Italy – Re-reading Catullus At Sirmio

THE place which smiles at me beyond all others when I long to rest is a simple fisherman’s town on the Lago di Garda, Catullus’s Sirmio. Once when I was spending a night there, the summer before the war, mountains and lake, sky and air, olive-trees and ruins, and the friendly folk so appealed to my imagination that I cherished a dream of return and this year I caught my dream and for a week held it captive. It seemed almost impossible that I could really have arrived when I found myself sitting on the little balcony of my room in the Grand Hotel Regie Terme, almost in the tops of tall firs and palm-trees, with a glimpse down in the garden of rose-pink oleanders and out between tree-tops to the blue and smiling lake. “What did you do for a week at Sermione?” I hear some amazed tourist query, and then I can hardly answer the question as memory slips off into the vague golden leisure of those slowly gliding, beautiful days.

After the noise and rush of Milan and the hundreds of gay people promenading by the cafés, the peace of this tiny town seemed blessed. During my week, I heard no language spoken but Italian. The other guests at the hotel were Italians who were there to take the famous baths, and as my maid said when she wished to reassure me because my door would not lock, “All sick and polite people,” “tutti ammalati e gentili.” At first the inhabitants of the little town as I walked about, seemed to be all children and fishermen, but gradually a few hard-working mothers and maids emerged. The picturesqueness of it all ! Between the castle of the Scaligers at the southern end of Sermione and the Roman ruins at the northern point of the peninsula there were always scenes to stay my feet and open my cam-era: by the moat of the castle, four bronzed young fishermen piling a great brown seine in their lorry; in the castle courtyard, a group of women in black drawing water from the old well to fill great copper jars; on the dock, a woman carrying two water-pails at the ends of a wooden yoke over her neck; a family of children and baby-ducks scrambling indiscriminately over the door-steps of a house; a pretty cameriera in the door way of the Albergo Catullo ; an old crone driving three goats down the main street; fruit venders offering from large flat baskets yellow plums and red cher-ries; a glimpse through an open door-way into a kitchen with hearth and oven almost identical with those at Pompeii; suddenly, O horror! an automobile tooting through the town, fairly grazing both sides of the street, dashing out apparently for a glimpse at “the grotta of Catullus !”

It was out there at the end of the point under the olives above the lake, that I spent my most restful hours, but there were many other diversions. One morning, having persuaded the Custode of the Castle of the Scaligers to let me roam about by myself I crossed the drawbridge over the moat to a fascinating half day in the thirteenth century, walking on the ramparts, peering out of small windows as though looking for an enemy, glancing down from dizzying heights at the courtyard with the well, the moat, the two draw-bridges, and then at last at the top of the tower enjoying matchless views of the lake, framed in six Gothic doorways. This was too enchanting a tower to leave so I sat down and began mulling over the history of the Castello in a tiny Italian guida based on notes by the noble Count Girolamo Orti Manara, how in the year 1276 Mastino I della Scala sent to Sermione two companies of soldiers to chase out the heretic Patarini who were harrying this district, and for their success the della Scalas received from the Pope the rights over the Castle; how in the next century (as legend has it) Dante was a guest in the Castello and standing here on this tower thought of the verses

“Suso in Italia bella giace un laco A pie’ dell’ Alpe che serra Lamagna Sopra TiraIli, ed ha nome Benaco.”

It was startling in the midst of such thoughts of past history to hear the lightest of footfalls coming up the tower-stairs. There are one hundred and forty-six steps by stair and ladder and I could hear all the way that unearthly tread. I realized that I was all alone in the castle and was fairly holding my breath when up out of the trap-door came a kitten’s head! He was just as terrified as I was, every hair on end, eyes dilated, but curiosity had sent him to the top and somehow steadied him safely down again. And I quickly followed !

One evening after dinner, when I had gone out on the pier to see all the sunset, a fisherman asked if I did not wish a ride in his row-boat. To my “quanto?” (“How much?”) he gave the usual Sermione answer: “Faccia Lei” (“Anything you wish”), so after mild bargaining, I embarked and got him to let me try rowing the boat standing as he did. When I could not move the monster at all, he was very much pleased with himself and proud of his strength as he threw his weight on the oars and pushed off and was all for having me go entirely around the point to see la Boiola, the chloride of sulphur spring which bubbles up in the lake and has been piped to the baths, but I having heard that the odor recalled chemical laboratories or bad eggs convinced him that I foolishly preferred the sun-set to scientific observations.

A little steamboat makes a day’s trip around the whole lake and twice I went off on that in the early morning, once forgetting Touring Club Guida and Baedeker just to enjoy sheer beauty, another time with books, maps, and resolution for knowledge. In either mood the lake is adorable. Kaleidoscopic pictures turn quickly : lemon trees with golden fruit in white arbors on terraced hills; lake-side towns with hotels and villas ‘in pale browns, rose-color, yellow, blue with rows of white and pink oleanders in front of them and about them green gardens with ivy-covered walls; at one landing, a picturesque group of people, bare-footed friar in brown cowl, several Alpini with their jaunty hats and feathers, two resplendent Bersaglieri in red and black with cocked hats, an old man selling bunches of lemons hanging in their long green leaves, a company of ragged little dirt-color boys around a small girl in a scarlet dress, women washing clothes, kneeling on slanting boards at the water’s edge; views of the lake itself,–a fairy island with towering villa and long narrow stretch of garden pointing upward in cypresses; a long white waterfall rushing down in cascades through deep gorge; tiny churches perched on incredible heights; an island fortress shaped like a great battleship; and then shifting tones on water and mountains. During the day, the colors were very brilliant, the lake the deepest of blues, changing to emerald near the shore, the mountains, some bright green with verdure, others clear gray crags, others blue heights that seemed less rock than air as they dissolved into masses of white clouds. Then as we returned in the hot sun of afternoon, the eastern bank was all iridescent blues and lavenders in a warm golden mist and I could not bear to look at the mountains long, for a certain ecstasy hanging over them. No Elysian plains for me ! My Paradise must be made of heights and water.

The other end of the lake was particularly thrilling to one who had been there in 1913, for Riva with the upper point of the Lago di Garda was then Austrian and now part of the Italia Redenta of the Trentino. The beautiful little city of Riva during the whole war was subjected to such violent bombardment that it was almost entirely destroyed. Yet the Italian troops about Riva during the final battle of Vittorio Veneto were able to hold the enemy locked in their position and by hindering the transfer of the reserves to help the rapid and effective action of the troops that coming up the Val Lagarina and descending from Tonale hurled themselves on Trento cutting off completely the retreat of the Austrian troops of the Trentino so that almost all of them were made prisoners. The town showed its war-scars. The old Hotel Riva where I stayed in 1913 had no window-glass left, was full of holes from the bombardment, was only a shell of a building with the beautiful garden dead. Other structures were being repaired. Italian soldiers were on guard in front of La Rocca. Above, the Tricolor floated. Lake Benacus seemed rippling on the shore in endless laughter because all its waves are now Italian.

Besides such quiet lake trips, I had the excitement of hearing Grand Opera while I was at Sermione ! It was passing strange to go with a company of gay, young Italians on the long automobile ride by Vergil’s little Mincius river, to the great Roman amphitheater at Verona and there to witness Boito’s “Mefistofele” presented magnificently under the full moon to thousands of Italians who were wild with enthusiasm over beauty of setting and music and dancing. I suppose it was partly the theme of the opera, partly its lyric quality, partly the fact that I had come over from Sermione that made me wish in the midst of the dance of slender girls before a Greek temple in honor of the divine Helen and her eternal beauty, that Catullus could have seen the Opera !

The next day was one of those I spent with the poet on the point of the peninsula. The first time I had gone out there, on the dear familiar walk past the view of the white villa on the Cortine hill and the tiny church of S. Pietro, gray in the silver olives, and along the foot-path on the eastern ledge above the cerulean lake, I had received a great shock, for while I was thinking intently of Catullus, suddenly at the end of the peninsula on the very top of the cliffs I came upon two great circular cement foundations for anti-aeroplane guns, the instrument for directing their operations, and piles of earth-works and when I descended into the Roman ruins, I found in “Lesbia’s bower” an officers’ hut so constructed of gray stones that it seemed a part of these fourth century remains. As I stood in amazement on the top again looking at these traces of the Great War, two of the town men joined me and the younger one began to talk of the fighting, pointing out the direction in which Trento, the Corso and the Piave lay and describing eloquently how near the Austrians came. Indeed it was only great Monte Baldo stretching there its Titan length that protected Sermione,

“Baldo, paterno monte, protegge la bella da l’alto Co’! sopracciglio torbido.”

So when I was left alone at last, it was with a very poignant realization of the Great War, intermingled with reminiscences of Catullus, Vergil and Carducci, that I flung myself down under an olive-tree facing the lake and the mountains. Here one inevitably, first of all, rereads three poems, Catullus’s

Paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque ocelle, “Half-islet Sirmio, the gem of all The isles,”


“Row us out from Desenzano, to your Sirmione row!” and Carducci’s

“Ecco : la verde Sirmio nel lucido lago sorride, fiore de, le penisole.”

And with their soothing restraint I left for the time the thoughts of the anti-aeroplane guns and went back to Catullus’ life here in the first century before Christ, and the reading his poetry among Italians in the setting of his own Sirmio seemed to give me a new sense of its values and his personality.

The events of his life are so slight that a few sentences compass them. Born at Verona, educated in Rome, he fell in love with a notorious beauty, married and much his senior, who was the subject of his verse until disillusion annihilated passion. Then the sharpness of death in the loss of an only brother intensified loneliness, and his musings, doubly melancholy, were broken only by a trip to Bithynia in the suite of Memmius which did not bring him great wealth but enabled him to lay pious offerings on his brother’s mound in the Troiad. In the east, homesickness awoke ardor for Italy and he returned to console himself with the country and with a friendship for a beautiful boy, and to have a slight hand in politics by flinging virulent lampoons at Julius Caesar’s unworthy minions until some-how a reconciliation was effected between the young poet and the great general, perhaps by Catullus Senior who was Julius Caesar’s friend. Certainly invectives ceased, and honor was paid to Caesar in one poem. Then hints of illness began and suddenly there were no more lyrics even, for after thirty or thirty-three years* Catullus’ life flared out.

How vivid a personality is painted by lyric poetry against the simple background of these few happenings! What a boyish and gay spirit dashes across these pages! Now in mock-seriousness Catullus begs Pollio to send back the napkin which he had carried off from a dinner-party; now he upbraids his dearest Calvus for presenting him with a book of second-rate poetry; now he urges Fabullus to come to dinner bringing along a lady and the wine and the salt and the joy, for the purse of his Catullus is full of cobwebs; now he teases Calvus about being a great lawyer when he’s such a tiny person; and again he satirizes Arrius who would be elegant, for the way in which he adds and drops his h’s. Such light-hearted teasing and gay humor make us wonder if the boy ever had a serious moment.

For answer there is the great sequence of the love-poems to Lesbia, more complete and more subtle an inner history than the Shakespeare or the Rossetti son-nets. Sappho he must take for the model of his declaration of passion and for once translation, forged from such white-hot metal, assumes perfect shape. Daring taunts follow about that stupid mule, the husband, who does not see that Lesbia’s constant criticisms of Catullus show her absorbing interest. Then, love acknowledged, the boy breaks forth into the maddest arithmetic of multitudinous kisses and discounting all serious reflections of old age chants in the face of swift-coming death,

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus, “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love.”

Out of this early happiness come the two dainty trifles for Lesbia’s sparrow, full of the tenderness for little feathery pets that can be such a comfort in their play-fulness and such a sorrow in their loss. Then it is not very long before the time comes when Catullus begins wretchedly to look back at those bright suns when there were many jests flying between the lovers and their one grief was the death of the little bird ! For now he knows that Lesbia’s favors do not go to him alone. Yet her sudden appearance can still lift him from darkness to midday sunshine and he worships again at the shrine of his goddess until her repeated acts of faithlessness make him vacillate between jealousy and adoraton. “Odi et amo,” ‘I hate and I love,’ he exclaims in his torture, and then writes his grief in tenderness rather than in bitterness :

“Once you said, Lesbia, you knew only Catullus, once you said you would not prefer Jove himself as a lover. Then I cherished you not as common men do their mistresses but as a father cherishes his sons and his sons-in-law. Now I know you. So though I love thee more, you are to me much cheaper and much lighter. ‘How can it be?’ you ask. Because such injury compels a lover to love more, but to honor less.”

That conflict of emotions shortly becomes its own destruction and all the idealism of the poet and the vigor of the youth revolt against the torpor that is creeping over all his senses, expelling joy from his heart, and he prays in the name of his own honor and his own purity that he may cast off the shameful disease which his passion has become. He has seen his Lesbia now as Cicero saw her, “the Medea of the Palatine,” as the world saw her, the notorious Clodia, her price a copper coin, and in horror at her true character he hurls to his friend Caelius his recognition of the brutal facts :

“Caelius, my Lesbia, that Lesbia, that Lesbia whom alone Catullus loved more than himself and all his dear ones, now at the crossroads and in the alley-ways debauches the descendants of the great-souled Remus.”

After such clear sight, a poet could not again succumb and when after his return from the east, two friends tried to act as Lesbia’s go-betweens for new reconciliation, the message that he sends her is uncompromisingly stern though ironically set in that Sapphic strophe in which he first declared his love, but never again used:

“Carry a few words, not pleasant, to ‘my lady.’ Let her live and flourish with her adulterers, the hundreds whom she embraces and rules together, loving no one truly, ruining all. Let her not look for my love, as before, for through her sin, it has fallen dead like a flower on the edge of a meadow, cut down by the passing plough.”

At the end of the love-story how well we have come to know boy and lover ! The longer poems add little to our acquaintance with Catullus’ personality for they only play variations on the love-motif,–the gay youthful love-making of Acme and Septimius, young love consummated in the wedding-hymn for two friends, Julia and Manlius, the ugliness of lust in the famous poem where the House-Door narrates the amours of its mistress, the long mythological epyllion on the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. All these show the technique of the poet more than himself. Yet there is one touch of new feeling in a passage which suggests that Catullus had thought of the joys of fatherhood, the wish that Julia and Manlius may have a little Torquatus, the image of his sire, who with a smile will stretch out from his mother’s breast his tiny hands to his father. Only one who loved children could have written those strophes.

I was inclined to daily with this thought and with the tragedy of the Lesbia poems, reflecting on what Catullus had missed, but he is not one to evoke pity. He found too much in life and lived with too much ardor for any vain regrets. Friendship was to him as intense a feeling as love to many so that he could go wild with excitement over Veranius’ coming home or over the cleverness and charm of Calvus’ verses. Such was his devotion to his brother that the loss of him buried all his home, wrecked all joys, and banished love’s sweet-bitterness. He knew Libitina, that two-faced goddess of life and death whom the Romans served and in proportion as life was intense to him was death bitter. No religion consoled him, for his two marvellous hymns, the chorus to Diana, the goddess of mountains, green woods, hidden glades and singing streams, and the orgiastic threnody of the self-mutilated Attis, priest of Cybele, are but vicarious experience, not the personal aspiration of a soul to the divine. And when the poet himself falls sick, he does not offer prayers or vows, but wants a friend and a letter in the most human way. And the sympathy which he wished from his friends made him know what to give them in times of need. Could any letter of consolation be more delicate and sensitive than his to Calvus on the death of his wife?

“If any comfort can go to the mute dead from our sorrow, Calvus, from the longing with which we renew old loves and weep for friendships once lost, surely Quintilia is feeling not so much sorrow over her early death as joy in your love.”

Catullus had one source of comfort when friends were absent, love proved false and death brought separation. That was the beauty of the outdoor world. It surely meant something that his villas were in two of the most beautiful spots in Italy, near Tibur, whose rushing river and falling waters Horace has celebrated and on Lake Benacus, whose mountains and water have been the theme of Vergil, Dante and Carducci. Never did poems of home coming show finer ardor than Catullus’. When spring comes upon him in Bithynia, his mind fairly shivers in its eagerness to be travelling; his happy feet thrill with desire. Back at Sirmio, he dedicates a little model of the yacht that bore him home (or could it have been the vessel itself?) with praise for its safe convoy from the remote Pontus even to this limpid lake. Then, at rest, with what love and ecstasy he salutes his Sirmio:

Paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus, quam te libenter quamque laetus inviso, vix mi ipse credens Thyniam atque Bithynos liquisse campos et videre te in tuto. o, quid solutis est beatius curis, cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum desideratoque acquiescimus lecto ! hoc est, quod unumst pro laboribus tantis. salve, o venusta Sirmio, atque ero gaude: gaudete vosque, o liquidae lacus undae; ridete, quidquid est domi cachinnorum.

“Half-islet Sirmio, the gem of all The isles, which god of sea or god of mere Upholds in glossy lake or ocean drear, On thee with heart and soul my glances fall.

“Scarce can I think me safe when I recall Bithynia’s plains afar and see thee near: Ah, what more joyous than the mind to clear Of care, and burdens lay aside that gall?

“By distant travail worn we win our hearth And on the long-wished couch siesta take: This is the one reward for those who roam. Hail, Sirmio, the fair! Greet me with mirth;

“Be mirthful, Lydian waters of the lake! Laugh out, ye realms of merriment at home!”

Life is not over for a poet who can so rejoice in the beauty of his own place.

As Catullus had his disillusions about Lesbia, so we have our disappointments about him when after all this he diverts himself with the boy, Juventius, and writes verses of unspeakable openness against the vices of his enemies, but it is hard for one age to tolerate the different standards of another and Catullus alive might defend his frankness and lampoon much refined hypocrisy in the twentieth century. Probably he would be willing to see the men of today at their best as well as their worst, and in his own Italy he would still find poet-friends who would understand all his ardor, all his passion, all his pain. Just across the lake at Gar-done, D’Annunzio even now is writing new lyrics.

One day and another as out on the point of Sirmio I lifted my eyes from Catullus’ poetry to the mountains and the lake, I thought of the great Italians who had been here: Vergil, listening to Benacus rising with the surf and the roar of the sea, and naming her in the most magnificent praise of his native land that ever poet wrote, Dante on the Gothic tower, seeing his vision of Italy’s future, Garibaldi, halted at Salò’s curving bay across the lake and allowed no share in the battle of Solferino but biding his time of service for his country, Carducci meditating here on Catullus and Vergil and Dante and so carrying on the great literary tradition of his race, then D’Annunzio over at Gardone recuperating from the passion for the Great War with which he had fired Italy and written his finest poems. Sirmio took me near the heart of her greatest sons.

And re-reading Catullus here under the olives near the anti-aeroplane gun foundations made me under-stand better the Young Italy that died in the Great War to the number of five hundred thousand and the Young Italy that is trying to help reconstruct the country today. For the young Italian intellectual, like Catullus, has in him something of the boy and something of the poet, something of old-world disillusion and something of southern ardor, a delicate sense of subtle shades of feeling, a revolt against brutal vulgarity, a fondness for children, a belief in the meaning of home, a passionate devotion to the beauty of his country, and the power of rising from personal loss and disillusion to new creative work and to a carrying-on of great literary or national traditions. It was verily the eternal spirit of Italian youth that I felt on re-reading Catullus at Sirmio.