Catulla and Petrarch
The lyric poems of the Roman poet, Catullus, and the late Middle Ages poet, Petrarch, both trace the cycle of a love affair, but the nature of those affairs is quite different. Catullus depicts a passionate, lusty relationship, whereas Petrarch describes something more akin to worship from afar. The differences likely reflect not only their different experiences, but also the different times in which they lived. Catullus lived in pre-Christian Rome, and his writings evidence the Romans’ open and frank view of sexuality. Petrarch was a product of the Middle Ages, in which the Church dominated all aspects of life.
Catullus and his lover, Lesbia, exchange thousands of kisses. (Lyric 5). He describes another woman as “attractive,” but not “stunning,” because unlike Lesbia, “there’s no spice at all in all the length of her body.” (Lyric 86). He seems to have no reticence with regard to matters of sex. In one passage expressing bitterness at Lesbia’s liaisons with other men, Catullus exclaims: May she have joy & profit from her cocksmen,
Go down embracing hundreds all together,
Never with love, but without interruption
Wringing their balls dry.
Petrarch would never stoop to such earthy language. The object of his affections, Laura, is more remote. The tone of his lyrics is more spiritual. Petrarch is first smitten by her “two pure eyes.” (Sonnet 34). He is captivated by her “divine bearing,” (Sonnet 126). References to Laura’s physical presence are few and soft, for instance, passing mention of her “golden locks” (Sonnet 34) and “lovely body” (Sonnet 126). A reference to her “breast” is accompanied by the adjective, “angelic.” (Sonnet 126). The virginal aura is reinforced with an image associated with the Virgin Mary: “she was sitting humble in such a glory.” (Sonnet 126). Nevertheless, Petrarch does feel passion toward Laura, as in the following passage:
Father in heaven, after...
References: to Laura’s physical presence are few and soft, for instance, passing mention of her “golden locks” (Sonnet 34) and “lovely body” (Sonnet 126). A reference to her “breast” is accompanied by the adjective, “angelic.” (Sonnet 126). The virginal aura is reinforced with an image associated with the Virgin Mary: “she was sitting humble in such a glory.” (Sonnet 126).
Nevertheless, Petrarch does feel passion toward Laura, as in the following passage:
Father in heaven, after each lost day,
Each night spent raving with that fierce desire
Which in my heart has kindled into fire
(Sonnet 62). Yet there is no indication that the relationship is ever consummated. Indeed, Petrarch seems relieved by this. In the same Sonnet, he asks that his “straying thoughts” be returned to “a nobler place.” (Sonnet 62). He struggles with reconciling the desires of the flesh with the elevation of the spirit.
Catullus has no such difficulty. His love is both physical and spiritual. Their relationship forms an “undying compact of holy friendship.” (Lyric 109). While other women may be physically “stunning,” Lesbia’s “beauty is total.” (Lyric 86).
While both Catullus and Petrarch are spurned by the objects of their passion, they respond differently. Catullus places a high value on fidelity. He declares that “[n]ever, in any such bond, was fidelity greater” (Lyric 87) and takes pride in “not breaking his word, and never, in any agreement, deceiving men by abusing vows sworn to heaven.” (Lyric 76). His fidelity is not returned, spurring a righteous anger in Catullus. He feels both “hate & love” toward Lesbia (Lyric 72) and declares: “So much for you, bitch – your life is all behind you” (Sonnet 8). Yet even as love fades, lust remains. He “burn[s] for [her] even more fiercely,” though he regards her as “utterly worthless.” (Lyric 72). Recognizing the contradiction in this statement, he adds: “It’s because such cruelty forces lust to assume the shrunken place of affection.” (Lyric 72). Ultimately, however, Catullus just wants to forget Lesbia and move on with his life – “Now I no longer ask that she love me as I love her … all that I ask for is health, an end to this foul sickness.” (Lyric 76).
Petrarch feels pain in being spurned, but no apparent rancor. Upon Laura’s death, he states that that “praise of her is all my purpose here” and wishes that “[a]ll men may know, and love my Laura’s grace.” He prays that upon his own death, she will draw him “to her in the blessed place.” (Sonnet 333). One senses that Petrarch was less in love with Laura than with the spirituality that she seemed to embody, and that Catullus felt greater bitterness because his relationship with Lesbia was more real.
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