The below are perhaps two of the most moving poems to have survived from Ancient Rome. The poets Catullus and Horace comfort 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. 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 dead wife. 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.
Some have seen in this Ode a chastisement of Virgil, where Horace brusquely warns the poet not to be overly emotional in mourning for his friend. Maybe I’m biased because I’m such a fan of Horace but personally I don’t think this is a particularly fair reading.
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 it is, 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 another poem, his Ars Poetica, when he describes the living Quintilius correcting his poetry. Therefore in 1.24 Horace assumes the role of Quintilius to their mutual friend Virgil as he supports him in his grief. And so the miracle of Catullus 96 is achieved, and the chasm between the living and the dead is bridged: the qualities Virgil has lost in Quintilius in his role as teacher live on in Horace.
Maybe it is a small consolation, but a person it not simply wiped out when they die. This is something both Catullus and Horace recognised, and in their grief for their friends they in turn remind us that the dead are not completely lost to us, especially to those they loved and were loved by in return.