This is one of the best-known poems of the Latin poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 – 34 B.C.), written after the final break-up of his relationship with Lesbia, the name that he gave to his mistress, who is generally identified with Clodia Metelli, the wife of a Roman proconsul. Clodia appears to have been somewhat indiscriminate with her favours, and the relationship had been a stormy one. In this poem Catullus struggles to free himself of her spell, admonishing himself in a series of wild mood-swings.
Such translations of the poem I have seen seem compelled, in deference to some notion of classical diction, to be rather prim and passionless. But this is not a prim and passionless poem: it is alive with the anguish of rejection and wavering resolve, it has, despite all the centuries that separate us, that raw immediacy of a speaking voice that one finds in Wyatt and Donne. Translation is a tricky business and one’s first duty must always be to the sense, but sometimes the more literal the less faithful; in my own translation that follows I have tried to find a balance between letter and spirit.
Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.
Fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles,
cum ventitabas quo puella ducebat
amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla.
Ibi illa multa cum iocosa fiebant,
quae tu volebas nec puella nolebat,
fulsere vere candidi tibi soles.
Nunc iam illa non vult: tu quoque impotens noli,
nec quae fugit sectare, nec miser vive,
sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.
Vale puella, iam Catullus obdurat,
nec te requiret nec rogabit invitam.
At tu dolebis, cum rogaberis nulla.
Scelesta, vae te, quae tibi manet vita?
Quis nunc te adibit? cui videberis bella?
Quem nunc amabis? Cuius esse diceris?
Quem basiabis? Cui labella mordebis?
At tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura.
Catullus, you poor fool, stop faffing about
And face the facts: she’s gone, the one you loved
More than any girl will ever be loved.
How bright the sun shone for you once, when she
Would lead and you would follow her whenever
Even to that place of many pleasures
That you desired, and she did not deny.
Indeed, the sun shone brightly for you then
And now, she does not want you. So, you too,
Left with no other power, learn not to want:
Don’t follow one who runs away, don’t live
A lovesick fool: man up, man, and endure.
Goodbye then, girl – Catullus is enduring –
He will not miss you, will not ask for you
Since you are loth. Let it be your turn, bitch,
To grieve when none desire you. For who now
Will come to you and call you beautiful?
Whom you will you love? Whose will they say you are?
Whom will you kiss? What lips now will you nibble?
Only, Catullus, stay strong and endure.