The important events in the life of Gaius Valerius Catullus (84-54 B.C.) are recounted through the poems he has left. The particular poem below was written on his return from Asia Minor, where he had attempted at a public career by following Memmius, the patron of the poet Lucretius, into the province of Bithynia. But his hopes being dashed, he took refuge after the long journey at his home in the present-day village of Sirmione, in northern Italy, on Lake Garda.

 

Ad Sirmium Insulam

(Translation by Douglas Thornton)

Of the islands which in stagnant
Waters and vast seas Neptune holds,
Sirmio—the pearl of islands!—
Now my heart with you rejoices
Safe and sound, still scarce believing
Thynia and Bithynian
Fields have gone. What more fortunate
Care, after so many struggles,
When the mind shrugs off its burden,
Drained by foreign toil, than come
Unto our hearth and find comfort
In our longed-for bed! Thus hello,
Charming Sirmio, whom I enjoy
Enjoying; and you, rippling lake
Of Lydian wave surrounding
My home, drown out all other noise.

 

Ad Sirmium Insulam

(Original)

Paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque
Ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis
Marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus,
Quam te libenter quamque laetus inviso,
Vix mi ipse credens Thuniam atque Bithunos
Liquisse campos et videre te in tuto.
O quid solutis est beatius curis,
Cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino
Labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum,
Desideratoque acquiescimus lecto?
Hoc est quod unum est pro laboribus tantis.
Salve, O venusta Sirmio, atque ero gaude
Gaudente, vosque, O Lydiae lacus undae,
Ridete quidquid est domi cachinnorum.[/column]

 

Douglas Thornton is a poet and English teacher living in France.  Please visit his blog at www.douglasthornton.blogspot.com

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7 Responses

  1. J. Simon Harris

    This is a really nice poem. I have never read Catullus, but your translation makes me want to read more. The poem somehow reminds me of old Japanese poetry–maybe the sentiment, or the second-person address to his hometown… it’s hard to pin down. There’s nothing quite like coming home after a long journey, is there?

    Reply
    • Douglas Thornton

      Thank you, sir! Catullus has some very profound and heartfelt poems, which indeed make him very modern, but he can as well be on the vulgar side, so you have to pick and choose. I think in his best poems, especially this one, he has a way of bringing distant sentiment and thought into word, and the rhythm is nonetheless delicate for it–this, as well, is what seems to bring him closer to the old Japanese poetry.

      Reply
  2. Aedile Cwerbus

    To the Grotto of Catullus
    by Aedile Cwerbus
    for Douglas Thornton

    In northern Italy, an hour from Verona is
    Lake Garda, Italy’s large lake and famed peninsula,
    Catullus called his dearest home, the pearl Sermio,
    and Pound thought worth the journey, o, a century ago.

    Free from Bithynia, Catullus could unwind his mind,
    and leave, in limping iambs, all his burdens far behind;
    and Tennyson as well could pause and see the ruins left,
    eroding walls, gray stoneway falls, and archways time bereft.

    In Sermio the tourists swarm the waterfront cafes,
    beside the trinket shops and vibrant flowery displays;
    but at Catullus’ grotto where the grass and olives grow,
    though all things fade, there are some, ah, that we do not let go.

    Reply
  3. David Watt

    Where else but through The Society of Classical Poets do we find a mix of history, education, and fine translations of poetry? The response poem serves to ‘ice the cake.’

    Reply
  4. Aedile Cwerbus

    One of the remarkable aspects of Catullus’ poetry is his metrical range. To naturally fall into any meter is a difficult matter, but to utilize the range he did, and all by the time he was thirty, was meteoric. Catullus, like Calvus, was one of the Neoterici, the Roman “Modernists,” and I would say that his vulgarity is part of what made him modern to the Romans, like Cicero.

    Although a more common meter of his was the Phalaecian hendecasyllable, in sonnet-length “Ad Sermium,” he used Scazon (Choliambics), also hendecasyllabic. In his choliambics there is usually a caesura after the fifth syllable. In line 8, however, coinciding with the meaning of the line—the onus—he breaks that pattern. The whole poem is a tour de force, from the opening play of insularum, to the laughter of the final line. I particularly like the brilliant coup of line 10.

    Although many writers have translated this particular poem into English, including Victorians, like Richard Francis Burton and Thomas Hardy in rhyme, it shows the strength of a culture when it attempts translations of the best classical writers in order to bring them to its present.

    This is why work like that of Mr. Harris and Mr. Thornton is valuable, particularly here @ SCP.

    Reply
  5. Douglas Thornton

    This may just be a side-note, but I believe it were Virgil who saw in the longer poetry of Catullus, notably poem LXIV, the matter for which he based his poetry on. Apparently, Catullus was dissuased from this longer sort of poetry because it did not suit the public’s taste. It was nonetheless an intriguing time for Latin poetry and is certainly interesting for us to look in to and dwell upon. Thank you, Mr. Wise for your information on the subject.

    Reply

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