A Haunting, Of Sorts: Catullus 101

Dante, Virgil, and Charon Crossing the River Styx, Gustave Dore
multās per gentēs et multa per aequora vectus
adveniō hās miserās, frāter, ad īnferiās,
ut tē postrēmō dōnārem mūnere mortis
et mūtam nequīquam alloquerer cinerem
quandōquidem fortūna mihi tētē abstulit ipsum.

heu miser indignē frāter adempte mihi
nunc tamen intereā haec, prīscō quae mōre parentum
trādita sunt tristī mūnere ad īnferiās,
accipe frāternō multum mānantia flētū.

atque in perpetuum, frāter, avē atque valē.
Borne through peoples many and seas I come
to these unhappy rites—
to give you the last duties of death
and to speak silence to pointless ash,
since chance has torn you from me wholly.

Oh God, tear from me now
all the meanwhile things, which of old we gave
with grieving to the dead:
take them from me, & my tears as well.

Even in eternity, you are.

I often begin these essays— small tradition though they are— with a meditation on where I first came across the Latin in question. I suppose I think, on some level, that by tracing my relationship with the text I can come to a conclusion about what it means (to me & more broadly) based on how I have thought about it in the past. Like the context of an archeological find, the dust and earth whence it was first brought to the odd new life of the artifact, the landscape in which I discovered the text must be considered when determining its significance.

All of which is a prelude to say that when I first read Catullus 101— I don’t actually remember when I first read Catullus 101. I believe it was in Latin 3, transitioning from the modern Latin of the Cambridge coursebooks to actual ancient Latin in preparation for Vergil and Caesar next year. It would make sense: it’s not a grammatically difficult poem, it’s short, it’s fairly clear what Catullus is talking about. It’s good Latin for teaching.

This isn’t to say I was uninterested in Catullus; indeed, I loved him first of all my Latin loves. His vulgar brilliance and fierce humanity were as a nativity star to my young self, shining undimmed through two thousand years of staticky desert. But 101– I do remember my first impression of it, if not when that impression occurred, and it felt…stiff. Not just stiff, but formulaic, like I wasn’t reading a poem so much as a litany to recite on some prescribed occasion. I had come to expect from Catullus an intense relatability, a humor and humanness uncompromised by the two millennia separating him and me, and this poem had none of that.

Of course, in those days I was not nearly so familiar with death as I am now— or, rather, I was familiar but I did not want to be, found death an unwanted shadow and an unlovely bedmate. At the time I could ignore it, in the way that most of us ignore it. I had not yet been forced to reckon with its dogging of my steps, its quiet companionship in the small hours of my life, its gentle haunting of all my days.

Most people who know me, even in passing, know that my father is dead; many people who know me slightly better know that he died by suicide, a few weeks before Christmas. I am not reticent about this fact, though it’s often considered impolite or even disrespectful to discuss a suicide in direct terms. Indeed, sometimes even speaking of the unhappily dead at all feels like violating a silent dictum: tragedy is private, and to grieve a tragedy acceptably one must cordon off the dead from the living, lest their misery come back to haunt us.

But my father was my best friend, and I loved him more than anything. We were both afflicted with major depressive disorder, both genetically predisposed to addiction, both the children of alcoholic parents. He understood me as no one else ever has, and likely as no one else ever will; it often felt as though we were the same person living along two different timelines, as though he were raising as his daughter a younger version of himself. In Odes 1.3, a farewell to his dear Vergil as Vergil embarks on the sea voyage to Brundisium that will shortly prove his end, Horace refers to Vergil as animae dimidium meae, “half of my soul.” My father may be dust and ashes, but I can no more bury his memory than I can partition my heart.

Of course, such a decision has consequences. If you do not bury the dead, they may very well walk again. I speak of my father often, and think of him often, and so he remains an echo in my life, though not a ghost because ghost in English implies an agency that memories do not possess. A better term might be shadow— or the Latin umbra, for there are no ghosts in Latin. When we find the unquiet dead, we find them (in the Aeneid’s underworld, on the Pharsalia‘s battlefields, and everywhere else we might care to look) as umbrae, a word that means at its base “shadow” but is often translated as “shade” when referring to the dead. A person might cast an umbra, but the dead are nothing but shadows, hollow imitations without agency or will. In some sense the dead live on, yes— but there is no life in their new life, nothing beside a negative image of what they once were.

Interestingly enough for a poem about death, there are no umbrae in Catullus 101. Catullus does not pause to remember his brother’s life, or reflect on the means or manner of his death; the poem is instead about the rites themselves, and their impact on the poet. Miseras inferias, he calls them, and the brother too is miser, unhappy, wretched. Inferias is an interesting word: Lewis and Short define it as “sacrifices in honor of the dead,” but etymologically it seems likely that it comes from the prefix in (“into, in”) and the irregular verb fero, ferre, tuli, latus (“to bear, to bring.”) Inferias, then, might be literally (and inelegantly) translated as “pertaining to those things which have been borne in”: into where? Into the earth, into the tomb, into that undiscovered country / from whose bourn no traveller returns. From the dust we came, and into the dust we shall return.

Death is a foreign country. Within the Earth— the rotting corpse, Elysium, Dante’s hell— or beyond it, above it, afar. multās per gentēs et multa per aequora, through many nations and waters, Catullus has come— but he hasn’t come, has he? The Latin is vectus, a perfect passive participial form of veho, which means (like fero) to bear or to carry. In ancient literature, the realm of the dead is separated from the realm of the living by water, the most famous example being that of the River Styx in the Underworld. Charon the ferryman poles his raft back and forth, and very occasionally he might be tricked or persuaded to carry a living hero onto that farther shore.

But even in the realm of the dead, even brought over the waters by the Ferryman’s raft, the one you love is already gone. fortūna mihi tētē abstulit ipsum: Chance has taken you yourself away from me. The object of abstulit could have easily been implied, but instead Catullus chooses to emphasize it not once, but three times: tete ipsum, four long syllables in a row, like the low and mournful tolling of a funeral bell. I said earlier that there are no umbrae in this poem, but perhaps that’s not true, since what is a shade if not the fact of an absence? Abstulit mihi, you have been borne away (again with that word, to bring and to bury) from me. The Latin dative of separation isn’t as elegant as the Greek genitive of lack-desire, but it gets the point across all the same. Catullus’ brother is dust and ashes, borne away into the earth, but the facts of his existence still echo and shadow over the people he left behind. Grief, like love, requires an emptiness.

My family is Episcopalian, and my father’s funeral followed Rite I of the Book of Common Prayer, entitled in the table of contents “The Burial of the Dead.” I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation, but that title always makes me think of the first movement of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

 Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

This being, of course, a near translation of Dante’s Inferno— specifically the third canto, wherein the poet beholds the antechamber of Hell and the penance of the uncommitted, who chose neither good nor evil. These are, perhaps, the most unquiet of the Inferno’s myriad dead: they suffer in neither damnation nor salvation, fates unresolved, sins unpunished & virtues unrewarded. In such unquietness, corpses buried become corpses planted, and they bloom back into shadowed un-life if given half a chance.

I said earlier that I noticed a certain ritualism to Catullus 101. That’s still true, I think, four years and several burials later. Grief is many things, but perhaps above all it is difficult to express in words: I often feel it’s just too large. Describing what it feels like to lose the one you love is a task on the order of describing the ocean to someone who has never been to the seashore. The roar of the waves, the smell of the surf, the color of the breakers— and over all else the enormity of it, the vast expanse of salty oblivion stretching out to the horizon.

So we ritualize. We find language to express the inexpressible, conventions and shorthand but language nonetheless; we constrain our griefs and in so doing we find a kind of comfort, because we are not the first people to use this language, and so we are not the first people to suffer the indescribable. Catullus did not invent the concept of funeral rites. To draw again on the inimitable Anne Carson, this time from Antigonick:

“how is a Greek chorus like a lawyer
they’re both in the business of searching for a precedent
finding an analogy
locating a prior example
so as to be able to say
this terrible thing we’re witnessing now is
not unique you know it happened before
or something much like it
we’re not at a loss how to think about this
we’re not without guidance
there is a pattern
we can find an historically parallel case
and file it away under
now I could dig up those case histories
tell you about Danaos and Lykourgos and the sons of Phineus
people locked up in a room or a cave or their own dark mind
it wouldn’t help you
it doesn’t help me
it’s Friday afternoon
there goes Antigone to be buried alive”

It does help, though, or else why would we do it? We cannot live as the uncommitted; leave a burial unfinished and the corpse we buried last year will, sooner or later, begin to bloom. Grief, if unchecked, quickly becomes necromantic. Perhaps it is true that we can never be rid of our dead— that in their absence they live forever, the shadow of a body rotted to dust or burnt to ash— but there are things we can do to ensure that, if nothing else, the dead do not follow us when we turn back to cross the river home.


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