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Catullus and Lesbia: A Relationship
Transcript of Catullus and Lesbia: A Relationship
By: Kirsten Traudt
Catullus describes watching Lesbia with another man (the "ille" mentioned repeatedly in the poem), indicating that he is watching rather than talking to her. In addition, he describes the paralyzing physical symptoms he encounters, like ringing ears ("sonitu suopte tintinant aures") or an inability to speak ("lingua sed torpet") when he sees her, their severity suggesting that he isn’t able to actually talk to her. This indicates that Lesbia is a crush more than a lover at this point. In addition, he chides himself for not making a move already ("otium...urbes"), which points to a lack of an intimate relationship between the two.
Rather than addressing Lesbia directly as he does in other poems concerning their affair, Catullus addresses Lesbia’s pet "passer", or sparrow. This suggests a lack of intimacy between the two. In addition, he describes in detached, yet precise detail Lesbia’s playing with the bird in lines 2-5 of the poem, how it bites her fingertips (“acris solet incitare morsus”) or sits in her lap (“quem in sinu tenere”). This shows that he is not a participant in the action of the poem, but he knows what’s going on, almost as if he’s watching Lesbia.
In the first line of the poem, Catullus exclaims “let us live! and let us love!” (“vivamus… atque amemus”), exaltations that indicate the joy of a new relationship rather than an old one. In addition, much of the poem is devoted to the “thousands” of kisses (“basia mille”) that Catullus and Lesbia are to share (or are sharing). This shows that they’re still in the “honeymoon phase” of the relationship.
In the poem, Catullus describes Lesbia as “mulier mea” (my woman), indicating that they are still in a relationship. In addition, he describes what she “was saying” (dicebat): that she wouldn’t marry anyone before Catullus, even Jupiter (“non si se Iuppiter ipse petat”). In this way, he shows how she once was committed (or seemed committed) to him. However, Catullus demonstrates his anger as he says that the words of a women to an eager lover should be written in the wind and rapid water (“in vento et rapida scribere opportet aqua”), showing that he doesn’t trust Lesbia’s words, or any other woman’s in his raw emotional state.
Catullus addresses himself in the poem, urging himself to stop looking for what (or who) is lost and try to hold out in this difficult time (“vides perisse perditum ducas”). This message, and his recollections of happier days (“fulsere candidi tibi soles”), indicate that he and Lesbia have broken up. In addition, he hints that Lesbia tired of the relationship when he said that she “didn’t not want” the relationship (“nec puella nolebat”). In addition, although the poem is mostly sad, Catullus demonstrates his resentment over the end of the relationship by demanding of Lesbia who will love her, or kiss her, or talk to her when he is gone among other angry questions, showing that he is still bitter about the breakup (“scelesta...mordebis”).
In the first line, Catullus refers to the past, writing that once (“quondam”) she was saying (“dicebas”) that she knew only Catullus (“te nosse solum Catullum”). This shows that their relationship was in the past and that they have, in fact, broken up. In addition, he demonstrates a desire to get over Lesbia, saying that she is cheap and light (“Vilior et levior”), and that he doesn’t like her any more. However, the poem concludes with Catullus saying that although he may not like Lesbia, he still loves her (“cogit amare magis sed bene velle minus”).
Catullus' acidic comparisons of Lesbia to a lioness (“leana montibus Libystinis”) and Scylla (“Scylla latrans”), and his use of the tricolon crescendo to imply that she is worse than either (“Num...taetra”) show that he is not just angry, but seething with rage at Lesbia. However, the heightened style of the poem, from the literary allusions not only to Homeric tradition but the Medea to the “secret message” hidden in the beginnings and ends of the lines themselves (“natu ceu aes” or “born from bronze”) demonstrate that he had time to craft and perfect this poem. In this way, Catullus shows that his absolute outrage at the hard-hearted Lesbia (“nimis fero corde”) is not a judgement passed not in blinding rage, but careful reflection.
Although Catullus still seems to both love and hate Lesbia (“odi et amo”), the calmness of the poem and its simple question-and-answer format appear to indicate that he has simply come to terms with his complex feelings for her, despite the fact that they torture him (“sentio et excrucior”).
I have ordered the Catullus poems we studied as chronologically as I could. I chose to arrange the poems in a circle rather than a timeline because I felt that it was more aesthetically pleasing and also because the poems we studied begin and end with Catullus alone, bringing the relationship "full circle". I paired my analysis of each poem with an image that I felt represented an important symbol or image from the poem. I tried to make each image as significant as possible.