How Old Makes New: A Catullan Collection by Clive James

Compendium Catullianum

My girlfriend’s sparrow is dead. It is an ex-sparrow.
Where it once hopped about between her knees,
Today it limps along the same dark road
I’ve come to know too well since she denied me
The pathway to her lap. Cruel Lesbia,
You asked for this, your sparrow with its feet
Turned upward as yours were when in the throes
Of love. If I say ‘Screw it, it’s just a sparrow’
I court your wrath, or, worse , your cold rejection;
But I can live with that though you weep floods,
Since I have friends who steer well clear of war.
Give me charm over courage every time:
The ease of bantering chaps, a faithful love
From women or even for them, so long as they
Don’t pester me like you and your dumb sparrow.
Remember when I asked for a thousand kisses?
Let’s make it ten. Why not just kiss me once?
For I, tear-drenched as when my brother died,
Miss you the way you miss that stupid bird:
Excruciating. Let’s live and let’s love.
Our brief light spent, night is an endless sleep.

by Clive James, Sentenced to Life © Macmillan Publishers

The above comes from potentially the author’s final publication. Clive James wrote Sentenced to Life (2011-2014) in the aftermath of his diagnosis of leukemia, presumably when he found time to be a poet instead of a critic, broadcaster, translator and memoirist (he’s been described as “a brilliant bunch of guys”). The collection is a typically eclectic array of musings on James’s approaching demise—the mood in each one dependent on whether his levity is downbeat or not. Thus a dichotomy arises between a gratitude for life and a fearful regard for death in Sentenced to Life which the writer encapsulates in the finest poem of the lot: “Compendium Catullianum”.

While the words of the title can be read as pure Latin, the word “Compendium” isn’t meant to be. With “Compendium” read as English and “Catullianum” read as Latin, the title means “A Catullan Collection”. This reference to the Roman poet Catullus hearkens back to James’s early days at Cambridge where he relentlessly devoured the great writers. As well as a joining of English and Latin, of new and old; James writing some 50 years later joins his youth to his eroded and aged state.

The poem’s structure is perhaps more of a mixture of Catullus work than it is a collection as James combines some of Catullus’s most famous poems into a story of his own

leo_caillard_hipster_in_stone-8

For centuries the ancient writers had no equals throughout Europe; indeed today there are still many who think the same. Their work was thought of as pre-eminently powerful in its expressions of love and grief. Catullus, however, was never at the heart of the canon as his reputation could only be what social mores permitted – take the scandalous and jarring Carmen XVI, for instance. The poem’s structure is perhaps more of a mixture of Catullus work than it is a collection as James combines some Catullus’s most famous poems into a story of his own (Anyone who has read Cultural Amnesia, his diverse selection of forgotten writers, will know James is a fan of the undeservedly peripheral). Of these there are four: Carmen II, addressing the sparrow of Catullus’s girlfriend Lesbia; Carmen III, a eulogy for (assumingly) the same sparrow; Carmen V, a love poem for Lesbia; and Carmen CI, an elegy for a brother.

It is important to note that a love poem to the Romans was a love poem and an elegy was an elegy. Forms were rigorously followed and levity (familiar to our own literature) would likely have been an unhappy halfway house for a Roman elegist. This is precisely how James bends these forms by adapting Catullus’s material. This is the original Carmen III:

 

Mourn, O Venuses and Cupids
And how much there are of charming beings*
The sparrow of my girlfriend has died
The sparrow, delight of my girl
Whom she loved more than her eyes.

*This refers only to human beings

 

This James chooses to condense to: “My girlfriend’s sparrow is dead. It is an ex-sparrow”, a cheerful bluntness which manages to bring Monty Python of all things into an excellently versed writer’s homage. The speaker’s character is also substantially padded out and reinvented – presented as a sexually frustrated boyfriend. Instead of eloquently loving Lesbia or mourning her sparrow, he makes various complaints about Lesbia’s reticence. The funniest of these complaints is a reference to Catullus’s speaker in Carmen V:

 

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred
Then another thousand, then a second hundred
Then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.

 

Image 2

Whereas James’s speaker asks: “Remember when I asked for a thousand kisses? Let’s make it ten”. Deconstruction it may be, but rarely shall you find it done with more talent and regard for the flow of blank verse, which the many other skillful enjambments in the poem attest to.

As well as rejigging (some would say lifting) Catullus’s lines, James incorporates the weighty themes present in Catullus’s work – themes of grief and loss. The Romans took their grief incredibly seriously; stoicism in that time was a school of thought and a way of life instead of, nowadays, “taking it on the chin”. James alludes to a poem demonstrative of the emphasis Roman culture placed upon death and lamentation.

 

I arrive brother for these wretched funeral rites
So that I might present you with the last tribute of death
And speak in vain to silent ashes …

 

Although it is fleetingly and fickly alluded to it is a piece which deeply resonates with James (who is able to recite it fully in Latin). When his speaker says he is “tear-drenched as when my brother died” on account of Lesbia, one could read it as hyperbole from the exasperated speaker – a cheeky method to concile the irreconcilable themes he is dealing with. Or, as I prefer to, one could read it as reminder that under the colourful surface of the poem the writer is also “tear-drenched”, laughing while crying. His imminent death from leukemia is a context that for much of his poems James finds himself unable to escape, describing it elsewhere in Sentenced to Life as unwillingly gauging “the force of the oncoming wave”. A parallel could be made with Roman poetry, always concerned with the irreducible and eternal, and the writer could be said to have snatched a victory in reducing some of that monolithic grief to the fairly ordinary. Gathering from his upbeat tone, it is unlikely that the classics-loving James meant it to be subversive, but merely as an anodyne to himself. Indeed by the end of the poem we’ve been deliberately moved to a brighter place:

 

For I, tear-drenched as when my brother died,
Miss you the way you miss that stupid bird:
Excruciating. Let’s live and let’s love.
Our brief light spent, night is an endless sleep.

 

Image 3

This may be a reference Andrew Marvell – “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run” – but I’m content to leave the investigation inconclusive as it stands to ruin the consistency of my classically themed article. Such a parallel with Marvell’s “His Coy Mistress”, can still, however, illumine us. By both poems’ ends the speaker’s message is dramatically rejuvenated; we actually gain pace in those final two lines. In James’s case, it is accomplished by the soaring monosyllabism of “Let’s live and let’s love” being made subsequent to the finality of the polysyllabic “Excruciating”. Like this word is not allowed to remain final so James doesn’t allow the creative hustle around Catullus’s work to remain final, and the work itself to fall into silence. The multiplicity of the old allows the writer to interpret and express himself – to create new.

 

The multiplicity of the old allows the writer to interpret and express himself – to create new.

Personally I’d say things are made new in another sense too: James is never more youthful and twinkling when speaking through the literature he loves. If art for William Yeats was “no country for old men”, then James has proven it wrong at the age of 75. With an irreverence that’s a sure sign of deep respect, he’s had tons of fun ransacking the Catullus canon, and drawing on his extensive learning. This makes for a cracking poem that warms with its wit; it probably also succeeds in making any classics people reading feel very clever.

*Stan. Braminski is not a classics person and extends his thanks to Dr. Paula Turner, without whom this article would not be possible.

Image 1
Unknown Magazine would like to give special thanks to photographer Léo Caillard for agreeing to feature his project, Hipster In Stone with this article. More of his works could be found here.
Advertisements