punctuated by her silence. Everything was left said. Every last plea and prayer, every last truth and hurt. She heard it all. Some say 'aliquid haeret', but they're not the ones coated with the special coating before the rains are even suspected.

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 where the sons of Romulus and Remus hung out.

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

One March afternoon, you had to supervise a class for 70 minutes. You had new bruises. Another argument, another round in the fight for your love being worth fighting for. Another volley of pain, articulated pain, but for all good it did, 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. 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 'Catullus the Lesbia Poems'. They'd 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 yourself by thousands of years but now by a mere foot and a half, you felt yourself cohere with him. Every word, 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. A final poem looking back over his life, stripped of imagery, telling it the way it is. Asking a little 'votum' of the gods, knowing it was futile. Speaking however to me, me reduced to using figures in the face of the unadorned truth. But how might you 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 do that he must set aside a long passion even if that's impossible ...... 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.