Howard Anglin: Where love and hate intersect

Page after page, Gaius Valerius Catullus’ all-too-human love is all too familiar to the contemporary reader
A Bman carries a red heart balloon for Valentine's day in Sofia, Monday, Feb. 14, 2011. Valentina Petrova/AP Photo.

Lepidum novum libellum: A review of Love Poems of Catullus (New Directions 2023).

Mores may have changed over millennia, but not human nature. Young lovers, if they put down their phones long enough to love in the flesh, caress no skin softer than the Persians did, and the grossest deviancies of our age are but re-enactments of the sordid pleasures of the Roman brothel, or the Roman palace for that matter. And in case we had forgotten this enduring truth, a slim new edition1The editor appears to have been inspired in form and choice by the lepidum novum libellum in the first line of Catullus’s first poem. of Catullus’s love poetry is here to remind us.

Page after page, Gaius Valerius Catullus’s all-too-human love is all too familiar to the contemporary reader. As modern as Shakespeare’s or Camoes’s sixteenth-century sonnets feel, Catullus’ poems from sixteen centuries earlier do not feel a day older. They may be love poems, as the title says, but they are far from the sort of “romantic” verse favoured by airport bookstore anthologies. The emotion is new-stung and hot-recorded. This is not poetry to read to your beloved unless your beloved, like Catullus’s, is (allegedly) a fickle whore.  

It is quite an achievement for a new volume of ancient poems to make me throw it against a wall, but I count that as a publishing success. There is so much here I love, and so much I want to tear out and burn. The editor has chosen translations (or, in some cases, poems inspired by the originals), some by household names—Byron, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne, Shelley, Pound—others by established poets or translators—Robert Fitzgerald, Muriel Spark, Anne Carson—and a few by contemporary poets and writers, including the new Oxford Professor of Poetry, AE Stallings.

I would quibble with some of the inclusions. Anne Carson’s imaginative Orientalising of 2 is a benign curiosity that, like many of Carson’s riffs, distracts from the original without adding to it. This is excusable when her poems are good on their own terms, as her versions of 2 and 109 are, but the rest are the sort of modern verse one reads and thinks, “Well, let’s never read that again.”2She really could have used that Milton course. Fortunately, they are easy to flip past in favour of a bon bon like Dorothy Parker’s On Catullus 3, a vicious and satisfying literary riposte that sounds exactly as I imagine Lesbia did to her fortunate friends (as opposed to her poor lovers).

Of the new translations, AE Stallings’ are unsurprising standouts—blithe, agile, deceptively simple, never facile. Her 13 is a colloquial but faithful translation with a lattice-work scheme that had me nodding along in admiration. Her 51 is similarly clever, though less memorable (but one could say the same of the original). Her modern take on 3, however, is astonishing. It effortlessly updates the affectionately supercilious mode of the original. I actually snorted at the rhyming of “death” with “Velásquez” (I dare you not to). Sublime cheek.

At the other end of the scale, Vincent Katz’s transliterations are impotent, hardly an improvement on a Wikisource translation. Only his 86 shows any invention, when he gives us “statuesque” for “recta est,” which was new to me and a near-perfect match both in metre and meaning. One word, however, hardly justifies his overrepresentation with five (!) inert contributions. 

I also appreciated Daisy Dunn’s respectful, occasionally playful translations. Her 72 is both faithful to the original and original as poetry, and the last four lines are as savage as they must have sounded two thousand years ago. Her other contribution, a deft translation of 35 runs smoothly until those jarring last three lines that have so bedeviled interpreters, let alone translators. Dunn offers a conventional solution, i.e. confusing and unresolved.3I am partial to Giuseppe Gilberto Biondi’s conjecture that the fragmentary manuscript is actually an unfinished version of Catullus’s poem 65 on Cybele, which his friend (an otherwise unknown poet) has purloined and used to woo and win his now-besotted mistress. This transforms the poem from an unremarkable invitation into an elaborate literary revenge freighted with heavy irony. It’s a much more Catullian and much more satisfying solution, though I concede it is a speculative extrapolation.

The volume’s real disappointment is 85. Short, dense, and intricate, 85 is the key that opens most of the book’s other poems, so it is frustrating to see it remain unlocked. I can’t blame the editor, who offers not one but two versions by top-shelf translators: Ezra Pound and Cid Corman, but neither packs the gut-punch of the original. You would think it would be easy to get to the point in two lines, but neither translation quite does:


Odi et amo. quare id faciam fortasse requiris
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.


I hate and love. Why? You may ask but
It beats me. I feel it done to me, and I ache.


Hate: and I love. Who knows why?
Nothing I say chokes the ache.

Catullus is repulsed by his lover’s infidelity. He hates it, he hates her. And it makes him love her more, or maybe just want her more, but madly, painfully, brokenly. He is spatchcocked by jealousy. Despite (or because of) it all, he still desires her, but he can’t answer the obvious question: “Why?” or rather “How”? as this use of quare likely means.4The Shakespearean “wherefore” is close. Richard Burton used it in his characteristically unreadable translation.

Flowers are seen amongst other garbage inside a garbage container in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, March 1, 2023. Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo.

Who knows? The poet doesn’t. It’s the right question to which there is no good answer. Don’t bother asking, he says, because he doesn’t know (nescio). It’s not rational, it’s just something he feels. It’s a physical sensation (sentio), felt in the flesh, that happens to him (the passive fieri, in contrast to the active question (faciat)). It just is. 

Shakespeare knew this intimate relationship between lust and disgust (but of course he did): “lust in action” he wrote is “perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust, / Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight.” Worst of all, there’s nothing to be done. It’s a fire that has to burn itself out. Does the fire love or hate what it consumes? Does it matter? It burns and we feel it, that is all we know.

Catullus burns. He is tortured (excrucior), torn apart by the simultaneous opposites: love and hate, or to use stronger senses of “amo” and “odi,” lust and loathing. There is a parallel here with his reaction to Lesbia’s unfaithfulness in 72, which Dunn renders neatly, if a touch primly, as “such a wound compels a lover / To love more, but to like less.” In 85, the equal and opposite forces of love and hate make a rack, a torturer’s device that pulls the body apart sinew by sinew, bone by bone. Or perhaps they are the two beams (consider the root of excrucior) on which the poet is crucified at the point where love and hate intersect.

A translation of Catullus 85 needs to convey all that more forcefully than Pound or Corman do. It should be something more like:

I love and I loathe. And if you were to ask me how it can be both,
I don’t know, I just do, and I feel like I am racked between the two.


I hate and I love. I can tell you want to ask me why,
But I don’t know. I just feel I am being crucified.

Or less literally:

All hating, all desiring. How can it be both you ask?
I have no answer, but I feel it tearing me in half.

Or perhaps, with a hint of moral introspection that may or may not be in the original:

Lesbia, I loathe and lust. Don’t wonder why, 
I can’t explain, I just feel the agony.

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