Sparrow, the special delight of my girl, whom often she teases and holds on her lap and pokes with the tip of her finger, provoking counterattacks with your mordant beak, whenever my luminous love desires something or other, innocuous fun, a bit of escape, I suppose, from her pain, a moment of peace from
Gaius Valerius Catullus
Very little is objectively known of the life of Gaius Valerius Catullus. It is believed that he was born in Verona in 84 B.C. to a wealthy and well-connected family. Catullus' father was a friend of Julius Caesar. He died in Rome in 54 B.C. at the age of thirty. From his poems it is known that he went to Bithynia as an aide to the governor of that province in 57-56 B.C. We also know from Cicero that Catullus was one of the "neoteric" or new poets. Whereas the majority of poets in Rome at that time produced epic poems, often commissioned by aristocratic families, Catullus and other neoteric rejected the epic and its public themes. The neoteric poets used colloquial language to write about personal experience. Their poems are mostly smaller lyrics that are characterized by wit and erudition. Aside from these facts, what is known of the life of Catullus comes from the thoughts expressed in his poems.
The knowledge of Catullus' poems comes from a single manuscript that survived the Dark Ages. This manuscript was discovered in Verona in around 1305 and disappeared again at the end of the century. Two copies of it, however, were made and one survives in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The other copy, which was believed to be owned by Petrarch, was also lost. The surviving copy contains 116 poems in three sections: sixty shorter poems written mostly in Greek lyric meters, primarily hendecasyllabic or eleven-syllable lines; eight long poems; and a set of short epigrams.
The shorter poems are often extremely playful and personal. Catullus speaks directly to his friends in a casual voice. For instance, the dedication poem begins with the lines "To whom am I giving my charming, new, little book / polished just now with the dry pumice stone? / Cornelius, to you: for you were the one / who thought this rubbish was something . . ." The short lyrics are often funny, and on occasion extremely crude. He also used these poems to explore the limits of friendship and love. He wrote twenty-five poems to a woman he named Lesbia, offering both erotic banter as well as heartbreak at her infidelity and their eventual breakup. English poets such as Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe wrote imitations of these poems, particularly poem five, which begins "Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love."
The longer poems deal with many of the same concerns. They also chronicle the death of his brother at Troy and Catullus' visit to his grave. In this poem, Catullus speaks frankly of loss and the inability to express such a loss. Many people consider it to be one of the finest elegies ever written. The remaining group of poems consists of short epigrams that offer satiric observations on the life in Rome.
Although nearly lost, Catullus' poems had a profound impact on later poets. This influence can be seen not only in Latin love poets such as Horace or Ovid, but also in English Renaissance poets such as Robert Herrick. John Milton spoke Catullus' "Satyirical sharpness, or naked plainness." Catullus has also been praised as a lyricist by twentieth century poets, and translated by writers as diverse as Thomas Campion, William Wordsworth, and Louis Zukofsky.