Miserable Catullus

Who'll give it to you now?

Who’ll give it to you now?

Miserable Catullus, stop being foolish

And admit it’s over,

The sun shone on you those days

When your girl had you

When you gave it to her like

nobody else ever will.

Everywhere together then, always at it

And you liked it and she can’t say

she didn’t

Yes, those days glowed.

Now she doesn’t want it: why

why should you, washed out

Want to. Don’t trail her,

Don’t eat yourself up alive,

Show some spunk, stand up

and take it.

So long, girl. Catalllus

can take it.

He won’t bother you , he won’t

be bothered:

But you’ll be, nights.

What do you want to live for?

Whom will you see?

Who’ll say your pretty?

Who’ll give it to you now?

Whose name will you have?

Kiss what guy? bite whose


Come on Catullus, you can

take it.

From ‘Louis Zukofsky selected poems’, ed. Charles Bernstein, The Library of America

Well, yes,kind of Catullus – this is the Zukofsky versian of the Roman poet’s ambivalent plea to himself for fortitude. Zukofsky, the leading light of the ‘Objectivist’ movement, sometime acolyte of Ezra Pound and life-long correspondent with the Northumbrian Poet Basil Bunting, shared with those poets an interest in translation. With bold translation, one might say; Zukofsky dispenses with the scazons of Catullus’ Latin poem – scazons being ‘an iambis trimeter ending with a spondee (or trochee)’, as Guy Lee helpfully explains in the Oxford Classics’ Catullus; anyway, he dispenses with them in favour of short, irregular lines in demotic American English. The modern reader (that’s us) has to make a wee imaginative leap to realize how demotic this would have sounded back in the thirties when it was written –  using words like ‘spunk’ and ‘guys’ in poetry, or addressing one’s beloved as ‘girl’ (that still sounds demotic), not to mention referring to the sexual act as ‘it’. Of course, by the sixties, American poets are happily sexualising pronouns , Rexroth’s lament in Married Blues, ‘the grocer’s got a big one’, being a good example, but before the war poets didn’t say things like that. Many wouldn’t now.

It is a successful experimental translation; experimental in that it translates Catullus into fresh language and successful in that it does so well and is memorable in its own right. One could complain, however, that it is only a partially faithful translation – it translates the sentiments, but not the richness of the language (and therefore, arguably, debases the sentiments). But Zukofsky more than makes up with this with a later translation of the same poem, a ‘homophonic translation’ that is, according to Bernstein,  ‘translation with special emphasis on the sound rather than the lexical meaning’ – though I think (and, since I don’t read Latin, I’m largely guessing) Zukofsky does justice to both, using scazons as well, just to make the purists swoon. Here are the first five lines of the English, followed by the same in the Latin original:


Miss her, Catullus? don’t be so inept to rail

at what you see perish when perished is the case.

Full, sure once, candid the sunny days glowed, solace,

when you went about it as your girl would have it,

you loved her as no one else shall ever be loved.


Miser Catulle, dēsinās ineptīre,

et quod vidēs perīsse perditum dūcās.

Fulsēre quondam candidī tibī sōlēs,

cum ventitābās quō puella ducēbat

amāta nōbīs quantum amābitur nūlla.


Now try reading both aloud, line by line, to see how similar they sound. No longer must you rue missing out on a classical education!

 This post was first published 2012. I’ve been having a busy week – but will return with original posts in due course…



Filed under History, humour, Poetry, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Miserable Catullus

  1. Another poem I don’t know; and another commentary that illuminates ithe hinterland of the poem. Thank you.

  2. Excuse me please. Here’s a comment for you to read and delete: if you proof read, you’ll find at least a couple of superfluous apostrophes (penultimate line of your first para; line 3 of your second para); my guess is that the automatic spell-checker can’t tell its it’s from its its! 🙂 All the best, John.

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