odi et amo

Catullus meets The Pretenders

“Odi et amo. quare id faciam fortasse requiris.
 Nescio, sed fieri sentio, et excrucior.”

Poem #85
by Catullus (c.84–54 BC)

“I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask.
I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and I’m tortured.”

The first thing I should say is that I’m not setting myself up as an expert on Latin poetry, but it just may be that some of you have never seen this wonderful little poem before. I hope you will love it, and then you can go away and find the experts.

With that declaration out of the way, there are a few things I’d like to say about Catullus’ Poem #85.

I learned the original Latin and its English translation at school years ago and it has stuck in my mind. I’m still amazed by its simplicity of form and language, which is in contrast to the complexity of the feelings being conveyed.

The active emotions of the first line, hating and loving, somehow switch into the passivity of the second — “I feel it happening”; the poet is swept along by his emotions, powerless to behave any other way. He can’t explain it, but he is tortured by it.

This is arguably one of the most well-known of all Latin poems, probably because it’s so short and pithy. No doubt its brevity is the reason it’s stayed in my mind — it was easy to learn for exams and there was lots in there to discuss.

I could tell you that it’s an elegiac couplet, and raise the possibility that the word ‘odi’ may mean lust instead of hate. At a push maybe I could still manage to scan the two lines with spondees and dactyls and remember the rules of elision. And I could discuss the meaning of the word ‘exrucior’, how best to translate it, and point out the cross in the poem’s structure. But there are Latin scholars who are experts on all this, and if you’re interested you will be able to read their original thoughts. My version wouldn’t add anything to the sum of their knowledge. Or brighten your day

I’m fascinated by the strength of feeling in the poem. The reality of simultaneously hating and loving the same person — believed in this poem to be Catullus’ married mistress, Clodia— is one that echoes down the ages.

Much has been written about whether it’s possible to love someone and hate them at the same time. Many of us recognise that you can love someone and at times still loathe particular aspects of their personality or behaviour. You can also hate someone for making you love them so much, if they don’t reciprocate the feeling. And, of course, love itself can turn sour; the closer and more intimate you have been, the deeper the disappointment and resentment can be when things fall apart, or you feel betrayed.

Despite our modern, technological world, human emotions have not changed a great deal in the last two thousand years, or possibly in the last two hundred thousand years.

From a biological point of view, Catullus was more right than he could have known; scientists have found in tests that some of the neural circuits used in the perception of feelings of disgust are also activated by romantic love. I’m not a scientist either, but the studies being done by today’s neurologists are groundbreaking and there’s lots to learn.

From my own point of view, Poem #85 is one of the simplest but greatest poems I’ve ever read.

Back in 1984, I was at school studying for my Latin A-level. The Pretenders released a cover version of a song called Thin Line between Love and Hate. It was written by the Poindexter brothers in 1971 and originally recorded by The Persuaders.

The poem and the song are inextricably linked in my mind. Isn’t memory a strange thing? I wonder what Catullus would make of his enduring fame and the connotations he could never have imagined.

Odi et amo. I’ll leave you to ponder the poem with some music. I hope you enjoy them both.

If you enjoyed this, please give it a greenand come back for more soon.