I love and hate

I’ve been reading the poetry of Catullus, for the first time reading the whole collection, and it’s been an amazing trip.
Catullus was a younger contemporary of Julius Caesar – whom he lacerated in some of the most brutal political satire I’ve seen.  He died young, probably a few years before Caesar, though probably not from the same disease.
His poetry has extraordinary range: from obscene abuse to gentle lyrics, social satire, translations, literary polemic, broad humour, laments for the dead, poems agonizing over his intermittent lover Lesbia, and marriage hymns mixed with seriously weird re-tellings of mythological stories about gods and heroes.
Conservative in many attitudes; privileged though not in the political elite; sexist it goes without saying; possessive in the extreme: Catullus doesn’t cut a pretty figure.  But he’s his own most savage critic.
His most famous poem is an affectionate joke, where he sings his jealousy of Lesbia’s pet sparrow, which is allowed to nestle between her breasts.
His most famous phrase, in a very short poem presumably also addressed to Lesbia, is Odi et amo – I love and hate [at the same time] - and feel crucified.  Catullus discovered ambivalence two thousand years before Freud did.
It’s a miracle that these poems survived, given their eroticism, political anger, and general subversiveness.  It seems that just one manuscript survived into the European middle ages, from which all modern versions have descended.
My half-forgotten high-school Latin isn’t up to the task of construing this, so I’ve been reading in a bilingual edition with copious scholarly notes.  Trying to follow the all-important rhythm of the Latin text – Catullus apparently was a virtuoso technically.  Not exactly skipping through it! 
Given the fog of language and interpretation, I’m astonished at the power this poetry has - to speak to someone on the other side of the world and twenty centuries later, and still make the words ring.

But then - there's another side of the story.  What did Lesbia think about Catullus? I've tried to imagine what an aristocratic, educated and highly independent woman of her generation would have made of this upwardly mobile boy from the provinces.


Give me a break, Catullus!  Show some spine!
   Yes, we had one good screw, I admit it;
Thank me with flattery in verse, that's fine,
   But this moaning on and on: just quit it!

You get on my nerves, young man. Go off,
   Fight the barbarians with your little bow and arrow,
Do what men do - steal, quarrel, act the toff -
   By all the gods, I care more for this sparrow!
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