Latin Reading Club (6) - Catullus, Carmina 83 et 86

Cato

Consularis

  • Consularis

In poem 83, Catullus explains why Lesbia would curse him in front of her husband

Lesbia mi praesente viro mala plurima dicit:
....haec illi fatuo maxima laetitia est.
mule, nihil sentis? si nostri oblita taceret,
....sana esset: nunc quod gannit et obloquitur,
non solum meminit, sed (quae multo acrior est res)
....irata est. hoc est, uritur et loquitur.

In poem 86, Catullus gives a definition of beauty

Quintia formosa est multis. mihi candida, longa,
.....recta est: haec ego sic singula confiteor.
totum illud 'formosa' nego: nam nulla venustas,
.....nulla in tam magno est corpore mica salis.
Lesbia formosa est, quae cum pulcherrima tota est,
.....tum omnibus una omnis surripuit Veneres.

Poem 83 with clickable word look-up (UK Kent Univ., not Perseus)

Poem 86 with clickable word look-up (UK Kent Univ., not Perseus)

Side-by-side translations

mi = mihi
praesente viro - Ablative absolute; vir here means "husband".
fatuus, -a, -um - "foolish, idiotic"
Mulus, -i - "mule"
oblita - this participle takes the genitive nostri as an object.
ganno, -ere - "wail, yelp"
uro, -ere - "burn"

venustas, -atis - "charm, elegance"
mica, -ae - "grain, little bit"
omnibus - Add a word like mulieribus and take as abl. of separation.
omnis...Veneres - omnis is accusative plural (-is for -es). The plural Veneres was often used by love poets for the charms/graces of a woman.

Catullus really deserves another chance; after reading his 30-odd poems detailing his affair with Lesbia, you get a real sense of how tragic that love affair was for him. For now though, these two are obviously from the beginning of the romance, and offer some interesting details.

Just a few questions for thought:

irata and sana two lines earlier appear in the same position in the couplets; is there an effect here? How about the arrangement of the verbs in the final couplet?

What does Catullus mean by mica salis? Do you agree with his specific definition of formosa?

Habete ludum!
 

Iynx

Consularis

  • Consularis

What does Catullus mean by mica salis? Do you agree with his specific definition of formosa?

Literally mica salis = "a grain of salt", but here perhaps better translated"a bit of spice". Catullus is saying (if I understand him aright) that while Quintia, renowned for what others call beauty, may indeed be "a long cool woman in a white skin", she lacks certain things that Lesbia possesses, and without these cannot really be called fair.

Something in the way she moves?

The definition does not in fact seem very specific to me, but yes, I do agree; there is much more to feminine beauty than can (say) be shown in a posed photograph or painting, even a very good one.
 

Cato

Consularis

  • Consularis

Iynx dixit:
The definition does not in fact seem very specific to me, but yes, I do agree; there is much more to feminine beauty than can (say) be shown in a posed photograph or painting, even a very good one.
This poem always reminds me of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: "I know it when I see it." You're right; Catullus is not being specific in his definition, and in fact goes out of his way to (1) eliminate potential equivalents, such as physical traits (which would be easy to agree on), and (2) offer a cryptic and subjective possibility by implying someone who is formosa needs mica salis - "a bit of salt".

Poems 83 and 86 are each a mere six lines; it would be a mistake to think of these as anything more than cute baubles. Still, they each present an interesting idea, and I think anyone reading them would agree that Catullus was--for better or worse--in love with Lesbia.
 
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