Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep is the nickname given to a sonnet by Petronius in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. Petronius was a poet, an author and a courtier during the reign of the emperor Nero and is widely believed to have been the author of the Satyricon during the 1st century AD. He seems to have been the author of numerous short poems, including this one. We have around 30 of hia surviving.

lecto compositus vix prima silentia noctis
carpebam et somno lumina victa dabam,
cum me saevus Amor prensat sursumque capillis
excitat et lacerum pervigilare iubet.
‘tu famulus meus’, inquit, ‘ames cum mille puellas,
solus, io, solus, dure, iacere potes?’
exsilio et pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta
omne iter impedio, nullum iter expedio.
nunc propero, nunc ire piget, rursumque redire
paenitet, et pudor est stare via media.
ecce tacent voces hominum strepitusque viarum
et volucrum cantus turbaque fida canum:
ego solus ex cunctis paveo somnumque torumque,
et sequor imperium, magne Cupido, tuum.

“Settled on my bed, I was beginning to enjoy the first silence of the night scarcely yet begun, and was yielding my drooping eyes to sleep, when fierce Love laid hold of me, and hauled [me] up by the hair and ordered [me], shattered [as I was] to wake up. He said, ‘can you, my servant, when you love a thousand girls, lie alone – hey! – alone! [and] hard?’ I leapt up and, with bare feet and dishevelled robe, started on my journey, yet never accomplished it. Now I hurry forward, now am loathe to go; and again I regret that I have returned, and it shames [me] to stand in the middle of the street. So the voices of men and the hum of the streets and the song of birds, and the trusty crowd of watchdogs all are silent: I alone out of all [of them] dread both sleep and the couch and follow your command, great Cupid.”

Let us take a closer look at this wonderful poem in a little more detail, examining some of the sorts of stylistic features which students should be taught to look out for. (I will be examining the process of how to go about teaching them to do this in next week’s blog post).

In the first line, sibilance creates a sense of night-time and the juxtaposition of vix prima (“scarcely” and “first”) stresses that the poet is only just at the point of dozing off. In the second line, sound play of the letters m and n continues the soporific tone and we have the metaphor of lumina victa – a metaphor for the poet’s eyes becoming heavy (lumina – literally “lights” or “lamps” was often used in poetry to represent the eyes). The framing of that line with two imperfect verbs carpebamdabam completes a clear picture of the poet just easing into sleep and justifies the translation of “beginning to …”. A sudden change of pace occurs in the third line, which is packed with a greater number of syllables, creating a sense of sudden shock as if jerking awake. The sibillance this time creates a threatening tone, with the oxymoron of saevus Amor (fierce Love) emphasised by the juxtaposition.

In lines 3-4 Petronius switches into the vivid or historic present and uses a tricolon of three verbs in quick succession, adding to the sudden sense of action after the imperfect verbs and soporific tone of the previous lines. The aggresive shift in tone is notable in Petronius’ violent choice of words: saevus (“fierce” or “savage”), prensat (laid hold of me), lacerum (“shattered” or “lacerated”).

The use of the word famulus in line 5 is also deliberate. The word was used of a slave whose role was as a personal attendant, suggesting that Petronius must fulfil Cupid’s every whim. In lines 5-6 the assonance of the letter u, sibilance, and the emphatic placement of cum (usually the first word in clause), the hyperbolic mille puellas (a thousand girls) placed at the end of the line and the soundplay of the repeated -ll– which draws attention to it, the repetition of solus, the exclamation io and the humorous use of dure (hard) to describe the author and his predicament all create a tone of exasperation on the part of Cupid and craft an amusing image of the poet rudely awakened by his desires.

The use of the vivid present and the placement of exsilio at the start of line 7 show the author’s instant reaction and obedience to Cupid. The fact that he sets out pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta (with bare feet and dishevelled robe) paints a vivid and comical picture of the unkempt author roaming the streets in his night attire. In lines 7-8, three elisions in two lines add to the sense of haste and in line 8 the use of the opposites omne and nullum, the repetition of iter and the use of figura etymologica (two words which share the same root i.e. impedio and expedio) all stress that the author has explored every place and means possible of finding a girl. omne iter impedio can be interpreted as the author’s clumsy and desperate attempts to accost girls in the street, quite literally blocking their way. By the same token, nullum iter expedio (literally “I free up no route”) can also be interpreted as a double entendre referring to his lack of success.

In lines 9-10 the use of plosives and rolling r sounds add to the image of the stumbling and vacillating poet, rushing one minute to find a girl, then feeling confused, exhausted and ashamed of himself the next. The ascending tricolon of nuncnuncrursum portrays the author’s turmoil, dismay and increasing despair. The tricolon of plosive negatives in line 10 highlight his regret: piget paenitetpudor est.

At the start of line 11 the use of the emphatic imperatives ecce and tace, further emphasised by the allieration of k sounds along with voces, redirect our attention from the disordered author to his surroundings and the lateness of the hour. The jumbled word order of lines 11-12 mimics the confused sounds which they describe as being notable by their absence. In line 13 the use of the opposites solus and cunctis along with the emphatic placement of solus at the start of the line, juxtaposed with ego, all highlight the absurdity of the poet finding himself here alone in the street in the middle of the night when he should be in bed and asleep.

In line 13 we return to soporific soundplay emphasising the peonasm of somnumque torumque (sleep … bed), all of which stresses author’s insomnia, as does use of the strong verb paveo (dread). Any insominiac will understand the poet’s torturous relationship with his bed, which he both craves and fears in equal measure. The vocabulary of the last line takes us back to the imagery of the poet as the slave to Cupid’s mastery, with sequor imperium … tuum (I follow your command). The prayerlike address to magne Cupido (great Cupid) and the emphatic postponement of tuum to the end of the line again stresses the author’s complete obedience to Cupid’s command.

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?