Literary essay: Catullus 11 (vv. 17-24)



cum suis vivat valeatque moechis,

quos simul complexa tenet trecentos,

nullum amans vere, sed identidem omnium

ilia rumpens;

nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,

qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati

ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam

tactus aratro est.

"Lesbia" (1878), by John Reinhard Weguelin
"Lesbia" (1878), by John Reinhard Weguelin

These two stanzas are the little message that Catullus wants his cohort companions to tell Lesbia. The penultima stanza stands out by breaking the loftiness of the rest of the poem with the use of moecha, as well as the informal and rather obscene expression of ilia rumpens. This stanza describes the unfaithfulness of Lesbia, which destroyed Catullus' relationship with her.

Although in verse 21 Catullus exhorts Lesbia not to keep looking back to his past love, it is in reality Catullus who cannot get over the nostalgia and sadness of his unreciprocated love, as it is illustrated in other poems, like carmen 8 and carmen 51.

Not only is the poem in the Sapphic meter, but it also brings back a simile of universal literature that was introduced by Homer (Iliad VIII, 303-308), and later used by Sappho herself (fragment 105c), and recycled by Virgil (Aeneid IX, 431-437). Without getting into the details of each rewriting of the simile, all the authors seem in broad terms to represent the frustration of young love. Thus, I do not think that flos is in any way a reference to the sexual organ, but to Catullus' love. Within the pathos of the Homeric simile, Catullus is able to successfully capture the innocence of the flower which is violently cut by the rough--and in no ways delicate--plow, just like it is hers the culpa of his suffering. The image also shows how Catullus' definition of pure love stands out in the fields of common loves, although still away from them (ultimi), as it is also pointed out in other poems with his unique descriptions of his ideal relationship with Lesbia: comparing his love to a foedus, and himself to a father, as well as by constructing gender reversals. The poet is trying to elevate the concept of casual love and fight against the social norms of his time.