I’ve been working on a free translation of Catullus’s long Latin poem #64 for over twenty years now, ever since we first studied it at school. The project has gone through various metamorphoses over the past three decades.
It started out as a straight translation, reflecting the original Latin as closely as possible, but morphed, in the mid-1990s, into a more ambitious experimental project, involving hypertext and extensive footnotes. This overly-ambitious project also foundered and I abandoned the poem as a lost cause for many subsequent years.
I started going back to it in the mid-2000s, at a time when I was working on a very different approach to the translation of Latin and Greek poetry—one that relied only very loosely on the original text, expunged all erudition and formal devices and replaced these glaringly alien features with present-day cultural references and vernacular (often vulgar) language.
Using this technique, I found I could find a kind of (usually overlooked) savagery in the ancient poems that better reflects our own modern sensibilities than the way classical poetry is normally translated and conveyed. This approach works well for Propertius and Ovid, whose work, although informed by political themes, is largely personal in nature, but less so for the more complex and challenging issues of a broader more societal scope that Catullus 64 poses.
I have nevertheless continued, over the past decade, to work away at this long, complex, often dark, at times idiotically comic, but ultimately always mysterious Catullus poem. Like a miner at the pit-face, I have picked away at it, bit by bit, in an effort to transform this ancient formation into something that might make some kind of sense and have some kind of value in the modern world.
Oddly, perhaps because I have spent so long a chunk of my life (and hence of history) on this single poem, recent political events seem somehow to have coalesced around it and attached themselves to it, like barnacles on the hull of a ship during a long voyage.
The voices and the sentiments (albeit not my own) of the parade of characters who appear in my version of this poem seemed not so long ago to be so vulgar and offensive that I dared not air them and I have published only a few more palatable stand-alone portions of the longer poem on social media so far.
Brexit and Trump have changed all that. It is as if, while writing this poem over the years, I was unconsciously drawing on the pent-up rage that fuels recently-emerged populist movements and that (like it or not) is a little part of my own psyche too. 64, therefore, has been to some ironic extent redeemed by the very movements and sentiments I attempt to mock here and purport to abhor.
This is therefore an apt, if somewhat desultory, point in history in which to make it public.
In the sub-title I describe this poem as ‘a stab at an epyllion.’ Epyllion is a Greek word meaning a little epic. This is my little mock epic for little England—a land whose global aspirations far outstripped its capacities—and for the lost people of England (myself among them) who still pine vainly, consciously or not, for a return to that impossible imperial-parochial dream.
I shall post this poem in a series of short sections over the coming weeks.
The first is a single-part prologue that is also a free-standing poem.
Since prows first nosed their way down
& out onto our English Channel & into the seven seas
& sidled up to galleons with grappling irons;
& hoodlums & hooligans high on rum & snuff
& a lust for life, freedom, loot, swarmed aboard
& abroad, England has ruled the waves.
Give thanks for history; lie back, binge drink
& fuck. For there’s no myth of genesis, foundation,
or discovery, to ground us, mist our eyes,
bog us down. No Avalon, Eldorado or Troy.
We were always and always are up on our own two feet,
fists at the ready, feet dancing around—on deck—
toe to twitching toe, eye to angry eye,
bad-tempered from the scurvy & the sea-sickness,
a head-butt always but a stray word away.
Knife secreted, case the fight don’t quite go
the way we’d like. Pistol in pocket, sword
in sheath, big guns at our back & drugs ready
to be packaged out & big bucks
to be made from knocked-off