Saturday, April 2, 2011

Carmen 85 by Catullus

I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask?
I do not know, but I feel it to happen, and I am tortured.

Not all poems are long, and not all posts have to be long. I went a little overboard, maybe, on yesterday's post about "Ulysses," but in my defense, few poems seem as rich to me. Catullus' "Carmen 85" ("Song 85") presents, by contrast, a single idea, well executed, simply stated: Catullus loves the girl who broke his heart, but he hates her also, and the he cannot reconcile the part of him that loves with the part that hates. The word "tortured" here is "excrucior," literally meaning, "I am tormented on the cross." If you have never felt like this, then I congratulate you on never having been dumped.

Reading Catullus' poetry is like watching a relationship deteriorate before your eyes. His early work is filled with love for his mistress, Lesbia (a pseudonym that hat-tips Sappho, the poet from Lesbos), but his later work, like 85, are all dejection. Taken as part of a larger body of work, these two lines become heartbreakingly intimate--probably at a level not yet seen in poetry, even in Sappho.

I love "Carmen 85" not because it teaches us anything, as "Ulysses" does, but because it declares a simple human truth. It gives words to that which many of us struggle to find words for, and when we read it, we--or at least, I--are left wondering how Catullus managed to pinpoint our unspoken sentiments exactly, in so few words, and so many thousands of years removed.

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