The below are two of the most moving poems to have survived from Ancient Rome. The poets Catullus and Horace comfort close friends on the death of someone dear to them. Both odes are deeply poignant in their grief, but also use poetry to wilfully defy mortality itself by showing that those we loved are never truly lost to us.
In poem 96, Catullus comforts his friend Calvus on the death of his wife, telling him that her spirit is gladdened by the love her husband shows in his great grief:
If anything from our grief, can reach beyond
the silent tomb, Calvus, and be pleasing and welcome,
grief with which, in longing, we revive our lost loves,
and weep for vanished friendships once known,
surely Quintilia is not so much grieved at her early death,
as joyful for your love.
In Ode 1.24, Horace comforts the famous poet of the Aeneid, Virgil, at the death of their mutual friend and teacher Quintilius. I have only included the last 3 stanzas as they are the ones I want to discuss here. Horace tells his friend that no amount of grieving can help them to bring their friend back, comparing Virgil to Orpheus, the mythical poet who performed for the King of the underworld to try in vain to bring back his wife from the dead. The god Mercury was the guardian of the boundaries between the upper and lower worlds, and Horace reminds us that those who pass by him are never suffered to return.
Many are the good men who weep for his dying,
none of them, Virgil, weep more profusely than you.
Piously, you ask the gods for him, alas, in vain:
not so was he given to us.
Even if you played on the Thracian lyre, listened
to by the trees, more sweetly than Orpheus could,
would life then return, to that empty phantom,
once Mercury, with fearsome wand,
who won’t simply re-open the gates of Fate
at our bidding, has gathered him to the dark throng?
It is hard: but patience makes more tolerable
whatever wrong’s to be righted.
Where the two differ is that in Catullus there is still very much the idea of the continued consciousness of the wife. Catullus wills away the limits of mortality by creating a link that still exists between the living and the dead: Calvus’ love still reaches and comforts his wife. In contrast Horace reinforces that there can no longer be any link with the dead. No matter how beautiful, poetry simply does not have the power to revive the dead.
However, there is another way to read 1.24. The verb for what is above translated as ‘to be righted’ at the end of the Ode is also used by Horace in another poem, his Ars Poetica, when he describes the living Quintilius correcting his, Horace’s, poetry. Therefore, in 1.24 Horace assumes the role of Quintilius for their mutual friend Virgil as he supports him in his grief. And so the chasm between the living and the dead is somehow bridged: the qualities lost in Quintilius as teacher and guide live on through his former pupil Horace.
In their grief for their friends Catullus and Horace use poetry remind us that the dead are still with us in some sense, especially with those who loved and were loved in return.
Catullus translation by A.S. Kline (2001) and Horace is also Kline (2003)