Catullus 6

The wayfaring bedstead

by Catullus

Catullus seems a sensitive sort of guy, to judge from his first five poems: they have been a thoughtful dedication to a noted historian and fellow-poet; three of the four most famous and romantic poems to Lesbia, including the two about her sparrow; and a sentimental and touching poem about a much-loved yacht that has brought him (probably) on a challenging journey home across the sea. Now, for the first and not the last time, in poem 6 we meet a rather different Catullus, coarsely teasing a friend, Flavius, who is being coy about a new mistress. No wonder that he doesn’t want to confide in Catullus if he’s come across some of his other poems about friends’ girlfriends.

This is one of Catullus’s poems that used not to be taught in schools because of its sexual content and strong language. These days, they are no worse than you hear in films or on late-night TV, but the poem is probably still not taught for another reason: its attitude to women. With Catullus, and quite a few other ancient Roman poets, and with Roman culture in general, what we would now see as misogyny is often part of the package when the subject is sexually available women, so be warned, avoid cultural relativism and hang on to your hat and your historical context!

We know nothing about Flavius except that he has a distinguished name.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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To scroll the original and English translation of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.

Flavi, delicias tuas Catullo,
ni sint inlepidae atque inelegantes,
velles dicere, nec tacere posses.
verum nescio quid febriculosi
scorti diligis: hoc pudet fateri.
nam te non viduas iacere noctes
nequiquam tacitum cubile clamat
sertis ac Syrio fragrans olivo,
pulvinusque peraeque et hic et ille
attritus, tremulique quassa lecti
argutatio inambulatioque.
nam nil stupra valet, nihil, tacere.
cur? non tam latera ecfututa pandas,
ni tu quid facias ineptiarum.
quare, quidquid habes boni malique,
dic nobis: volo te ac tuos amores
ad caelum lepido vocare versu.

Flavius, unless your girl was ugly and a liability, you’d not only want to tell me about her, you wouldn’t be able to help yourself. Honestly, I don’t know what kind of overheated tart it is you’re stuck on, because you’re ashamed to say. Your bed can’t talk, but nevertheless, perfumed with garlands and Syrian oil, and the mattress and pillows mussed on both sides, and the way the poor, cowering bedstead creaks and hops around under the impact, it’s shouting that you’re not spending your nights alone. Because when you’re being a dirty boy, nothing, no, nothing, can keep it quiet. Why? Because you couldn’t be looking so fucked-out unless you were up to no good of some kind. So tell me what you’ve got, whether she’s good news or bad: I want to raise you and your dear one to the skies with my pretty verse.