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Catullus the Basketcase

Katherine Merow '06

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 volt: 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.

Miserable Catullus, stop being a fool,
and what you see to have been ruined, consider it so.
Once bright suns shone for you,
when you kept going wherever the girl led,
she who was loved by us as no one will ever be loved;
when many joyous things were happening here,
which you wished for, nor did the girl not desire,
truly bright suns shone for you.
Now she no longer desires these things; nor should you, you basketcase,
neither keep following she who flees, nor live miserable,
but carry on with resolute mind, endure.
Farewell mistress! Catullus now endures,
he will neither seek you, nor will he ask you out unwilling.
And you will grieve, when you will not be asked out at all.
Wretch, pity on you! What life remains to you?
Who will visit you now? To whom will you seem fair?
Whom will you love now? Whose will you be called?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?
And you, Catullus, endure stubbornly.

The Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus wrote upwards of twenty poems on the subject of his relationship with a married woman he calls by the pseudonym of Lesbia. Many a modern scholar have tried, through rearrangement of these Lesbia-related poems, to reconstruct the chronology of the tumultuous affair, from nascent infatuation (#51) to blissful happiness (#5 and #7) to final repudiation (#11). Miser Catulle (#8, above), however, describes no hesitant initiation or ultimate break-off, but a bitter intermediary quarrel. Apparently written after a stormy falling-out with Lesbia, the poem takes the form of a soliloquy in which two sides of the poet's own personone detached and realistic, the other hopelessly nostalgic and lovesickvie for domination. Catullus the artist consciously constructs his poem so that the competing sides of his persona can engage in a spirited tête-à-tête. While the rational Catullus, harboring no illusions about his predicament, not only notes his pathetic state, but scolds and laughs at himself, the emotional basketcase Catullus cannot help wallowing in self-pity and alternately recalling past happiness and bewailing the tragedy of the current situation. In the end, despite the valiant and varied efforts of the former to win the latter over to his more sensible way of thinking, Catullus cannot exorcise the basketcase.

The poem begins with self-remonstrance, with Catullus forcing himself to confront his obstinate denial of reality. Indeed, the poet uses the first two lines to reprimand himself for his unfailing optimism. While he sees that his relationship with Lesbia is ruined, he has yet to admit to himself the seriousness of the fracture. The repetition of sound and sense in the phrase perisse perditum (2) emphasizes the very finality Catullus is having difficulty accepting. Addressing himself in the vocative, the poet initially couches his self-admonishment in the jussive subjunctive, typically used in the presentation of general rules or when the person is indefinite (Ellis 26). Catullus, then, is not so much reproaching or counseling his own erring self as he is advancing broad maxims and suggesting courses of action appropriate for anyone enduring the heartache of unrequited love. Eventually Catullus does, however, deem it necessary to muster the full forcefulness of the all-out imperative. Lines 10 and 11 alone contain no less than four commands, all directed by the poet to his own indecisive self. Wary of the temptation of giving in to his yearning and the high probability of a groveling return to a disdainful Lesbia, Catullus reiterates the need to endure. The juxtaposition of the nearly synonymous words perfer and obdura (11) highlight the necessity of repetition. If Catullus fails to frequently remind himself to bear up under the burden of his grief, his willpower will surely lapse and his resolve evaporate. Only by constant vigilance and persistent badgering, then, can the rational Catullus rein in the excesses of his emotional counterpart.

Besides chastising himself, Catullus tries to ease his depressionand perhaps shame himself out of itby deriving humor from his own pathetic conduct and condition. He engages in name-calling, urging himself to stop playing the fool and referring to himself as impotens (9). Though difficult to translate with a single English word, this appellation designates someone powerless to control himself or his emotions, a basketcase. Catullus also portrays himself as Lesbia's dogged pursuer, a fawning follower who invariably fails to take the hint that his feelings are not reciprocated. The combination of frequentative verbs (ventitabas and sectare) and descriptive imagery conveys the laughable extent of Catullus' persistenceand the unbalanced nature of his relationship with Lesbia. Even during the best of times, Lesbia merely suffered the moony-eyed Catullus to tag along behind her adoringly; now she wishes to lose her unshakable shadow for good. Though Catullus pursues her, eager as ever for her love, Lesbia humors him no more and flees his grasping embrace. The derisive tone evident in Catullus' treatment of his hopeless perseverance indicates his awareness of the absurdity of his actions. Recognizing this absurdity is one thing; summoning the presence of mind to remedy it is quite another.

The form and meter of #8 themselves contribute to the poet's self-mockery. Catullus chooses to compose his soliloquy in limping iambics, a meter usually reserved for satire or poking fun at others. Catullus uses this conversational meter to good-naturedly ridicule the incongruity between the pompous Suffenus' dapper appearance and utterly abominable verse (#22) and to highlight the inappropriateness of the Spaniard Egnatius' inane, urine-scoured smile (#39). In #8, the limping iambics befit the poet's relational ineptitude and help to convey this clumsiness to the readerand to bring it home to himself. Similarly, the predominance of end-stopped linesall but two of the nineteen end with some form of punctuationcontributes to the poem's overall feeling of awkwardness. Catullus' mind is in such a disordered state that his thoughts come out haltingly, hesitantly. Capable of being lyrical and consummately articulate, Catullus here purposefully expresses himself like the distraught soul to which Lesbia's dismissal has reduced him. The part of him still possessed of some measure of pride no doubt mourns the degeneration.

Interspersed between the attempts at reason and levity are pained reminiscences of past joys, which the naively hopeful side of Catullus still regards as at least potentially retrievable. The poet's seeming reluctance to recall events in detail, however, prevents him from recounting or reliving the high points of the affair in their full vividness. Not yet far enough removed from the situation to allow for unrestrained reflection, Catullus refrains from elaborating on certain aspects of his and Lesbia's impassioned activities not out of inhibitionfor indeed, Catullus is frank enough elsewherebut because it pains him to remember what he has since lost. Not only does Catullus not explicitly name Lesbia, as he does in #4, 7, 12, and 15, but he also leaves illa multaiocosa (6) purposefully vague. Although the reader has no difficulty divining to what this rather euphemistic phrase refers, the poet somewhat surprisingly omits description of anything akin to the shivering beds, indented pillows, or perfumed sheets that he gleefully details in his account of his friend Flavius' latest fling (#6). While Catullus certainly reserves his most graphic language for the sexual exploits of others, and seldom hints that he and his mistress ever progressed past the exchange of kisses, his lack of specification is conspicuous here and indicative of not only the depth of his heartache, but also his inability to fully affect disinterest.

Catullus obviously feels sorry for himselfhe does, after all, open the poem calling himself miserbut he understands that such self-pity reflects poorly on his emotional autonomy. Rather than spending hours bemoaning his unrequited love, he tells himself that he should be capable of accepting rejection and moving on with his life. Thus Catullus tries to transfer the pity he feels for himself onto Lesbia, hoping to convince himself in the process that she suffers more as a consequence of the break-up than he does. To accomplish this aim, Catullus must cast himself as the dominant partner, the one responsible for the dismissal of the other and thus the perceived end of the relationship. The poet's Vale, puella! (12), a dismissive apostrophe to a long-since-gone Lesbia, sounds feebly defiant at best. Catullus also poses a string of questions that, though ostensibly addressed to Lesbia, sound suspiciously like the poet commiserating with himself. In reminding his absent mistress of what benefits she has forsaken by leaving him, he effectively recalls all the perks he himself is now woefully without. Even as he asks whose she will now be called, Catullus doubtlessly mourns the loss of his right to designate her as mea Lesbia (1) as he did in #5. With quem basiabis? (18) Catullus calls to mind the countless multitudes of kisses exchanged in #5 and #7. These poems present kisses as the currency of Lesbia and Catullus' emotional exchange, so the prospect of her bestowing these favors on another signifies a definite transfer of affections. Others of Catullus' questions, however, indicate that Lesbia has no prospective replacements in sight and that since Catullus will no longer court her, she must resign herself to a lonely and loveless existence. Even as he foretells that she will find no suitors on her doorstep (cum rogaberis nulla), however, Catullus knows that Lesbia will have many invitations. The query quis nunc te adibit? (16) cannot help but conjure up images of the lecherous hoards waiting in taverns, on street corners, and down back alleys, all desirous of being "peeled" (glubit) by the ex-mistress Catullus still covets (#37 and #58). The poet's attempts to turn his pity outward, then, succeed only in magnifying his own despair; his attempt at self-empowerment backfires.

Catullus ends #8 with a final vocative address and one last reminder to endure. His choice of the word destinatus, used by Caesar to describe fastening ships by anchor (Ellis 28), suggests his acknowledgement of the need to physically affix himself to his tenuous resolve. Still, the reader gets the impression that, for all his seeming determination, Catullus will slink back imploringly to a pitiless Lesbia. Catullus has not, frankly, made much progress in the course of the poem's nineteen lines. He ends very much as he began, vainly trying to summon the self-discipline necessary to do what he knows that self-respect requires of him. Though the voice of reason and reality has the first and final say, it remains the underdog in Catullus' internal debate. In the battle between the rational and emotional sides of Catullus' being, then, the latter proves the stronger of the two.


Ellis, Robinson. A Commentary on Catullus. London: Oxford University Press Warehouse. 1889.

Garrison, Daniel H. The Student's Catullus. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1995.


Katharine Merow '06, who entered Swarthmore as a prospective classics major, took an immediate liking to the poem that later became the topic of "Catullus the Basketcase." She was delighted to be privy to the internal conflict of an individual at once so scathingly self-mocking and pathetically emasculated. Although currently pursuing an honors major in linguistics and an honors minor in mathematics and hoping to attend graduate school in the former, Katharine nonetheless remains, as a friend recently obseved, something of a "classics dork."  This paper was written for Professor Willian Turpin's Latin 11: Introduction to Roman Poetry.