Lemex Learns Ya' Latin Poetry #1: Catullus 1

Published by Lemex in the blog Lemex's Blog. Views: 300

Because translations are very time consuming and very difficult to get to a standard I consider good - especially considering my knowledge of Latin is always slowly developing, I've decided to try something out in this long-silent blog: making the Latin texts as accessible as possible without requiring you to actually learn the language. So, here's the first poem I want to break down, Catullus 1:

I.

Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas.
Iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis . . .
Doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis!
Quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli—
qualecumque, quod, o patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo!

Basically this poem is dedicated to Catullus's friend Cornelius, as is the book of Catullus's poems this poem opens. Cornelius was apparently famous at the time for writing a history of the world on three scrolls of papyrus (which in some translations is phrased as a light hearted joke). The tone alternates between self-deprecation (which is actually quite rare in Catullus) and praise for Cornelius, and this difference in tone is what generates most of the humour in the poem. Catullus was very funny, and loved paradoxes.

The first two lines:

Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?

Are essentially 'To whom do I dedicate this smart new book, all worked out with pumice to a polished product?'. Notice how with the first line the word 'Cui' meaning 'to who' is at the beginning of the line, signifying it's importance in the poem, and the second most important word in the line is the one that ends it 'libellum' which means 'book'. This may sound obvious, as English speakers we are accustomed to seeing grammar work in this way, but it must be said that Latin the meaning comes mostly from the actual use of words. You can have a sentence in English 'The boy killed the man', and if you reversed the two identifiers 'boy' and 'man' the meaning of the sentence would change in English. This doesn't happen in Latin, where the meaning of the sentence would depend on which version of the word meaning 'boy' and 'man' has been employed. This is often something a reader needs to take into account when reading Latin poetry.

The word 'expolitum' means essentially finished, or more accurately polished, suggesting the poems have been carefully crafted and labored over from something rough and pumice-like to work that has been polished and refined. Also, manuscripts in ancient times were finished off by having them rubbed down with pumice to smooth the ends of the papyrus rolls out as a way of completing the work. This is a good example of Catullus's being clever with his use of words.

The poem then goes on to 'Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas / meas esse aliquid putare nugas'. This is essentially 'To you, Cornelius, because you always liked my rubbish poems' - the word 'nugas' at the end of line four means essentially rubbish or waste. 'Solebas' is used in the imperfect tense, meaning he is talking about something Cornelius used to do, but still might do - which is enjoy Catullus's work which Catullus then mocks by calling his work 'nugas'. Since we find in later poems that Catullus isn't so self deprecating, it's safe to assume this line and poem is Catullus having his tongue very much in his cheek.

So why is Catullus being so self deprecating? Well, Catullus then goes on to flatter his friend, pointing to his history of the world, and the poem makes a comparison between Catullus's poems and Cornelius's work inevitable. Catullus says Cornelius's history of the world was 'Doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis!' which roughly translates in to: 'Academic/Scholarly, by Jupiter, and laborious/was hard work'. Cornelius's work is explicity mentioned in these lines:

Iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis . . .

This is essentially 'Now already, and with daring you are the first Italian to detail all the ages on three paper pages'. Saying Cornelius was the first Italian to do it is something of an hour, as Greek poets had wrote a history of the world even before Rome became a credible force, but Cornelius was the first Roman to attempt such a task - considering Rome always admired Greek achievements, what would this say about Cornelius's standing in Roman intellectual life? That's a question for you to consider when thinking about this poem.

Having praised his friend Cornelius and justified his own poem, Catullus goes on to the self-depreciating note once again:

'Quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli—
qualecumque, quod, o patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo!

Essentially 'So you have this book, whatever this book actually is, and whatever it actually is, may it survive protected by the grace of the Virgin, and last into the next age' also hinting that their author considers the poems unworthy. The 'Virgin' is a reference to Minerva, the Roman god of poetry and music, and the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Athene. The poem ends with Catullus hoping his poetry outlasts him, which gives this dedication a further unintended humor, as Cornelius's work is now rare and hard to find.

The sections of the poem I have translated are by necessity prose paraphrases, not intended to be exact or poetic translations of the original Latin, but rather an accurate indication of what the original is saying at that point of the poem. There is no substitute for reading it in the original Latin. The rhythm of the Latin is wonderful. However, for sake of convenience I will repost the original poem, and then a prose translation of it, based on my paraphrasing:

The original poem:

Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas.
Iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis . . .
Doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis!
Quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli—
qualecumque, quod, o patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo!

The prose translation:

To who do I dedicate this smart new book, all worked out with pumice to a polished product? Cornelius, to you, because you always liked my rubbish poems. Already, and with such daring you are the very first Italian to detail the history of the world on three paper pages. And how academic and Scholarly they are, by Jupiter! And how hard you worked on them! So you have this book my friend, whatever this book actually is, and whatever it actually is, may it survive protected by the grace of the Virgin Minerva, and last into the next age.
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