In Catullus 5 love is the essence of life. The poet’s energy, inspired by love, is an infinite force that is a thousand times more powerful than the malicious rumours and prying eyes that seek to destroy it. It even has the power to challenge the eternity of death.
The poem is addressed to Lesbia, the subject of many of his poems. Lesbia is a pseudonym, probably for Clodia, wife of the illustrious Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. She was a woman made famous for her affairs, her gambling, and her drinking. She was even suspected of murdering her husband in 59BC, when he died in mysterious circumstances. How much of this is true we cannot really know. We do know from Catullus’ poetry that his affair was a tempestuous one; poem 85 famously begins with the lines ‘I hate and I love’. But Catullus 5 was composed in a happier moment, although the pair are already threatened by the shadowy presence of onlookers.
Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and all the rumours of stern old men
are worth just a single penny to me.
Suns may set and rise again,
but for us, when our brief light is ended,
night is but one everlasting sleep.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
another thousand, a second hundred,
another thousand again, and a hundred.
Then, when we have counted the many thousands,
confuse them, so the number is hidden,
and some enemy may not cast his evil eye,
knowing the total of our kisses.
It is the numbers that give this poem its true force. In the first three lines, the rumours of old men are easily dismissed by arithmetic. Their ‘all’ is worth only ‘one’ penny to the poet. So far the lovers are triumphant. However in line 6 the pair are set against a ‘one’ that they cannot overcome so easily. This is the one death that claims all, and suddenly the lovers’ light is reduced to night.
But Catullus responds to this limitation with an outburst of energy. He demands one thousand, two thousand, three thousand kisses. The numbers pile up and overflow. Then he deliberately confuses these numbers and makes the kisses uncountable. The energy of his love cannot be measured, and so it is a challenge to unmeasurable, infinite death.
However the pair are not alone. There is an onlooker, an enemy who wants to cast the evil eye on their affair. Witchcraft was widely believed in at this time. It was thought that magic power could be gained over others through certain knowledge, for example the knowledge of a secret name. Here the onlooker wants to know the exact number of kisses. In naming this number he would deny the force of their love, asserting its finiteness.
Catullus died aged 30. At the time of his death Clodia, a good decade older, was in her forties; disgraced and withdrawn from public life. Rumour, enemies, and ultimately death, prevailed. But in these lines the outburst of a brief passion has been immortalised. And so, ever a romantic, I like to think that in some ways Catullus was right in portraying this passion, however fleeting, as infinitely powerful.
Further reading: Most of my ideas for this post come from the ever brilliant Charles Segal, and his article “Catullus 5 and 7: a study in complementaries” (1968).