For my next poem I have jumped ahead several centuries to Republican Rome and the poetry of Catullus. Writing in the first century BC Catullus is perhaps the most popular Roman poet today. Passionate, funny, rude, and pretty graphic at times, he is a prevailing favourite of the classical world.
I have chosen to start with one of his most moving poems, addressed to the grave at his brother’s funeral.
Through many countries and over many seas
I have come, Brother, to these melancholy rites,
to show this final honour to the dead,
and speak (to what purpose?) to your silent ashes,
since now fate takes you, even you, from me.
Oh, Brother, ripped away from me so cruelly,
now at least take these last offerings, blessed
by the tradition of our parents, gifts to the dead.
Accept, by custom, what a brother’s tears drown,
and, for eternity, Brother, ‘Hail and Farewell’.
In this poem Catullus addresses his brother directly, yet is tragically aware that he speaks in vain to ‘silent ashes’. There are aspects of this poem that strongly recall a Roman funeral. The triple repetition of the word ‘Brother’ and the ending ‘Hail and farewell’ both recall Roman funerary ritual. However the ceremony provides no comfort, and the directness of Catullus’ address only highlights its futility: his brother can neither hear him nor respond.
There is however another reading of this poem which argues that Catullus actually gives his brother a voice. The opening two lines of this poem strongly recollect the Odyssey, the famous Greek epic following the adventures of Odysseus. They particularly recall Odysseus’ journey to the land of the dead. Some scholars argue that therefore the poem can be read as the brother speaking through Catullus, he speaks to us from the underworld and the journey described at the start is a metaphor for his death. It is a complex interplay in which both readings are true. The poem ends with Catullus saying goodbye, and with Catullus’ voice the brother echoes this final farewell.
The last three words of this poem in the Latin are ‘ave atque vale’, translated roughly as ‘greetings and farewell’. It is sadly a moment when translation cannot do justice to the Latin. The internal rhyme of these three words create a melodic ending that cannot be captured in English. Nevertheless, we can still see why these words are incredibly complex and moving despite their simplicity. I have already looked at how they can be read as both Catullus and his brother saying goodbye. However another layer is added when we take into account our own voices reading the poem today. Each time this poem is read in some sense the brother and Catullus are returned to life, for their words are spoken again through our lips and in our imagination. Each reading of the poem is both a greeting and a farewell: as readers we greet the poet who lives on through his words, and yet when we are finished he is once again silent. We too journey to the underworld and converse with the dead. It is therefore a parting that repeats itself for as long as the poem is read – for eternity perhaps, as Catullus predicts.
This is therefore an incredibly powerful poem. On the one hand the lost voice of the dead is mourned, but on the other hand the poet’s words revive those voices that would otherwise have been silenced long ago.
There are of course lots of different ideas about what Catullus is doing here. The one I have given is only my personal favourite. But whatever they think, readers today are still touched by Catullus’ grief, and in this sense he speaks to us as clearly as though he were alive today.