Conflicting Emotions

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Conflicting Emotionas is the nickname given to Catullus Poem 85 in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. At only two lines long it is quite remarkable how influential this short elegiac couplet has been. It is a masterpiece in brevity and exceptionally effective

odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you enquire?
I have no idea, but I sense it happening and I am in torment.

This poem is included in the list of OCR’s verse set texts (selection A) for 2023 and 2024. It is also on the list of Catullus texts for A level in the same years, as part of the Catullus grouping.

odi et amo is one of the numerous poems that the poet Catullus dedicated to a woman he named “Lesbia”, widely accepted as a pseudonym for the notorious Clodia, an aristocratic and educated woman whose conduct and motives are famously maligned in Cicero’s surviving speech On Behalf of Caelius, delivered in 56 BC. The tone is quite different from How Many Kisses? which I discussed in last week’s blog post, and where Catullus appears to enjoy being at the mercy of his lover. There is an underlying rage in this bitter, terse two-liner that bubbles with unanaswered questions.

Whilst I provide a translation above for the uninitiated, it is best to forget about translating it word for word. The structure of the poem is almost as important as the words themselves. Noting how and where certain words are placed allows you to see what the poet was trying to achieve. In a language where poetry doesn’t rhyme and where word order is more flexible than English, these are some of the elements that separate mundane writing from the truly exceptional.

odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

The first word is a verb, the second a conjunction, the third a verb. Go to the end of the couplet to see the same construction. Now note the meanings of these four verbs: (odi) hate, (amo) love, (sentio) feel, and (excrucior) – which literally means “I am being crucified”: two negatives and two positive emotions. Not only are there two very strong negative emotions, but they’re competing for prominence in this poem by taking first and ultimate place. This forms a cross-shape called a chiasmus.

The chiasmus is much easier to construct in Latin, but it can be used to good effect in English. The method involves using a simple ABBA structure and can be created through the repetition of individual words or types of words. Here is a famous example:

“It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” (Mae West).
Here the words men-life-life-men are used in a chiastic structure.

In Catullus’ poem, he uses different words and a more complex structure to create a pattern of conflicting emotions: negative-positive-positive-negative. It encapsulates the whole conceit of the poem.

It is worth mentioning Catullus’ use of the word excrucior, since the Romans were very much in the business of crucifixion, something which I have discussed in detail before. It was arguably the cruelest punishment used by the Romans, who were experts in torture and death. The length of time it took to die ranged from a matter of hours to a number of days, depending on exact methods, the health of the crucified person and environmental circumstances. The Latin words for crucifixion are the origin of our adjective “excruciating”, the full meaning of which is the idea that Catullus is trying to capture here. He is being metaphorically crucified by the state of his emotions and is in extreme agony; the fact that crucifixion involved stretching out and stringing up the body develops the image, since Catullus wants us to imagine him beiing pulled in all directions against his will.

odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

The word patterns continue with the verbs of doing, faciam and fieri. In the first doing verb (faciam), Catullus is doing it, and in the second (fieri), it is being done to him: just like the active verb odi vs. the passive excrucior. There is also a third parallel construction. requiris (you ask) matched by the answer nescio (I don’t know).

The poem is usually nicknamed odi et amo and this minimalist opening in many ways sums up Catullus’ entire condition. He hates and he loves, in equal measure. His decision to place odi first overshadows the tone of the poem, which opens with the fact of his hatred and closes with the excruciating pain being inflicted upon him by his affair with Lesbia.

Students tend to respond well to this poem and it is a good, manageable opportunity to teach them the very limits of translation and to develop their understanding of how much more can be gained from studying a work in the original language. Thanks to its extreme brevity, students can quickly get used to working on this poem without the prop of an English translation underneath; this is a great way to teach them how to engage with the Latin as a language in its own right. By the same token, the poem is also a great place to start in order to teach students about the critical importance of word placement when it comes to all Latin literature, but particularly verse. If they can grasp this, it will really help then to engage with the style questions at GCSE and then with the whole approach to literature at A level, when reliance on a word-for-word translation will become less and less important or indeed an effective method of preparation for the examinations.

In next week’s blog post I will be examining the final short poem included in the 2023 and 2024 selections, which is an extract of Petronius nicknamed Love Will Not let the Poet Sleep. It will then be time to take a closer look at approaches to style – just how do we teach it effectively help students to engage with the process rather than rely entirely on trying to learn hundreds of individual style notes off by heart?