Songs for Lupercalia
They say that depression increases around the holidays. Understandable, especially when it comes to that damn-dest day of insecurity, self-loathing and loneliness, Valentine's.
That's why this year, we're not going to assail you with the usual load of gloating love poetry that only makes one feel worse about his/her less than desirable love life. Instead, we're collecting odes to those wild, schizoid feelings that “real love” is all about, poems more in the spirit of the original Valentine’s Day, Lupercalia.
Like most Christian holidays, Valentine's Day is essentially a watered down, re-worked version of an older, way more ballin' Roman one. In this case, February 14th used to host an ancient Roman fertility festival that probably had something to do with an Italic Wolf God. The Romans, who understood that love was more than just spring, chocolates and roses, celebrated its wide range of emotions in a more fitting manner: for Lupercalia (February 13th-15th) young Roman men would run around the old city walls, naked and probably drunk, whipping the women they passed with leather thongs. Women would line up along the procession and throw themselves before the men, believing that being struck by the leather thongs would increase their fertility and help them deliver children. We imagine that no small amount of debauchery occurred when the festival ended.
(Some bros taking a booze break before rejoining the Lupercalian festivities)
So now, Poetry Genius is reviving the holiday where singles can have just as much fun as couples, because when it really comes down to it, nothing says “I love you” like drunken streaking and leather whips.
To celebrate this Roman festival, we’re presenting a manic mix of love and anti-love poems by one of the Latin world's greatest poets, Catullus. As mentioned in an earlier blog post, Catullus can safely be described as the Conor Oberst of antiquity. Much of his poetry deals with falling in and out of love with his girlfriend, Lesbia (who, might I add, was married) and all the insane feelings she inspired in him. Hopefully, you’ll find his love story much more familiar than that sappy, Hallmark bullshit usually lauded on this day.
Like most relationships, Catullus’ started off pretty wonderful. In fact, he wrote one of the West’s most beautiful “live for the moment!” love poems in these glory days - a less stuffy, more succinct and badass version of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress:
Let us live, my Lesbia, let us love
And count all the whisperings of dour old men
Suns may set and rise, yet
Once our brief light falls
All is night-
So give me a thousand kisses
And a hundred more, then
Another thousand, a second hundred
And a thousand more and another hundred, and
When we’ve made myriads more
We’ll scatter them about-
Forget the count -
So no bitter fool may look askance,
Knowing, my darling,
How many kisses we’ve shared.
But like all good things, Catullus’ relationship goes south fast. Pretty soon he’s doubting his girlfriend’s fidelity and saying things that might be considered misogynistic:
My woman says she’d rather marry me than
Anyone, even if Jove himself should ask.
So she says, but
What a women says to a longing lover
Should be written on wind and running water.
Next thing you know, Catullus is not just doubting her words, but lamenting her lack of fidelity all together. In Poem 11 he tells his friends that if they’re prepared to follow him to the ends of the earth and bear whatever fortune brings, they should:
Give these few, not so good-tidings to my girl:
May she live and flourish with her man-whores -
All three hundred - whom she fucks
At once -
Loving none, but repeatedly breaking
The groins of all;
Nor let her wait for my love as before,
Now fallen by her faults,
Like a flower at a field's edge,
By the passing plow.
But you, gentle reader, know as well as I do that infidelity or just being treated like shit, is often not enough to totally kill that loving feeling. At another time, confused Catullus writes:
Lesbia, you’ve brought my mind to this state,
Further wrecked by its desperate devotion-
That it could not wish you well,
should you change for the best
Nor cease to love you,
in spite of everything.
At one point, Catullus makes an admirable attempt to leave off loving, memorialized in one of the greatest break up poems ever written. Many classicists have spent not a few nights after bad break ups, drinking heavily, re-reading this poem and crying “Only Catullus understands me!”
Pathetic Catullus, stop this fatuity
And what you see lost thus regard.
Bright suns once shone upon you
When you went where she was leading,
Loved by us as none will be loved;
And days were full of pleasantries
That you wanted and she did not deny.
Truly bright suns once shone upon you!
But now she denies; and you, attempt to do the same:
Neither chase what flees, nor live in misery,
But with a hardened mind, be strong, endure.
Goodbye darling, now Catullus endures.
He will neither seek nor ask of you unwelcome.
But you will suffer, when no one asks about you.
Oh, Bitch, what life do you have left?
Who will come to you? Who will find you beautiful?
Whom will you love? Whose girl will you be called?
Whom will you kiss? On whose lips will you nibble…
But you, Catullus, resolved –
Was Catullus able to endure? No one knows for sure, but his most famous poem makes me like to think that even one of the world’s greatest love poets was no match for the power of Eros. We’ll leave you with a poem that pretty much sums up all relationships worth having in two lines:
I hate and I love. Why? You may ask but
It beats me. I feel it done to me and I ache.
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