Homo ludens at play with the songs of Sappho: Experiments in comparative reception theory, Essay Four

2019.01.31 | By Gregory Nagy

This posting for 2019.01.31 is Essay Four of a long-term project that started with Essay One at 2019.01.08 and continued with Essay Two at 2019.01.16 and with Essay Three at 2019.01.25. The numbering of my paragraphs here in Essay Four continues from §64 of Essay Three, which had continued from §51 of Essay Two, which had continued from §33 of Essay One. In Essay Four, as in Essays Three and Two and One, I analyze examples of ancient texts composed by male authors who playfully imitate Sappho by appropriating aspects of her songs in their own literary creations. The primary examples in Essay Four here, as earlier in Essay Three, come from the poetry of Catullus.

Playing the lyre. The rock on which player is seated bears the inscription ΗΛΙΚΟΝ/Helikon. Attic white-ground lekythos, 440–430 BC, by the Achilles Painter.
Playing the lyre. The rock on which the player is seated bears the inscription ΗΛΙΚΟΝ (=  Helikon). Attic white-ground lekythos, 440–430 BCE, by the Achilles Painter. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Prologue: mediated as well as unmediated appropriations of Sappho by Catullus

§65. I start Essay Four here with Poems 5 and 7 of Catullus, the so-called “kissing poems” that I introduced in Essay Three, where I laid the groundwork for my primary argument, which is, that these poems are male appropriations of songs that can be traced all the way back to Sappho. There are complications, however, as I indicated at §§63–64 in Essay Three, where I started to develop a secondary argument: that Catullus was following earlier Greek intermediaries in pursuing the poetics of such male apppropriation. Catullus could appropriate Sappho indirectly as well as directly, since he could imitate previous imitators of Sappho. Thus we need to look for mediated as well as unmediated appropriations of Sappho by Catullus.

§66. In what follows I comment on some mediated appropriations that I have noticed in the “kissing poems,” Catullus 5 and 7. To make my commentary easier, I first show the Latin texts of these poems, followed by my working translations.

Two poems: Catullus 5 and 7

§67.1. Catullus 5

1    vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
2    rumoresque senum severiorum
3    omnes unius aestimemus assis!
4    soles occidere et redire possunt;
5    nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
6    nox est perpetua una dormienda.
7    da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
8    dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
9    deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum;
10  dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
11   conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
12   aut ne quis malus invidere possit
13   cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

1    Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
2   As for such rumors as old men spread, who are more severe than others,
3    for all such, let us set a value of one single unit—a single penny!
4    Suns that set can be followed by suns that rise again,
5    but for us, once that one single brief light has set,
6   there is one single continuous night for us to sleep through.
7    Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
8    then another thousand, then a second hundred,
9    then yet another thousand, then a hundred;
10  then, when we have made many thousands,
11  we will scramble them, so we won’t know for sure how many,
12  and so no evil man may give them the stink-eye,
13  once he knows for sure that there are so many kisses.

§67.2. Catullus 7

1    quaeris quot mihi basiationes
2    tuae Lesbia sint satis superque
3    quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
4    lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
5    oraclum Iovis inter aestuosi
6    et Batti veteris sacrum sepulcrum
7    aut quam sidera multa cum tacet nox
8    furtivos hominum vident amores
9    tam te basia multa basiare
10  vesano satis et super Catullo est
11  quae nec pernumerare curiosi
12  possint nec mala fascinare lingua

1    You ask how many, for me, kissings
2    with you, Lesbia, would be enough and more than  enough.
3    Well, as big a number as the number of Libyan grains of sand
4    that lie out there in the land famous for the plant silphium, in the land of Cyrene,
5    between the oracle of Jupiter, with his heat-waves,
6    and the sacred tomb of ancient Battus,
7    or as many as the number of stars that, when the night is silent,
8    see the sneaky things that mortals do, their acts of love
9    —that is how kissing you that many kisses
10  is to be enough and more than enough for that insane man, for Catullus.
11  And these things could not be counted from beginnning to end by men who are concerned about such things,
12   no, they would not be able to count them, or to put a hex on them with an evil tongue.

Some comments on Poems 5 and 7 of Catullus

§68. I introduce my comments by returning to my question at §64 in Essay Three: so, was Philetas of Cos or some other such Greek poet a model for appropriations of Sappho by Catullus in his Poems 5 and 7, the so-called “kissing poems”? My answer is divided into three parts, which I organize in the form of three specific comments:

§68.1. In the case of Philetas, we have as of now so little that survives of this poet’s poetry that there is no way for me to be certain that his poetics of appropriating Sappho, so visible in the text of Daphnis and Chloe, also influenced Catullus. It is just a guess for me to say that the poetics of Philetas may well have influenced the poetics of Catullus.

§68.2. But there is no guessing needed about another model for Catullus: I have in mind here Callimachus of Cyrene, whose lifetime extends from the late fourth to the mid third century BCE. It is well known to Classicists, on the basis of a wide variety of allusions made by Catullus to the poetry of Callimachus, that this particular Hellenistic poet, who was a near-contemporary of Philetas, had a profound influence on the Roman poet. And while I cannot as of now find a case where we could see Callimachus himself in the act of appropriating Sappho directly, I think I have found at least one case where Catullus alludes to both Callimachus and Sappho simultaneously, and such an allusion suggests to me the possibility that Catullus is alluding there, indirectly, to an appropriation of Sappho by Callimachus. The case I have in mind is at the first six lines of Catullus 7, where the limitless number of kisses that the speaking persona of Catullus says he desires from his Lesbia is compared to the grains of sand in the Libyan desert, comparably limitless in number. The vast sandy desert is then explicitly described in those lines as the hinterland of the Greek city of Cyrene, which as I noted a moment ago was the birthplace of Callimachus.

§68.3. It may be relevant, with regard to the poetic trope of counting kisses, that Fragment 554 of Callimachus refers to a counting of kisses up to seven—in what seems to be a mock-sacral context. But there is a more immediately relevant detail to compare at this point. Closer to home, there is a near-conteporary of the Roman poet, the Greek poet Philodemus of Gadara, dated to the mid first century BCE, who in one of his epigrams, Greek Anthology 9.570 (re-edited as Epigram 3 in the edition of Sider 1997), engages at line 7 in the poetic trope of alluding to the bureaucratic language of accountants in calculating the length of time it would take for lovers to sleep together even after death—and this length of time is described playfully as an eternity. We see a parallel trope at work at line 11 in Poem 5 of Catullus, where the Roman poet’s wording likewise alludes to the bureaucratic language of accountants: here the playful challenge for bureaucrats is to calculate the number of kisses it will take for lovers to satisfy their incessant desire for lovemaking before death, given that death will become an eternal night for sleeping, as we see in the poet’s earlier wording at line 6 of Poem 5, nox est perpetua una dormienda ‘there is one single continuous night [for us] to sleep through’.

§69. Having gone through three specific comments in my three-part answer to the question I posed at §68, I now offer, as a conclusion, this general comment: the Roman poet Catullus not only appropriates directly the Greek poetics of Sappho, but he also appropriates indirectly the poetics of intermediate Greek poets who were already appropriating the poetics of Sappho.

Transition: looking for examples where Catullus appropriates Sappho directly in his “Lesbia poems”

§70. In the “kissing poems” of Catullus, as I already argued in Essay Three, the poetics of male appropriation can be traced back to a basic pattern of substitution. In my reconstruction of this pattern, the ‘I’ of Catullus as the first-person male speaker in these poems is substituted for the ‘I’ of a first-person female speaker in the songs of Sappho. In those songs, such a speaker would represent a love-sick woman who declares her desire to kiss incessantly a beloved girl. So, in the two “kissing poems” of Catullus, I think we see a direct appropriation from Sappho’s songs about kissing. But the problem is, and has been all along, that such Sapphic songs are barely attested in what little survives today from the ancient textual tradition of Sappho—except for the muted reference to kissing as a sign of loving in Song One of Sappho. An explicit kissing scene in the songs of Sappho would of course be our ideal example here of direct appropriation, but, in the absence of such an example, I will now have to look elsewhere. And I think that there is such an example. I have in mind Song 31 of Sappho, which we see being directly appropriated by Catullus in his Poem 51. I have already started analyzing this masterpiece of a poem at §§59–62 in Essay Three, but now I propose to go deeper. I will start with the Latin text, followed by a working translation, and then I will continue with the Greek text of the primary model for this poem, Song 31 of Sappho, followed again by a working translation.

Poem 51 of Catullus and Song 31 of Sappho

§71.1. Poem 51 of Catullus:

1          ille mi par esse deo videtur,
2          ille, si fas est, superare divos,
3–4      qui sedens adversus identidem te | spectat et  audit
5          dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
6          eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
7–8      Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi | …
9          lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
10        flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
11–12  tintinant aures, gemina teguntur | lumina nocte
13        otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
14        otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
15–16  otium et reges prius et beatas | perdidit urbes.

1          That man appears to me to be equal to a god,
2          That one—if it can be said this way—appears to be superior to the gods,
3–4      the one who, sitting opposite you, again and again is looking at you and listening to you
5          as you sweetly laugh. For poor me, all this
6          tears away my senses. For as soon as you,
7–8      Lesbia, have come into my view, there is nothing left for me to | …
9          but my tongue is numb. A delicate—right down through my limbs—
10        flame flows down, down. And with their own sound
11–12  my ears are ringing. My eyes are covered over | by a twin night.
13        Luxuriance [otium], Catullus, is distressing to you:
14        In luxuriance [otium] you exult and are elated to excess.
15–16  It is luxuriance [otium]that in times past caused the ruin of kings and wealthy cities.

§71.2. Song 31 of Sappho, [the first] sixteen lines:

|1 φαίνεταί μοι κῆνοc ἴϲοc θέοιϲιν |2 ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττιc ἐνάντιόc τοι |3 ἰϲδάνει καὶ πλάϲιον ἆδυ φωνεί-|4ϲαc ὐπακούει |5 καὶ γελαίϲαc ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν |6 καρδίαν ἐν ϲτήθεϲιν ἐπτόαιϲεν, |7 ὠc γὰρ ἔc ϲ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤc με φώναι-|8ϲ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει, |9 ἀλλὰ κὰμ μὲν γλῶϲϲα ἔαγε λέπτον |10 δ’ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν, |11 ὀππάτεϲϲι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-|12βειϲι δ’ ἄκουαι, |13 κάδ δέ μ’ ἴδρωc κακχέεται τρόμοc δὲ |14 παῖϲαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίαc |15 ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ’πιδεύηc |16 φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔται·

|1 He appears [phainetai] to me, that one, equal to the gods [īsos theoisin], |2 that man who, facing you |3 is seated and, up close, that sweet voice of yours |4 he listens to, |5 and how you laugh a laugh that brings desire. Why, it just |6 makes my heart flutter within my breast. |7 You see, the moment I look at you, right then, for me |8 to make any sound at all won’t work anymore. |9 My tongue has a breakdown and a delicate |10 —all of a sudden—fire rushes under my skin. |11 With my eyes I see not a thing, and there is a roar |12 my ears make. |13 Sweat pours down me and a trembling |14 seizes all of me; paler than grass|15 am I, and a little short of death |16 do I appear [phainomai] to myself. […]

Some appropriations in Poem 51 of Catullus from Song 31 of Sappho

§72. To begin, I review here the analysis §§59–62 in Essay Three. As we saw there, the Latin Poem 51 of Catullus appropriates the second-person ‘you’ of the Sapphic girl in the Greek Song 31 of Sappho, making this girl the love-object of the first-person ‘I’ of Catullus in the Latin poem. Meanwhile, as we also saw, the male persona of Catullus now replaces the first-person ‘I’ of the Sapphic woman in the Greek song. What remains a constant that is shared by the Latin poem with the Greek song is the second-person Sapphic girl, who is appropriated as Lesbia in the poem of Catullus.

§73. In Essay Three, we have seen that this Lesbia in other poems of Catullus is visualized as the puella or ‘girl’ from Lesbos. But we will see later, in Essay Five, that there are still other poems of Catullus where this Lesbia can also be seen as the mulier or ‘woman’ from Lesbos, and, as we will also see in Essay Five, the relationship between the man and the mulier will be different from the relationship between the man and the puella. Such a differentiation between girl and woman in the poetics of Catullus will be different from a potential girl-woman merger that is ongoing in the poetics of Sappho, whose very name can apply, as I argued at §§50–52 of Essay Two and at §§55–58 of Essay Three, either to the girl-phase or to the woman-phase of female sexuality.

§74. For now, however, I concentrate not on the second-person girl, whom Poem 51 and Song 31 have in common, nor even on the first-person man of Poem 51 and the first-person woman of Song 31, but rather on the third-person man who is foregrounded in Poem 51 as well as in Song 31. Who is ‘that man’?

Poem 50 of Catullus, correlated with his Poem 51

§75. In Song 31 of Sappho, as I have argued in Nagy 2013:5§§37–48, the third-person character or persona who is ‘that man’ can be seen as a generic bridegroom on the occasion of a generic wedding, and his attention is dominated by the second-person girl who is about to become a woman by getting married off to him. In Poem 51, by contrast, ‘that man’ is a literary rival of Catullus. He is a fellow poet who, like Catullus, is trying to appropriate the girl from Lesbos as the primary love-object of his own poetry. Here I agree—at least in part—with the interpretation of Elizabeth Marie Young (2015:176; also p.120 and p. 222n19), who builds on an earlier interpretation of David Wray (2003:97–98): in her view, ‘that man’ in Poem 51 is Gaius Licinius Macer Calvus, a friend of Catullus. In another poem, Poem 50 of Catullus, our poet actually pictures Calvus by name as a dear friend with whom Catullus is playing, literally playing, on a sympotic occasion. The two friends are shown in the act of playfully composing poetry together while drinking together, playfully trading verses back and forth with each other. These two friends, who are also poetic rivals, share otium or ‘luxuriance’ with each other, in that they share the luxury of having free time, leisure, to ‘play’, ludere, at the game of composing luxuriant poetry together: the two of them are otiosi, ‘luxuriant-in-leisure’, and this description evokes the ‘luxuriance’ of otium, which we saw in play when we were reading that other poem of Catullus, Poem 51. Such a ludic program of playful appropriation is signaled by the verb ludere ‘play’ at lines 2 and 5 of Catullus 50, while the programmatic luxuriance that is shared by the two friends who become rivals-in-poetry is signaled by the adjective otiosi at line 1, which I translate as ‘luxuriant-in-leisure’. I now quote the whole poem, followed by a working translation.

Catullus Poem 50

1    hesterno, Licini, die otiosi
2    multum lusimus in meis tabellis,
3    ut convenerat esse delicatos:
4    scribens versiculos uterque nostrum
5    ludebat numero modo hoc modo illoc,
6    reddens mutua per iocum atque vinum.
7    atque illinc abii tuo lepore
8    incensus, Licini, facetiisque,
9    ut nec me miserum cibus iuvaret
10  nec somnus tegeret quiete ocellos,
11  sed toto indomitus furore lecto
12  versarer, cupiens videre lucem,
13  ut tecum loquerer simulque ut essem.
14  At defessa labore membra postquam
15  semimortua lectulo iacebant,
16  hoc, iucunde, tibi poema feci,
17  ex quo perspiceres meum dolorem.
18  nunc audax cave sis, precesque nostras,
19  oramus, cave despuas, ocelle,
20  ne poenas Nemesis reposcat a te.
21  est vemens dea: laedere hanc caveto.

1    Yesterday, Licinius, while we were luxuriant-in-leisure [otiosi],
2    we played [ludere], a lot, on my writing-tablets,
3    as it had been agreed, for us to be luxuriant [delicati].
4    Each one of us, writing our dear little lines of poetry,
5    was playing [ludere] now with this meter, now with that one,
6    trading lines with each other in merriment [iocus] attended by wine.
7    And after I left from there, by your charm
8    all inflamed, Licinius, and by your displays of wit,
9    no food could please poor me any more
10  nor could sleep shut down my dear little eyes with peace and quiet,
11  but, losing control in my total frenzy, all over the bed
12  I was tossing and turning, longing to see the light of day,
13  so that I could talk with you and just be with you.
14  But once my tired limbs, after all that agonizing,
15  were finally lying still, half-dead, on my dear little bed,
16  I made it, O my delightful one, I made this poem for you,
17  from which you might figure out my pain [dolor].
18  But now don’t be too daring, and, when it comes to our prayers at my end,
19  we pray to you, don’t spit on them, dear little eye of mine that you are,
20  because, if you’re not careful, Nemesis might demand penalties from you.
21  She is an intense goddess, so don’t you hurt her feelings.

§76. We see here, I think, a primal moment for a Homo ludens, or, better, for two Homines ludentes. They are at play, in the act of appropriating Sappho in friendly competition. In light of the fact that Calvus was a prominent public figure in his time (as we see from the testimonia collected by Plessis 1896), it has been observed (most eloquently, by Segal 2007) that the use of the word otiosi in Poem 50 of Catullus, with reference to the involvement of Calvus with our poet and with our poet’s poetics of otium, is playfully ironic, since the luxury or luxuriance of having free time would take Calvus away from ‘business’, which is negotium, the negation of otium. I also find it ironic that Calvus had a special way of referring to his own style in making poetry. As we learn from the reportage of Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 9.12.10, Calvus in his poems developed an idiosyncratic use of the term laboriosus, ‘laborious’, which should be the opposite of ‘leisurely’ but which is instead an index of this rival poet’s own way of embracing the poetics of otium as Catullus calls it in his Poem 51. And such a poetics of otium, as I have argued in a separate project (Nagy 1990a 10§§18–19), derives ultimately from the poetics of (h)abrosunē ‘luxuriance’ in the songs of Sappho. Back in Essay Two §§43–45, I already analyzed the poetic implications of that Greek word in Sappho Π2 25–26 = Fragment 58.25–26.

§77. The closure for my Essay Four here is not really a closure. Rather, I simply stop for the moment by playfully asking an open-ended question that is relevant to the poetic appropriation of Sappho by Catullus. The question is this: was Calvus a rival of Catullus in the poetics of male appropriation? Or, to ask the question another way: was Calvus too trying to appropriate the girl from Lesbos as his very own Lesbia?


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