Catullus could have written it. The sea in autumn: crow-grey on top and eye-blue below, the plunge in at once too cold a thrill to enjoy and too immersive a sensation to resist. The madness ends in winter for me, the relentless need to swim wavering at the first sign of frost; but September is the time I’m most convinced that Catullus was a swimmer, too.
A far-fetched notion, perhaps, for if anything the magnetism of this most passionate of poets is rooted in restless cities, Eliot-like in their decay: Catullus’ poetry is urban, kinetic, top-full with the clamour of the streets, often spattered in parts with dirt, but coloured always by a sense of worlds in motion and lives being lived. And yet the persona endures: the life-lorn poet who cultivates the memory of love or the madness of longing, continually enchanted by and driven towards a state of utter captivation with the moment as its passes:
And I hate. You
May ask why?
I cannot tell,
But feel it coming on,
And am racked.
It certainly wouldn’t be too much to say that his poetry has a kind of tidal quality to it, alternately compulsive in the anger conveyed and the rhythms employed, or gleamingly heartsick, hushing its sadnesses to the world in small verse-wonders.
Perhaps the reason for this is that elegy and ode alike belong to the ocean. Poets, and this singular poet especially, are by the nature of their calling akin to the sea-swimmer: drawn to the rare solitude of a silence that is too vast to be individually understood, and yet offers a near-unrivalled sense of (very personal) envelopment.
To swim is to surrender yourself to the all-too-transitory urge and action of the moment, and this is what Catullus did: pursuing love and lust in equal measure, and unearthing an eloquence all his own in the process. His poems give the sense of having come through the eye of the storm, settling like bright shells on the shore to give back echoes of a life lived always above the brim:
…suns can set and rise again,
But we when our brief wick sputters out
Must sleep through one unending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Give me another, another, another…
One of his most clear-voiced of elegies, dedicated to his brother, holds whole oceans in its opening line: Through waves and many peoples have I come, brother. The waves through which Catullus has voyaged here do not denote only the literal distance of his journey, but contain the very swell and ebb of grief, age, love and, and as the poem as a whole suggests, human life. Just as Homer’s heroic races bloom and fall like generations of leaves on a tree, the lives and loves Catullus charts are subject always to the sea-like whims of time and fortune.
His verse moves in the way an ocean breathes; for all the flux the same rhythm reiterates its beat: enough to bring ‘the eternal note of sadness in’, or even to offer comfort to those who have felt ‘the still, sad music of humanity’ in the passing hours:
If anything we have to give, Calvus,
Is ever felt with quiet gratitude in the graves
By which we stand, empty-eyed
And heartsick for the ghosts
That do not re-appear,
Then know that Quintilla feels
Even more than the grief
Of her early dying
The love that you
Still hold for her.
September is the swimmer’s month. The water grows cold and cold-coloured. And yet it’s then that the swimmers return, like Calvus above or Catullus himself: ghost-like to the same haunts, retracing their steps to the sea. Catullus could have written it, and he did, etching out in poem after poem a passion for living in the dying light of spent experiences. Perhaps this explains something of why we read him now and find ourselves deeply and utterly immersed.