Aesthetic Realism Online Library Poetry


The Poem of Catullus about Attis
                       Translation by Eli Siegel     

The immediate purpose of this Translation of Catullus, Poem 63, is the giving it a clear, English free verse music.

     Another purpose is to make clear what is happening, in all its strangeness—so that we can know what we begin with, as we look for value and meaning. Catullus' Latin in this poem is compact, even said to be congested. I have intended, while not thinning or diluting the Latin, to give it, in English, space and poetic, relevant motion. There is a clench often in Latin which, while powerful in itself, needs to be completed by a motion deeply corresponding to the clench.

       The oneness of man and woman is adumbrated here with not easily measured power, contriving and unconscious. Since a problem of today is how man and woman can be more like each other, to the luminous advantage of both, the Catullan poem is a mighty, contemporary text.

     Implicit, as I see it, in the poem of Catullus is that if one sex is to become more like another sex, it should be to the honor of the sex changed from, not to its lessening. In other words, if a man wants to be more feminine—and this can be right—at that time, he should honor the deep meaning, the inclusive possibility of the masculine. The sexes simply have to honor each other.

     Further: if the masculine is feminine, too, maybe it shows we had underestimated the largeness and diversity of what is masculine. Also, if the feminine can be gracefully masculine, it may be that we had underestimated the meaning and possibility of the feminine.

     Therefore, this question: Are feminine and masculine, as opposites, deeply and beautifully one in this our world, the way other opposites are?

Taken in a swift bark, over deep waters,
Attis, when eagerly, with rapid foot,
He reached those Phrygian woods
And entered where the goddess was,
Shadowy, this: a forest—
It was there, impelled by madness, by rage,
His mind bewildered,
With sharp flint,
He made fall from him his weight of maleness.
Therefore, when she felt
That the structure of her body
Had manhood no longer—
Even while new blood wet the ground's surface—
With clear white hands
She seized the light timbrel,
The timbrel that is yours, Cybele,
Your mystery, as mother of things.
And making the empty oxhide tremble with her soft fingers,
She began to sing, afraid a little,
Thus to her companions:
"Ye Gallae, let us go, go to the mountain woods of Cybele together,
      together go,
As a wandering number of persons
Belonging to the Lady of Dindymus.
You wished to be exiles, wanted other houses soon.
You were ruled by me as I led, with you following.
You endured the swiftly flowing salt waters, the fierce seas,
And, through utter disgust with love, made yourselves something
      else than men—
Please now the heart of your goddess with your brisk moving about.
Dull slowness put out of your mind.
Go together, come to the house in Phrygia of Cybele;
To the forests in Phrygia of the goddess,
Where is heard the tumult of cymbals,
Where the sound of timbrels is followed by the sound of timbrels,
Where the flute-player, Phrygian, blows a deep instance of sound
      on his curved reed.
It is where the Maenads, ivy on their heads, toss these heads
Where yelling shrilly, they toss their heads with energy;
Where that wandering number of persons belonging to the goddess
      like to go, now here, now there;
And to which it is right for us to hasten with lively dance motions.

As soon as Attis,
Woman, yet not truly so,
Said this, in a chant, to her companions,
The lively crowd suddenly, with busy tongues, yell loud,
The light timbrel makes its ringing sound again,
The hollow cymbals clash again.
The rout, with hurrying foot, goes swiftly to green Ida.
Also, Attis, frenzied, breathing hard, unsure,
Their leader, accompanied by the timbrels, wanders
Through the dark forest—
Like a heifer, never tamed,
Running aside from the yoke meant to burden.
The Gallae rapidly follow their leader with his rapid feet,
Until they reach the house of Cybele,
Faint and weary,
After so much labor.
They rest, and they have had no bread.
Sleep, heavy, covers their eyes with weariness, drooping.
The delirious madness that was in their mind
Leaves, in the presence of soft slumber.
But when the sun
With the flashing eyes of his golden face,
Made the now clear heaven light,
The firm lands, too,
And the wild sea;
And drove away the shade night has,
With his renewed eager steeds, tramping,
It was then sleep left Attis, now wakened; sleep was gone.
It was the goddess Pasithea who received him into her tremulous
After soft slumber then, and the being freed from strong madness,
As soon as Attis himself in his heart looked at what he had done,
And saw with clear mind what he had lost,
And where he was,
With mind much in motion,
He ran back to the waves.
There, tears running down from his eyes,
She looked upon the empty seas,
And thus piteously spoke to her country,
In a voice having tears.

"O my country, that gave me life!
O my country that gave me birth—
Whom I leave, being a wretch,
As servants who run away leave their masters.
I have taken my foot to the forests of Ida,
There to live with snows and the frozen hiding places of beasts,
And to visit, in my frenzy, all their hidden living places.
Where then, in what part of the world, do I justly see you to be,
      O my own land?
These eyeballs of mine, unbidden, long to gaze at you, while, for a
      time, my mind is without uncontrol and wildness.
Shall I, taken from my own home, be carried far away into these
      forests?—shall I be away from my country, what I possess,
      my friends, parents?
Shall I be absent from the market, the place for wrestling, the
      racecourse, playground?
Heart, sad heart, again, again, you must tell your sadness.
For what way was there a human could be which I could not be?
For me now to be a woman—I who was a lad, then a youth, a boy,
      the flower of the playground!
I was once the glory of the palaestra;
I knew crowded doorways;
Thresholds were warm for me;
There were flowery garlands for me to adorn my house with when,
      at sunrise, I left my sleeping place.
What shall I now be called?
A maidservant of the gods,
An attendant of Cybele?
Is it for me to be a Maenad, part of myself, a man in barrenness?
I, shall I live in icy, snowy regions of verdant Ida,
Pass my life beneath Phrygian high peaks,
In the company of the hind whose home is the woods,
Along with the boar who goes up and down the forest?
Now, now what I did makes me sorrowful,
Now, now, I wish that it hadn't occurred."

As these words came from lips in rosy redness,
Saying something new to both ears of the gods,
Cybele, loosening the tight yoke of her lions,
And urging on that foe of a crowd of living beings, a foe eager to
      the left,
Spoke in this way:
"Come now," says she, "come, go fiercely, let madness hunt him
      from here, make him, by the coming upon him of madness,
      take himself to the forest again—he who would be too free
      and get away from my rule.
Come, lash in back with your tail, endure your whipping yourselves,
      let all about sound with your high, thick roar, shake your
      bright mane fiercely on your thick neck."
So speaks Cybele in anger, and, with her hand, makes the yoke easy.
The monster enlivens his courage,
Rouses himself to a fury in himself.
He speeds away, he roars.
With foot swiftly covering the ground, he breaks brushwood.
But when he came to where the water stretched from the shore
      gleaming in whiteness,
And saw gentle Attis by the flat spaces of the sea,
He rushed at him.
Attis runs with mad energy into the woods.
He was a handmaid in these woods all his life.
Goddess, Cybele, great goddess, lady of Dindymus, let all thy fury
      be far from where I am, O my queen.
Let it be others you drive into frenzy, others you drive into


The Poem of Catullus about Attis. 1966. The Attis poem of Catullus, while being one of the important documents on warring forces within man, says something of poetry itself. Catullus, like some other Romans, could be delicate, tender, poignant in elegiacs; but there is a satirical directness in him, a personal way of attack, an unrestrained dismissal of the objectionable which have been associated with masculine restlessness and pugnacity. Catullus, when he fails, can be slashing without being poetic. When he is felicitously Catullan, as largely in this poem, the might of Rome quivers along with a dewy leaf in Northern Italy of a brisk, late summer morning. Catullus is sturdy as he trembles with subtle knowledge. Masculine and feminine are one in poetry in a more successful manner than they are in persons above sixteen. Poetry musically follows reality in its manifestations as aqueduct and ripple. When the masculine-feminine question, now so pervasive, insistent, is seen as beginning in fine and ponderous existence, in delicate and weighty substance, in trembling object—the study of man and woman will truly begin. When poetry, including the lyrics of Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, Horace, is regarded as a valuable, indivisible junction of masculine and feminine, poetry instead of being seen as something arising from sex—as may happen—will be seen, as sex is, to be the attempt of man to make sense, harmonious, delightful, important sense, of the opposing things reality always has as constituents. Greek and Roman mythology sees sex as instancing the reality of water, mountain, plain, cloud, wind, light. The present poem of Catullus can be used to find poetry the oneness of masculine impetus and feminine quiet possibility. Catullus can be used to see sex as aesthetic composition and definition. Some other ways of seeing sex haven't done so well.

From Hail, American Development (Definition Press)
© 1968 by Eli Siegel

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