Poet Lore/Volume 25/Number 6/The Vengeance of Catullus
THE VENGEANCE OF CATULLUS
Written in 1887. Action takes place in Rome, in the year 60 B. C.
Persistrates, a Syrian slave dealer arrived in Rome with Acme, a beautiful Greek slave. While he was taking her through the forum in order to deliver her to her new master, Consul Quintus Cecilius Metellus, the Syrian stopped to hear the exhortation of a demagogue. Acme took advantage of the preoccupied mind of the rustic and slipped away from him. He raised a hue and cry, a mob gathered and they pursued the beautiful slave. She ran into the house of the poet, Gaius Valerius Catullus. The slaves of Catulllus woke up and prevented Persistrates from entering. The combat brought the poet to the door, and he, finding the girl exceedingly pretty, and upon ascertaining the name of her new master, offers her his protection. He orders his slaves to eject Persistrates, who swears that Metellus shall avenge the wrong.
Persistrates.— The mighty Metellus will avenge me. He paid well for this slave, and she is his. I’ll go, but you will pay dearly for this, you obstinate Roman—and that miserable slave also.
Catullus.—Not another offending word against her—she is my guest. (To his slaves.) Get me rid of him, and if he does not go, throw him out into the street.
Persistrates (partly on the threshold and partly behind scene).—This is a den of robbers—but I’ll teach you—slave thief! I know well why you will not give her up—you leach, you want a beautiful slave for nothing, beggarly Romans—you are all cheats—all of you. Senator a rogue, Quaestor a rogue, Consul a rogue, Pontifex Maximus a rogue—all rogues of you. (The slaves drive him out.)
(Gaius hides the girl in an adjoining chamber. Metellus promptly arrives.)
Metellus.—Good cheer to you, Gaius Valerius. Pray forgiveness of the muses for me, because I tear you so rudely from their sweet embrace.
Catullus.— How do you fare, O Consul? Alas, both the muses and my friends have forgotten me.
Metellus.—Your blame probably in both cases.
Catullus.—Hardly—consul—but permit me to offer you a seat in my house. (Points to a seat.)
Metellus (seating himself).—You are forgetting all your friends. How long is it since you were with us? Did some one offend you? Perhaps Cicero is in your way? Did his wit hurt you?
Catullus.—Cicero’s wit cannot offend me—he is so much older and he saved the country.
Metellus.—He did not save it alone—others had a goodly share in it, though they do not brag about it. Was it young Cæsar, perhaps? He is so free with his tongue—but, then, you know when we drink we loosen up a bit. Ha! Gaius?
Catullus.—Neither did Cæsar offend me. They whose minds are equal to mine, I respect, and the others I regard not.
Metellus.—Well, was it Gellius?
Catullus (to himself).—That scoundrel. (Loudly.) Let us forget it, consul. We cannot change the world.
Metellus.—Then it could have only been Clodia. I always tell her to be careful of her sayings, lest she offend the best of my friends. How unfortunate! How stupid!
Catullus.—Be not vexed, consul. How long I have absented myself from your house, I know not—but I know that the old order still prevails there. Sometimes a blossom falls away from the bough, but the tree blooms as ever—somewhere in the forest, a bird grows silent forever, but the forest resounds as of yore with thousand-throated song. Why should the hackneyed life change its course for my sake? Not even we poets are indispensable to this world.
Metellus.—Truly spoken, Gaius Valerius. You were always clever. Well, in the house things remain unchanged. Cicero talks political gossip between his nods over the wine cups; Cæsar teases and plays with my wife’s slaves, and Gellius——
Catullus.—I care nothing about Gellius. Tell me about your wife, about Clodia.
Metellus.—My wife entertains Gellius. (Observing that Catullus is displeased.) Why are you displeased? The evenings are so tedious—if you would come, she would entertain you, Gaius; it is all the same to her, dear friend.
Catullus.—And to you also, apparently. This would be very funny indeed if it were not so sad.
Metellus.—What do you fear, Gaius Valerius?
Catullus (to himself).—Shall I open the eyes of this bloated fool? But to what end—I’ll rather get rid of him. But how? (Loudly.) Let that pass, consul. Your visit has moved me deeply, it brought to my mind the memories of my former visits at your house. Days of our old friendship and jollity, that true Roman jollity. Let us be merry and forget. Wine! Ho, there, Furinus, some wine. (Furinus enters.) That old wine, which Hortensius praised, saying it contains all the laughter of Bacchus.
(Furinus brings in an amphora of wine and two vessels, and serves.)
Metellus.—I never offend Bacchus by refusing his pure divine gift.
Catullus.—Well said, my friend,—pure wine! Wine is never mixed except by fools and duped husbands. Let’s drink to their health. (Raises the vessel.)
Metellus.—There is meaning in your words. I’ll gladly respond, for I am neither one nor the other. (Raising the vessel.) So to their health, Gaius. (Laughing.) But why should just these two sorts mix their wine?
Catullus.—Fools mix their wine, Consul Metellus, because they are fools.
Metellus.— And duped husbands?
Catullus.—Love is like wine.
Catullus.—So that duped husbands drink only mixed wine.
Metellus.—There you are! I never thought of that—well, well—these poets—rascals! Well, as long as I drink unmixed wine. Long live poetry. Gaius Valerius. (Raising vessel.)
Metellus. And love! But unmixed, ha! ha! (He laughs.)
Catullus.—Yes, unmixed. (They drink.) And what are you citizens doing in the Senate, consul?
Metellus.—The Senate? I am the Senate.
Catullus.—What’s doing in politics? The provinces.
Metellus.—I am the provinces.
Catullus.—Pardon my short-sightedness, consul, I should have asked what are you doing?
Metellus.—I am opposing the agrarian laws. That fool Flavius thinks that the Senate does not know that Pompeius is back of his laws. We are more clever than he thinks.
Catullus.—Yes, it is either Pompeius or Cæsar, there is no room for a third man in Rome.
Metellus.—What’s that? It is either Metellus or Pompeius, you ought to say. (Drinks.)
Catullus.—Oh, yes, Metellus. (To himself.) It’s all fiddle-sticks to me.
Metellus.—Cæsar? Begone! Who’d think of that stripling after that scandal.
Catullus.—Scandal? I know nothing about it. I pray you, tell me. (He pours out more wine for him.)
Metellus (drinking).— You don’t tell me that it is news to you? Are you living in the Cycladæs Islands or in Rome? There certainly was a scandal and a great one, too.
Metellus.—I always predict that women will be the ruin of young Cæsar. They will be his misfortune. He is losing his hair rapidly, and as for a beard, he will never be able to grow one. Ha, ha, fancy it! Cæsar is a prætor, you know that.
Metellus.—And a prætor must hold at his house ‘the feast to the Goddess of Chastity.’ It takes place at night, and no man must be present. Now, you know that the brother of my wife is crazily in love with Pompeia, the wife of Cæsar.
Catullus.—I know that.
Metellus.—Pompeia was the priestess at this feast—ha—ha—and Clodius, dressed woman’s garb, went there—ha—as a harp player—ha!
Catullus.—The rascal. And they found him out?
Metellus. Of course. You know Aurelia, Cæsar’s mother. She has sharper eyes than Argus. She screamed and howled, and the next day all Rome was full of the scandal. One of the tribunes of the plebs had to sue Clodius for blasphemy of the gods.
Catullus.—A pretty little tale—but why Cæsar? What had he to do with this?
Metellus.—Did it not happen in Cæsar’s house? Was not Clodius there after Cæsar’s wife? And then Clodius said that Cæsar egged him on. He wanted to find out what the women folk did at the ‘Feast of Chastity.’
Catullus.—But did not Cæsar testify in favor of Clodius? Did he not defend the honor of his House and prove the alibi of Clodius?
Metellus.—Cæsar did—yes—but not Cicero.
Catullus.—But what cares Cicero for the wife of Cæsar and the pranks of Clodius.
Metellus.—Oh! simple poet! (Laughs.) Back of all was Terentia, the wife of Cicero.
Catullus.—What has she to do with it?
Metellus.—Baby! (Drinks.) You know that the evil tongues said that Cicero is after the sister of Clodius, my wife, Clodia.
Catullus (to himself).—And they did not lie either.
Metellus.—And that angered old jealous Terentia, the wife of Cicero—so now Cicero had to testify against his old friend Clodius—understand?
Metellus.—When you marry—you will. These women are awful! Fancy it! The other day, Gellius said that every husband—every one, he said, is duped and deceived by his wife—what say you about it?
Catullus (with an ironical smile).— Nothing at all, consul.
Metellus.—Not I, of course, that’s self-understood. I told him, and they all agreed with me, that I am not. No, sir! I drink my wine unmixed—ha—ha. That was excellent wit, that was, Gaius Valerius. (He laughs and drinks; wants to rise, but overcome by wine, sinks back into the seat.) I must tell this comparison at home—they’ll have a good laugh about it. But here I talk and talk and forget the purpose of my call.
Catullus.—I am anxious to hear it.
Metellus.—This morning I bought a little present for Clodia, a young slave from the Syrian dealer, Persistrates. I wanted to surprise her.
Catullus (to himself).— And enjoy yourself.
Metellus.—We told him to bring her to the house of Cæsar, and we would all look her over.
Catullus (to himself).—Poor girl! (Loudly.) Yes, and——
Metellus.—And we waited over at Cæsar’s, and waited, and drank and drank——
Catullus (to himself).— So much the better.
Metellus (he is speaking more and more sleepily and slowly).—And the slave dealer does not come—no—no—hour after hour—no slave dealer—then he comes alone—face like a red beet—the fool! She escaped him——
Catullus.— What can I do about it?
Metellus.—He blurted out that she ran into your house, Gaius Valerius—here into your house. Gellius wanted to call an ædile with lictors for the slave—but I said—Gaius Valerius Catullus—he is a friend of mine—a good friend of mine—you understand, said I—no scandal among friends—I’ll go there and we’ll settle it like good friends. Gellius said Catullus wants to anger Clodia, so he takes in pretty slaves as substitutes, but I made believe I did not hear it—I never hear it when any one insults any of my friends my friends—and you are a good friend of mine—you and Cæsar and Hortensius and Gellius and Cicero.
Catullus.—Nice company, thanks. (To himself.) Not asleep yet!
Metellus.—And I want good-will everywhere among friends—ha—ha—everything quiet, peaceful, ha—ha—understand. (He falls asleep.)
(When the corpulent Consul has fallen asleep, Catullus summons Furinus and they move him into a curtained niche and hide him. Catullus recalls Acme, who overheard part of the preceding dialogue. A love scene ensues. Acme does not know who Catullus is and recites some of his own poetry, which she memorized. Acme admits that she is betrothed to Septimius Severus, a friend of Catullus. Just then Furinus enters hastily and announces the arrival of Clodia. Acme resumes her former place of hiding. Clodia (surnamed also Lesbia) enters and demands the slave. Catullus refuses. Clodia names Catullus, so that the listening Acme learns for the first time that he is the very poet whose verses she had been reciting. Clodia complains bitterly of the infidelity to her of Catullus. He answers by reminding her of her numerous lovers. He names Gellius, Gellius Peplecola, his uncle, Cælius, Rufus, Sestus Clodius.)
Clodia.—Accuse me—Oh, pure swan of Verna! Who is Aufidia, Ipsitilla?
Catullus.—They succeeded you, O Clodia! My poisoned heart sought peace and oblivion. It discarded the shattered chalice in which it found but ugliness and sin. Love? Neither you nor I knew love, Lesbia, and now it is too late.
Clodia.—To-day, you are a sober and a bitter sophist, poet Catullus. Love means a different thing to you than in former years. You have forgotten the happy days when you and I secretly met in the house of Manlius. Forgotten your kisses and your verses to me when we sat among the tangled blossoms of Egyptian poppies. Then you lived, Gaius, because you were a poet still, and you loved. To-day your lyre is mute—but I still love you fervently, passionately.
(Catullus reminds her of her liaison with Gellius. She replies that she uses Gellius to forget her sorrow, her love for Catullus. She demands and implores, wants to kill the Greek slave. He reminds her of her husband and her immorality. She admits she is but the victim of circumstances. When very young, she married Metellus, and he left her for a campaign through the morasses of Gaul. She is insistent. He moves away from her—she follows—)
Catullus.—What do you want? All is at an end between us.
Clodia (after him).—Nay nay. The poem of our love is but beginning now.
Catullus.—Unfortunate, what are you doing? (Moves nearer to the curtained niche.)
Clodia.—A great poet—you may be, but a heartless man you are. (She follows and he stops, at the curtain. She implores him and kneels down. She raises her hands to him.) Forgive me—love me!
Catullus (who is standing closely to the curtain, steps aside quickly and pulls the rope, the curtain opens rapidly and Clodia kneels at the feet of Metellus. The consul’s hands embrace his rotund abdomen, and he is snoring loudly).—Here is your place Clodia.
Clodia (crushed).—This is treason!
Catullus (laughing loudly).—Ho, Consul Metellus, rise! You never experienced such a scene as this. Behold!
Clodia (to Catullus).—You wretch!
Metellus (awaking, just as Clodia is rising from the ground. He rubs his eyes).—My sweet little dove see, Gaius Valerius! Here, indeed, is a wife for you.
Catullus (with irony). She longed for you, consul. She was jealous of you. I did not know how to convince her that, overcome with the burden of the cares of state, you succumbed to sleep here. She demanded to see you, so I had to satisfy her—that perfect wife of yours.
Clodia (in a rage).—I shall remember this.
Metellus (rising. To Catullus).—And the gossips were saying that you and she—Ha! Ha! I drink my wine unmixed, do I not, Gaius Valerius?
(Acme is called then, and accompanied by Furinus is escorted to the house of her betrothed, Septimus Severus. Persistrates appears and explains that it was all a mistake, that the real Greek slave girl had been found by him and was already at the house of Metellus.)
Metellus.—Well, at any rate, I had an excellent nap here—suppose we go home—dearest Clodia.
The indispensable hackneyed screen of French comedy is here, to be sure, but there is subtlety in the treatment which discloses a skilled hand. And there's an atmosphere in this bit of an act which relieves our conception of the heavy deus ex machina Cæsar and his times by the sketch of the young Cæsar, who is rapidly getting baldheaded, who flirts with Clodia’s slaves and sends her brother to spy on his own wife. And thundering Cicero falls asleep between cups of wine and political small talk. The self-same familiar touch prevails in his treatment of all heroes, be it Samson, Bar Kochba or Titiano Vecelli.
To-day, modern Bohemian literature is in a transitional period. The great poet Svatopluk Cech is dead—Vrchlicky is gone, and while there are minor dramatists and poets, whose work is perhaps about equal to that of Pinero or Henley, there are none whose fame would spread far beyond the limits of the crown lands of Saint Venceslas.
In the field of humor and satire, however. Bohemia was exceptionally favored in the birth of Ignat Herrman. Unfortunately his writings are so local, the types drawn so purely burgeois Bohemian, that the non-Slavonic world must forever be denied the pleasure of the exquisite wit and humor unparalled by any one else in the Bohemian world of letters. His is a treatment of a sympathetic onlooker, and while each type is provokingly ludicrous, the peculiarities and helplessness awakens our sympathy and love. His ‘Little Shop that was Eaten Up’ (three volumes) is a masterpiece. Almost a photographic portrayal of the life and death of a small shopkeeper, it contains unsurpassed humor and pathos. While his ‘Prague Sketches,’ his ‘Little Folks of Ours’ (childhood experiences superior to ‘Tom Sawyer’), ‘Small Animals I Have Tried to Keep,’ and many others, would not offend our Anglo-Saxon prudery, there are others where plain speaking is not avoided, and he completes such details of his picture willfully, knowing that he is writing for a nation whose mind is pure and which demands truthfulness from its teachers and bards.
All such writers of Bohemia, however, owe a debt to Vrchlicky which they cannot over-estimate. Mainly a poet, he inspired other poets. As a dramatist he lifted the drama from the marionette stage. As a translator he made it possible for younger men to study from a good translation the works of Shakespeare, Byron, Ibsen, de Musset and many others. As a patriot he taught the younger men to look for art among men and women of the Boehmerwald, Erz and Riesengebirge. His works have as well a practical stage value. The following one-act piece could be mistaken for a play coming from the Guignol, the Stadtheater or the Princess. I have taken some liberty with the original manuscript and left out a sentence here and there to bring it a little closer to our understanding of a one-act play. The ending of the play was also changed. Modesty, not my intention, forbids my stating that I touched it but to adorn. I trust, however, that the intrusion of the minor mind will cohesively blend into the frame work of the entire picture and not mar its effect.