In order to create a coherent comparison between Sappho’s Fragment 7 and Gaius Valerius Catullus’ Poem 51, we must first take a closer look to the relationship between the poets themselves. Sappho, renowned mostly by the way she positions female experiences as the core theme of her invigorating poetry, is considered to be one of the most influential poets of Greek culture. Her impact on the next generation of poets would be so grand, in fact, that she would come to be known as “the tenth Muse.” Similar to Sappho’s effect on Greek literature, the Roman poet Catullus’ name will be one of the first to spring into our minds when we talk about the quintessential Roman poet. One might argue that this is in no small part due to the fact that Catullus positions himself almost as an apprentice to Sappho. This master-apprentice relationship is most clear in the way that Catullus dedicates his poetry to a women called Lesbia, surely named as an homage to his master.
It is important to note at this point, that the relationship between Sappho and Catullus manage to transcend a personal level and come to signify the relationship between the great Greek and Roman traditions. Here Catullus engages in an act similar to Aeneas carrying some relics of Greek culture on his way to establish Rome; he, also, is carrying the weight of a culture in his work. Catullus does not turn his back on the Greek roots, but rather embraces them by creating poetry that is inseparable from Sappho’s influence. As we will soon see, however, Catullus’ poems carry within themselves a commentary, or criticism, about the respective cultures as well. A close reading of Fragment 7 and Poem 51 will unravel the complex way Catullus interacts with Sappho and what that means for both cultures.
The first three stanzas of Catullus’ poem give the reader the impression that this poem is not merely inspired by the writings of Sappho, but that it is a direct adaptation or interpretation. When we first read the two poems, our initial reaction would possibly be to deem the poems as unbelievably similar (except for the last stanza of Poem 51). While it is certainly true that the most striking difference is Catullus’ addition to Sappho’s original work, the poems are not as similar as they appear to be at first glance. The difference among the seemingly similar stanzas is most evident when the construction of language is more clearly examined.
If we were to dryly summarize the first stanzas we could say that (semantically) they are saying the same thing: both Catullus and Sappho are jealous of the person who gets to sit next to their loved one. Sappho, however, uses the senses to create an atmosphere of immediacy; the sweetness of the voice and the murmur it creates are described. Reading Sappho’s version, one has a much clearer understanding of the feeling that is trying to be expressed. The details are given in such a way that we have no trouble relating to the feeling of the situation. Reading Catullus’ version however, we are much more aware of what the situation is. We are able to say “this is what is happening,” but unable to connect to it on a deeper level, as he refrains from giving sensual details of the emotions that are being provoked.
This distinction will be present throughout the rest of the poems, Sappho’s writing will always spark a more real, concrete feeling in the reader, whereas Catullus’ words will remain more descriptive. This is not to say, however, that Catullus refrains completely from trying to build a sense of immediacy. In fact, if one were to read his poem without knowing the connection to Sappho, one could even conclude that Catullus’ poem was also as emotionally vibrant. It is only when the two are compared, we are able to realize that Catullus’ writing feels more calculating than spontaneous.
This difference is further evident in the second stanzas of both poems. Sappho describes the feeling of being heart-broken in the most vivid sense; the heart is shaken, the voice dies, it is no longer possible to speak: “Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies / I can say nothing.” Because of the way Sappho uses physical experiences to evoke emotion, we are able to recognize this moment as almost too familiar; our heart skips a beat in anxiety, our mouth dries and the carefully constructed thoughts fall into pieces. Catullus, on the other hand, merely states that all of his “well-chosen words are forgotten.” Here again we can see that while Sappho is relaying the physical and emotional state to the reader, Catullus remains more distant and descriptive.
Among the first two stanzas of both poems, what was most apparent was the difference between the ways Sappho and Catullus chose to express their circumstances; Sappho being more emotionally rich while Catullus being more anecdotal. This being said, I believe that Catullus moves a bit closer to Sappho in his third stanza as he vividly describes the experience of being completely overwhelmed by the sight of the person he loves,
“…my ears deafened
by their own ringing & at once my eyes are / covered in darkness!”
However, it would not be wrong to assume that this is a theme that perhaps is more at home in Sappho’s tradition, as her poetry draws inspiration from the senses of the body and relies mostly on the vivid re-telling of dramatic moments (by calling memory through the experiences). In Catullus’ tradition, however, the event itself that is being experienced is more important than the way it is recounted.
Sappho’s fragment will slowly come to an end after this point, as she will say, “I can feel that I have been changed / I feel that death has come near me.” Sappho constructs a journey, invites the reader to join in and she concludes the story with the most striking sentences, after which the reader is truly able to empathize with the situation, because Sappho has invoked a genuine sense of reality. Catullus, following along in a parallel lane to Sappho, has more or less managed to tell the exact same story, albeit with a few differences that lack a sense of intimacy Sappho has. However, everything will be more interesting from now on, because Catullus adds a last stanza that was not in Sappho’s original fragment;
“Leisure, Catullus. More than just a nuisance: / leisure: you riot, overmuch enthusing.
Fabulous cities & their sometime kings have / died of such leisure.”
Up until this point, the fact that Catullus used a more calculating language to construct the poem might have seen like an unconscious choice. When we read the last stanza of Catullus, however, we come to realize that there might be another factor at play here. One almost gets the sense that it is a warning: be careful, too much leisure time which leads to over-excitement has been the end of many great men! Why would a poet, while talking about the way love completely encapsulates the body, feel the need to write these words? Well, the first answer that comes to mind is that the poem is not really about the way love makes humans feel, but the way it might lead to destruction.
This insertion seems out of place here, but it is better understood when one looks at the way Roman society functioned. Centered around fifteen personal virtues, which included ones such as; gravitas (a sense of responsibility), pietas (dutifulness) and severitas (self-control), there was almost a checklist-like quality to the characteristics that made an “exemplary Roman.” Therefore, the instances in which these virtues were neglected seemed to signify a possible decay in the fabric of the empire. Therefore, for Catullus, the warning against the dangers of “too much leisure time” is not really out of place at all.
Another interesting aspect of this warning is that it is more about the nature of leisure than about love. It does not say, for instance, that love will take such a strong hold of you that neither your body nor your soul will be able to escape (this, I believe, is what Sappho is trying to convey). On the contrary, it places love in the general scope of activities that might one enjoy in their free time. What is dangerous is not love itself; but the senseless occupations which result from leisure, including love, that have the ability to overthrow kings. Therefore in Catullus’ world (or at least in Poem 51), love cannot be an all-encompassing, gut-wrenching, passionate and inevitable feeling; it is merely a result of too much leisure time. Nowhere is the difference between Fragment 7 and Poem 51 is more palpable than in this juxtaposition between Sappho’s and Catullus’ ideas about the nature of love.
We had already mentioned that the relationship between Sappho and Catullus transcend a personal level and come to symbolize the way Roman and Greek cultures interacted, or more specifically, the way Catullus positioned Roman culture in respect to the Greek tradition. The first point of comparison was a somewhat positive one, as Catullus saw Sappho almost as a master. I am not sure whether the addition of the last stanza is as positive; it is not by coincidence that Catullus adds these lines while adapting a poem from Sappho, this is his commentary about the culture of his predecessors and the culture he lives in now. While the former seems to be naively preoccupied with the notion of love, the latter must have more self-control and governance! His choice of language, which might have been baffling to the reader in comparison to Sappho, is therefore also better understood. Of course he was not going to choose provocative words and vivid descriptions love as Sappho did, because he (clearly) believed that love was just a side-effect of leisure time. In conclusion, the comparison between Sappho’s Fragment 7 and Catullus’ Poem 51 starts out by drawing our attention to the greater traditions, and by a dissection of language and content, allows us to further realize the complicated dynamic between the two cultures.
Both in Sappho’s and Catullus’ poetry the persona is somewhat ambiguous as both poets choose to situate themselves in the middle of most of their work. For the purposes of this paper, I have chosen to refer to the persona as Sappho and Catullus themselves, as there is no clear distinction that reveals a different one.
Written for my “Development of Poetry I” class in 2016.12.15
Photograph by: Peter Sjo