Love and the Romans, II

The great period of the love elegy, in which our five poets thrived, is actually quite brief. One hundred years, roughly, takes us from Catullus’ birth, around 84 BC, to Ovid’s death, in exile in Tomis in AD17. Within about seventy years, actually, the poets have invented, developed, exploited and abandoned the entire convention, and it’s salutary to think of it lasting about as long as, say, English Romanticism, or the time it took to develop poetry in Scots from Robert Fergusson through Burns to James Hogg.

In that time the Republic died along with many of its citizens, including Cicero and its nemesis, Caesar, and the empire began under Augustus. Catullus knew the first two, Horace and Ovid the latter: these were poets at the heart of the Roman state whose depiction of its attitudes to love actually reveal a society in crisis – Catullus’s great love, Lesbia/Clodia, a very wealthy and influential woman, is denounced as a meretrix – not quite a whore – in one of Cicero’s great speeches, while some undisclosed scandal involving the imperial family, and obliquely related to Ovid’s poetry, has him sent into exile at the personal order of the emperor, with no hope of reprieve.

Women, then, were becoming more independent, republican moral absolutes were slipping: something needed to be invented to hold society together. Sounds a bit like the 1960s, doesn’t it, in Larkin’s famous formulation:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

It is too fanciful to suggest, as we’ll see, that the social cement was romantic love rather than the new cult of the emperor, (‘Love Me Do’ versus ‘Love Big Brother’) but, in the works of our five poets, it was clearly something more than papering over the cracks.

If we think of our poets as courses in a Roman feast, Catullus is a very particular sort of starter, perhaps involving a lot of tentacles. A northern Italian, a Veronese, who led a school of new writers – Cicero calls them ‘neotoroi’ in tribute to the Greek influences they bring into Roman verse – he is at once Roman and other, as symbolised by the new, possibly Celtic, word for kisses, ‘basia’, he brings into Latin. And indeed everything in Catullus seems polarised, contrary – his most famous lines hint at irreconcilable oppositions: ‘ave atque vale’ (hail and farewell) he says at the tomb of his beloved elder brother: having travelled all the way to Troy, what else can he do but turn on his heel and sail home? And in two of the most compressed lines in world literature he says ‘odi et amo’ – I hate and I love: ‘you ask, perhaps, how that can be?/I know not, but I feel the agony.’

His work is both tender and obscene, touching and baffling, and, what’s worse, he makes no effort to soften the blow for us – yes, he really does claim that Spaniard he dislikes cleans his teeth in urine; yes, in his rage at Lesbia’s faithlessness, he depicts her as tossing off strangers in the street. And yet, this is the same poet who gives us what amounts to the first freeze frame in literature: the moment when Lesbia is about to enter a house they’ve borrowed for the occasion, and he pauses the poem so we can look at the sunlight on her foot: ‘…as she crossed the well-worn threshold, [she] stopped, with shining/foot poised upon the slender sandal-tip.’

It is the moment before all happiness, and all unhappiness too – and Catullus realises it.

Passion in Catullus is too much for the frame of our sensibilities to contain – only the formal bounds of the poem can do that, so he doesn’t even try to be consistent. Part of the reasons behind this is social: Lesbia is married, their classes don’t exactly mesh, and the variety of terms he uses to address her reveal this: she is, often, his girl ‘puella’; she is rarely his lady, ‘era’; once or twice his mistress, ‘domina’ – and, once only, his woman: ‘mea mulier’. This is as close as he gets to that lovely inscription on a funerary stone on exhibition now in the gallery upstairs, ‘coniugi carissimae’ (dearest wife). Their love cannot disturb the fixed order of Roman society, and in Propertius or Ovid, this becomes convention – Propertius and Cynthia would never dream of marrying, while Ovid actually is married, as he lets slip at one point – just not to the subject of his poems.

That which concerns the emotions must be regarded as separate from that which concerns business, alliances, dynasties, power – and this social fact underpins Catullus’s emotional agony: he knows, ultimately, he is a rich woman’s toy, like the sparrow whose death he mock elegises, understanding that in one sense he is elegising himself in the grimly ludicrous image of it hopping toward Hades: ‘Now he travels the solitary darkness/towards that region from which there is no returning.’

This fundamental contradiction, you can love each other but not live together, leads Catullus almost to the point of breakdown, and Tibullus and Propertius try to tolerate and control it by very different means. Propertius we’ll turn to in a moment, but Tibullus, to continue our idea of a feast, must be a fine wine, as he’s the first poet to introduce the idea of drowning his sorrows, which he does just two poems into his first book:

Strengthen the wine, drown these fresh agonies,
That sleep may overpower my weary eyes;
Let none wake me as Bacchus stuns my brain,
And my doomed love finds its relief from pain.
My girl is now watched by a cruel guard,
Her solid door is shut and firmly barred.

Here we find the convention of the poor poet, locked out and, it must be said, rather wallowing in the misery. If Catullus swings from cruelty to self-laceration, Tibullus rather favours the masochistic end of the emotional spectrum. Un-Roman in his sentiment, he even says ‘I do not care to win renown, my Delia: let me/be called a lazy coward, only be with you.’

In fact, what comes out in his verse is a gradual admission that he would very much like to settle down. What begins as a dismissal of ‘being grey-headed and yet speaking words of blandishment’, seen in an unflattering portrait of an old lover ‘In quavering tones composing badinage,/and trying to prink his hair, now white with age’, turns into a trope of fidelity: ‘ in our case, Delia,/as our hair grows grey, let us still be textbooks of true love.’ Finally, he wishes for nothing more than to age peacefully in a pastoral setting, love’s battles past, even as he suspects this can only be imagined within the frame of the poem:

The master follows his sheep, his son the lambs,
His wife prepares warm water for him when he’s tired.
That’s the life for me – to let my head get steadily whiter,
And as an old man call to mind the actions of the past.

It’s a luxury few of these poets achieved: Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius all vanish from the records in their thirties, and Propertius’ late poems are obsessed with death and the testimony of ghosts. Where Tibullus is passive, he is anything but, cat-fighting with his Cynthia even after her death, when her ghost comes and tells him what’s what in no uncertain terms:

Ghosts do exist. Death does not finish everything.
The pale phantom lives to escape the pyre.
Yes: bending over my pillow, I saw Cynthia –
Interred that day beside the highway’s roar.
Still sleepless, brooding on my mistress’ funeral,
I loathed the chilly empire of my bed.
Her hair was just the same as at her burial,
Her eyes the same; her dress scorched down one side;
The fire had eaten at her favourite beryl ring;
Her lips had tasted Lethé, and were pale.

She spoke, in a voice panting with life and passion: her hands
Quivering meanwhile, the frail knuckles snapped.
‘Cheat! Liar! false to me and every other girl,
Can sleep have any influence on you?

But Propertius’s work demonstrates even more sharply than Catullus’s the stylistic collision between the psychology of the lover, the conventions of the love poem, and the realities of Roman society – he refers to Cynthia as ‘docta puella’ (learned girl), and she would have had to have been to keep up with the use of obscure allusions which pepper his passionate declarations. He is a highly flavoured dish, perhaps with the garum or rotting fish sauce the Romans loved so much – Pound’s famous ‘Homage to Sextius Propertius’ best captures his cryptic, sardonic tone:

…I ask a wreath which will not crush my head.
And there is no hurry about it;
I shall have, doubtless, a boom after my funeral,
Seeing that long standing increases all things
regardless of quality.
And who would have known the towers
pulled down by a deal-wood horse;
Or of Achilles withstaying waters by Simois
Or of Hector spattering wheel-rims…
If Homer had not stated your case!

And I also among the later nephews of this city
shall have my dog’s day,
With no stone upon my contemptible sepulchre;
My vote coming from the temple of Phoebus in Lycia, at Patara,
And in the mean time my songs will travel,
And the devirginated young ladies will enjoy them
when they have got over the strangeness…

What I’m hinting at here is a kind of collision of consciousness and convention, as these Roman poets reshaped Greek metres and forms for a new era which itself was reshaping them into figures which we recognise today as psychologically complex individuals – because we experience similar contradictions. It is in this sense that Horace, at the end of Book 3 of his Odes, has a piercing insight about art itself: thanks to his poems, ‘non omnis moriar’ – I shall not wholly die. While we continue to engage with their work on all these levels – not just as social records or as self portraits, but also as rhetorical structures and aesthetic decisions, that whole complex which adds up to the poem as work of art – we recreate them in ourselves, and we live through them as much as they do through us.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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