Catullus, Poem 5 (Contributed by Jane Mason)

As a teenager who had only studied Virgil so far, it came as an enormous surprise when a teacher, whom we had believed to be very straight-laced, set this poem as an unseen passage! I have loved it ever since – it is funny, flippant but poignant and heartfelt at the same time. It comes at the start of Catullus’ affair with Lesbia when he is full of simple delight at being in love, and is all the more poignant because we know this will not last.

Jane Mason

Let us live, my Lesbia and let us love,
and as for the mutterings of over-severe old men,
we’ll reckon them all worth merely a penny.
Suns can set and return:
for us, when the brief light once sets,
there is one everlasting night, enforcing sleep.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand, then a hundred,
then, when we’ve made many thousands,
we’ll mix them up, so that we lose count,
or no bad person can envy us,
when he learns how many kisses there are.

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis.
soles occidere et redire possunt.
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum,
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Liebespaar (Der Kuss).
Lovers (The kiss) – Oil on canvas – 150 x 100 cm – Private estate, Bern

Translation by Jane Mason. The above text is provided by the Perseus Digital Library.

Read more of this text at the Perseus site.

Teaching Ideas
The large number of present subjunctives make this poem ideal when introducing this grammar topic, which in England at least, comes at the start of the A level course . However, if these are glossed, the rest of the poem uses only the GCSE syntax in a straightforward way. So it could be used to liven up a lesson with a revision-weary GCSE class.

Poem 7 continues the theme of this poem but is more erudite and less spontaneous, apart from his delightful made-up word ‘basiationes’ (kissifications).

 The metre is hendecasyllables (11 syllables per line), also called ‘ Phalaecean’, :

x x  – u u –  u – u – –     (x x is either – u or – –  or u -)

Catullus uses this metre in the majority of his poems. Tennyson wrote this in Phalaecean:

O you chorus of indolent reviewers,
Irresponsible, indolent reviewers,
Look, I come to the test, a tiny poem
All composed in a metre of Catullus…

For the rest of this poem and more, go to:

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