»  Catullus's Elegy "Multas per Gentes"


Catullus's Elegy "Multas per Gentes"

by Catullus, 84(?)–54(?) b.c.


•  Background

I have quoted elsewhere the remarks of William Young Sellar placing Catullus in the great age of Latin verse. Of the poet himself, Sellar has this to say in that same article:

No ancient author has left a more vivid impression of himself on his writings than Catullus. Coming to Rome in early youth from a distant province, not at that time included within the limits of Italy, he lived as an equal with the men of his time of most intellectual activity and refinement, as well as of highest social and political eminence … Catullus brought into this circle the genius of a great poet, the social vivacity of a vigorous nature, the simplicity and sincerity of an unambitious, and the warmth of an affectionate disposition.

The poems of Catullus consist of 116 pieces, varying in length from 2 to 408 lines, the great mass of them being, however, short pieces … [I]nternal evidence enables us to determine the occasions on which many of the poems were written … They give a very vivid image of the various phases of the poet's life, and of the strong feelings with which persons and things affected him. They throw much light also on the social life of Rome and of the provincial towns of Italy in the years preceding the outbreak of the second civil war …

The poems extend over a period of seven or eight years, from 61 or 62 till 54 b.c.

While traveling in Bithynia (present-day northwest Turkey) in 56 b.c. (i.e. his late twenties), Catullus paid respects at the tomb of his brother, who had died there two or three years earlier while Catullus was in Verona. This poem was written then, or shortly thereafter. It contains Catullus's best-known phrase: ave atque vale — "hail and-moreover farewell." The poem has its own Wikipedia page.

The reading here is from the Association for Latin Teaching website. The readers are just listed as "ARLT members" (it was originally the Association for the Reform of Latin Teaching), without individual names, so I don't know who's reading it.

Multas per Gentes has been a famous challenge for translators. It turned up in this context in the October 14, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books, in a review by Dan Chiasson of Anne Carson's Nox. That review prompted the following response in the NYRB's letters columns from my friend James Guest in Australia:

To the Editors:

I am surprised that Dan Chiasson ["The Unfolding Elegy," NYR, October 14] describes Catullus' ode on the death of his brother as "untranslatable." Does he know this one, from the New Statesman of about 1974 made by Donald Hope when his brother was killed in a plane crash?
I've come through many countries and across many seas,
my brother, to do these sad obsequies,
to bring you posthumous presents and hopeless wishes
and make a useless speech to your dumb ashes;
My poor brother, since fate has callously
taken you, and cheated me of your company
here are these merely conventional things,
traditional sad funeral offerings:
take them — all wet with your brother's tears — and my
last greeting and everlasting goodbye.
James Guest
Jolimont, Victoria Australia

Dan Chiasson graciously replied:

I was characterizing Carson's fruitful defeatism when I used the word "untranslatable," not presenting my own view. But I was happy to read this beautiful and admirable version of the poem, nonetheless.

In a separate communication, James explains:

The reason I came across the poem originally, apart from studying Latin at school, was that a lawyer friend who was engaged in doctoral studies at Oxford while I carried on our real estate partnership, gave me a subscription, consistent perhaps with his later being appointed Solicitor-General of Australia by a Labor government. [New Statesman is a left-wing magazine. — J.D.] I thought it so good that I made a copy and my daughter read it at my eldest son's memorial service nine years later.

Later, when I reviewed this page with him, James added the following post-postscript:

Donald Hope, from whom I would like to get his slight "revisions — improvements, as I hope" and also a publisher for his complete set of translations, made the following observation.
"There has been in existence for 40 years now a mostly excellent and often brilliant English translation of Catullus' whole extant oeuvre, by James Michie: The Poems of Catullus, translated by James Michie, with introduction and notes by Robert Rowland; first published by Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1969; reisssued in paperback by Panther Books, London 1972. This work rightly (though by English publishers so rarely) sets out the original Latin text on the opposite page to its translation; and should surely be recommended to all anglophone readers."
A copy of Michie's translations will be in my hands in early April thanks to Amazon.

Thank you, James. I have presented the poem below with an utterly literal word-for-word translation.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus Many through nations and many across seas carrying
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias, I-come-to these unhappy, brother, to-funeral-rites
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis in-order-that to-you final gifts to-present to-the-dead
et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem. and dumb in-vain speak-to ashes
Quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum. Since Fortune from-me to-you-[emphasis] has-taken-away same-one
Heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi, Alas poor undeservedly brother has-been-snatched from-me
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum now none-the-less meanwhile this, ancient which in-the-manner of-the-ancestors
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias, handed-down they-are sad to-present to-funeral-rites
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu, receive by-brotherly much flowing weeping
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale. and-moreover in uninterruptedness, brother, hail and-moreover farewell