Catullus 4

Phaselus ille

The life-story of a yacht, from the time before the timbers were felled to peaceful retirement on a lake. The bromance implied between it and the human narrator is touching and the beautiful resolution in the last line shows Catullus as master of the punchline. The yacht (“he”, not “she” in Latin) has a personality – brave, assertive and loyal – and the lilting metre hurries along like a fast sailing boat riding the waves. The yacht once made a voyage to Italy from the Black Sea, carrying someone important – the “heir” (“erum”, l 19). This might be someone Catullus wanted to compliment who could be recognised from clues in the poem, or an invented figure, but Catullus himself would also be a good fit.
As usual, the poem is full of echoes of literary convention. Ancient readers would probably have read it as the text of an inscription dedicating the yacht to the heavenly twins Castor and Pollux, in which case the “guests” (“hospites”), are “passers-by” reading the inscription, not friends chatting over a glass of something. “Iuppiter” (l 20) personifies the wind and a sheet (l 21) is a rope securing a sail to the side of a ship.

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Phaselus ille quem videtis, hospites,
ait fuisse navium celerrimus,
neque ullius natantis impetum trabis
nequisse praeterire, sive palmulis
opus foret volare sive linteo.
et hoc negat minacis Hadriatici
negare litus insulasve Cycladas
Rhodumque nobilem horridamque Thraciam
Propontida trucemve Ponticum sinum,
ubi iste post phaselus antea fuit
comata silva: nam Cytorio in iugo
loquente saepe sibilum edidit coma.
Amastri Pontica et Cytore buxifer,
tibi haec fuisse et esse cognitissima
ait phaselus: ultima ex origine
tuo stetisse dicit in cacumine,
tuo imbuisse palmulas in aequore,
et inde tot per impotentia freta
erum tulisse, laeva sive dextera
vocaret aura, sive utrumque Iuppiter
simul secundus incidisset in pedem.
neque ulla vota litoralibus deis
sibi esse facta, cum veniret a mari
novissimo hunc ad usque limpidum lacum.
sed haec prius fuere: nunc recondita
senet quiete seque dedicat tibi,
gemelle Castor et gemelle Castoris.

Strangers, this yacht you see here says
he was the very fastest of all ships,
there was no pace of any keel afloat
he couldn’t beat, called on to fly
either with his oars or under sail.
He says the Adriatic’s hostile shores
don’t deny it, nor the Cyclades
or famous Rhodes or Thrace’s rugged
Propontis, or Pontus’ dreaded bay,
where previously he, the yacht-to-be, was
a leaf-tressed wood; for on Cytorus’ ridge,
from leafy locks he’d often send a rustle out.
You, Amastris of Pontus and box-wooded Cytorus,
to you these were and are most familiar facts,
the yacht insists: from his very earliest days
it was your heights he says he stood upon,
the waters yours he says he dipped his oar-blades in,
from there, across so many seas, powerless to harm,
he carried the heir, not caring if a left or right-hand
breeze called, or Jove’s wind fell on both
at once, on both sheets, blowing dead astern.
Nor was any offering to coastline gods
made for him when he came
from the sea’s edge right up to this clear lake.
But that was in time past: now in sequestered peace
he grows old and dedicates himself to you,
you, twin Castor, and you, Castor’s twin.