Grottoes of Catullus at Sirmio ( modern Sirmione) and bust of the poet
I visited Sirmio in late May 2016 so would seem to have had plenty of time to gather my thoughts poetic or other on the subject of Catullus! It will be evident I consider him a pivotal figure for poetry and art generally.
Despite great gulfs in time and culture dividing us (but not temperament completely – he was a self-declared Celt), Catullus (c.84-54 BC) is nonetheless a figure haunting me since adolescence for anything poetic, not least the idea I might write some poetry myself one day. I regard this poet, along with the Petrarch so important for his rediscovery, as giving me Italy and the West itself, which having lived so much outside Europe in Asia and Australia, presents itself as a distinct, precious entity in my mind that I can’t take wholly for granted. (I am not a globalist who like Macron doesn’t understand what “French” art could mean. I believe in the value of difference, and even consider the West under threat rather as per Douglas Murray).
This is the last poem I will publish on this blog for reasons given along with the notes below.
THOUGHTS AT SIRMIO
You hoped for a century’s fame but fate,
Sometimes kind and surprising and often
Ironic, gave more. It granted millennia
And your birthplace, Verona, city of lovers,
By the rarest of fortunes and under
One barrel only, preserved written word
Of your pleasures and sorrows and pain
Long endured in the service of Venus’
Adulterous muse. Yet It was through
And beyond her before a too early
Ending, you arrived at more than just
Wisdom – new freedom of being as
Poet and person – and, though childless,
Bequeathed so much that’s Europa’s alone.
Sirmio, first home to wake inspiration….
See there those absolutes of blue and blue
A lake and sky, joined in transcendent
Reverie that, island-like, an isthmus meets. 1
They’ve breathed together as the centuries pass
And still do now an era changes sign
Imposing images and words that guide
The slow and mighty turns of history’s round….. 2
A change that daunts, by many also mourned,
Though we must hope that what serves truth
Remains with western consciousness of self
And will to stand a single voice alone
“Caesar I am not keen to please you” 3
No homage to person or place were better
Than that Sirmio’s pilgrims laid praise for
Homer aside, disapproved the violent
Thrills that were play for the offspring of Zeus,
Gods by Plato condemned yet who in
Centuries after still taught ambition
To monarchs looked down on from high
Palace ceilings. Likewise dismiss all Pindaric
Praise for the human as athlete, the riders
And wrestlers, victors in base competition
Securing each loser shame and rejection
Their limbs often needlessly injured
Even sight itself dimmed before time.
Nostalgia for old Hellas’ ways is misplaced.
Recall but the weight of their darkness, how
Olympian favours extended through
Earthly life only, never challenging Hades
And death, no matter how unjust and lamented.
The bard’s fickle gods loved especially heroes,
Steered the likes of Odysseus homewards
Ignoring the others, companions and crew.
Flowing from Helicon’s streams, or tuned
To deceptive notes of a lyre
The muse was not heard in her fullness.
Amid stock, high sounding phrases of epic,
Their images glinting like sun on too
Weighty armour, the branches and fruit of
Poesia’s tree, natural shelter and fare
For insight and vision could scarce put down root.
Love’s lure and excitement, soul’s motions
Not closely recorded before you,
The struggle to personal knowledge and mythos
With willing refusal of popular value,
Such needed to flourish elsewhere serenely.
It would thrive amid requisite leisure
And dawning awareness that words, syntax
And passion of themselves could make music
And from rhythms first practiced on tablets
Of wax towards a finished perfection
On polished papyrus, their destination
Home villa, the forum or library box.
By deep blue and glassy Barcarus 4
Was almost an Eden for new language
And dreaming, for life without competition
Directed to pleasure, above all to
The friendship that was lifelong your passion.
The city by contrast gave fame though love failed,
And betrayed. The most adored woman proved
Faithless, the idolized youth vented scorn.
But beyond disappointment, heart and mind
Much divided, you divined woman’s being,
Not just as beloved, held meaning,
Deserved new, wider description. From poets
Not least since, like Ariadne abandoned
On Naxos, soul itself was a woman,
And to know it served justice and truth.
Through you as lover and dreamer and
Satirist sometimes, the incoming era
And mind of Europa was forming,
Piecing together a varied mosaic
Composed of ever more self-aware persons.
Though by nature divided and doubting
And often protesting, Europa’s descendants,
(Vaunting uniqueness and aided by arts.
Where Eros and love would be often supreme),
Could never quite live in social denial
Of what was a woman and soul’s vital place.
You did not wish but imagined endless
Slumber in Hades. Did you never consider
Your words, like sunlight through branches,
Might pierce the veil of any dark’s dreaming
Or force an occasion to answer the questions
Of those who heard you, feeling addressed
And as though independent of time?
If your spirit had listened and answered
What might then questioners say in departure
Or homage? Surely not “Hail and Farewell” 5
But rather “Hail now, tomorrow and always”.
1 The ruins of the supposed villa home of Catullus stand at the end of an isthmus that juts into the lake appearing to be almost an island
2 The turning of the ages is assumed. Catullus lived near to the onset of the Piscean era with its distinctive themes which are now giving way to those of Aquarius
3 Catullus XC111
4 Barcarus – ancient name of Lake Garda
5 Famously Catullus writes Ave atque Vale (Hail and Farewell) to his deceased brother. Here I am suggesting Ave atque Ave is appropriate for the poet but whether in Latin or English the poem cannot sustain precisely that
The above is my last poetic entry to this blog There is no advantage to putting such material out only to be told, as I have been in UK and Ireland, this means that legally it’s published which these days no broadcaster or publisher seems to want or even allow. The whole thing is, and for me always was, a Catch 22 situation. Years ago and after I had a poetic drama broadcast with the ABC, they couldn’t broadcast other examples of my work (such as in the belatedly indie published Puer Poems) that hadn’t been published first. Which they were even prepared to recommend but to no effect with some truly insulting Australian publishers. In more recent times the likes of the RTE in Ireland couldn’t broadcast my work for their author-showcasing Sunday Miscellany because it was out on the Net. They said I could offer them new poetry – the poem 1793 :Before the Guillotine (September 2017 of this blog) is that, but I couldn’t obtain an acknowledgment for sending it. It is a waste of time, truly a waste of time, to produce almost anything for the minds that deal in broadcasting, and publishing, above all poetry which these days must conform to certain post modern standards including that they contain nothing metaphysical or religious, another barrier. Truly Catullan satire would be needed to address the abuse and the mean, small minded nonsense that the various literary establishments can represent. My article Prince Charles and the Poets https://wp.me/p2v96G-ZR gives a little idea of some of my long standing problems which I don’t expect to be resolved in my lifetime and which are so severe it might take half a lifetime just to describe them anyway!