Five: To Lesbia

Song #5 to Lesbian by Gaius Valerius Catullus (circa 84-54 BCE)


Come and let us live my Deare,
Let us love and never feare.
What the sourest Fathers say:
Brightest Sol that dyes to day
Lives againe as blith to morrow;
But if we darke sons of sorrow
Set; O then, how long a Night
Shuts the Eyes of our short light!
Then let amorous kisses dwell
On our lips, begin and tell
A Thousand, and a Hundred score
An Hundred, and a Thousand more,
Till another Thousand smother
That, and that wipe off another:
Thus at last when we have numbered
Many a Thousand, many a Hundred;
We’ll confound the reckoning quite,
And lose our selves in wild delight:
While our joys so multiply,
As shall mocke the envious eye.


Today is the fifth day of my 100-day poetry project, so I thought I’d continue chronologically and coincidentally (but not really) with Catallus’s “Song #5 to Lesbia.” Catullus is one of the most influential late Roman poets; although he lived only thirty years and wrote a limited number of pieces, his poetry remains widely read and has influenced other artists and poets from generation to generation, movement to movement. Rare are the artists who can boast such a level of influence and perpetuity.

My limited understanding of Catallus suggests that he often wrote in hendecasyllable rhyme, of which this poem is an example (whether I chose one that proves the rule, I can’t say; maybe it was just a happy correlation!). The translation above is of course not hendecasyllabic because it has been rewritten into English, but an example of the 11 syllable phrasing from the original is as such: Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus (line 1).

What I enjoy about this poem is that it praises the two-person love, raises it above the “rabble” of opposition, from family or friends. There’s also a great deal of passion in these lines. The lovers bathe each other in kisses, the argument being a type of romantic carpe diem — soon enough, the dark falls on everyone, so it is best to ignore the snide remarks of judgmental busybodies around us, love while we can, and then fade into that forever-sleep having, at least, loved completely, and having been loved.  There’s little confusion as to why Catallus, and this poem in particular, went on to inspire so many others, from the medievalists onward.

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