Saturday, June 14, 2008

Peter Green's Catullus

I don't have Boland with me today, and so started reading Peter Green's translation of Catullus (The Poems of Catallus, University of California Press). I can't say I am not glad to take a break from feminist earnestness and turn to masculinist machismo.

In Number 5, written in hendecasyllables, the speaker asks Lesbia to love him, and to value scandal, gossip, old men's strictures at "no more than a farthing!" Suns can rise and set "ad infinitum," but, once their "brief life's quenched," humans have only "one unending night" to sleep through. The numerical tropes, familiar, even cliched, set up these following marvelous lines:

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then a thousand more, a second hundred,
then yet another thousand then a hundred--

The lines have a winsome spontaneity in the swing from thousand to hundred, and then back to thousand, only to push off to another hundred. The numbers are repeated with nice variations: "a thousand kisses"; "a thousand more"; another thousand." There is witty play on the idea that uboth "thousand" and "hundred" can signify countless, a conceit elaborated in the poem's conclusion:

then when we've notched up all these many thousands,
shuffle the figures, lose count of the total,
so no maleficent enemy can hex us
knowing the final sum of all our kisses.

The "maleficent enemy" is also death, already introduced at the poem's beginning. The seduction poem, like all carpe diem poems of its ilk, is finally about mortality, here, re-imagined as "the final sum of all our kisses."


Anonymous said...

Perhaps death anxiety defines the way he loves?

Jee Leong Koh said...

I don't know if Catullus is more anxious about death than the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

How rightly put. We all are, aren't we? :>