Catullus, carmen 109: poem interpretation in latin classes

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Catullus, carmen 109: Longing for lasting happiness in love

Learners encounter some motifs in Catullus, carmen 109 that they know from their own lives: They realize that certain basic longings held the Lyrical I in thrall in an ancient poem just as they do today. How this existential constant can be used for the interpretation, you will learn here.

Symbol image: statue group Cupid & Psyche

Longing for love happiness and a lasting relationship – today’s students can empathize well with the author’s situation in Catullus, carmen 109. Photo: giadarossi / Pixabay

Carmen 109 is – typical for Catullus – neither a cheerful nor an advertising love poem, but a soliloquy in the loneliness of one’s own heart. It gives expression to a hope, which seems to him even immoderate and on whose fulfillment he does not really trust. It serves the expression of the soul agony and its relief by poetry. The poem does not strive for a processing and solution of the problem.

(Unfulfilled) love and longing, these are constants that especially middle school students know only too well from their everyday lives. Therefore, it is easy for them to put themselves into Catullus’ poems – also into the thoughts of the Lyric I in Catullus, carmen 109. They connect Catullus’ poem i. d. R. undistanced with their own concept of love and friendship and relate it to their own experiences and ideas. They automatically choose a subjective approach – this is an opportunity for Latin teaching, because it makes the lesson exciting for them and the poem interesting for them.

Basic longings in Catullus, carmen 109

Students will recognize that certain basic longings with regard to love were also present in antiquity, and that Catullus addresses a number of motifs familiar even to us:

  • the longing for the happiness of love (iucundum amorem),
  • the desire for permanence of the relationship and thus of happiness (perpetuum fore, tota vita, aeternum),
  • the importance of the beloved / girlfriend for one’s own life (mea vita, sanctae amicitiae) and
  • the doubt about the sincerity of the promise of love and about its durability in the area of tension between wanting and being able (ut vērē promittere possit, … sincere … et ex animo).

Possible questions for a creative interpretation

An existential interpretation always gives space for discussion and in this way encourages the participation of individual students. Thus, from today’s perspective, several questions arise for Catullus, carmen 109, which can already lead into a creative interpretation and reception:

  • Is Catullus’ attitude in love understandable for us or is it wrong?
  • Does Catullus’ "fault" consist in wanting "too much" (cf. the Council of the Seven Sages: ne quid nimis)? Is it therefore advisable or wise to dampen and reduce one’s hopes and expectations with regard to love?
  • What means and ways does Catullus use to make sure of love? How would you try to get certainty today if you were unsure about a relationship?
  • What symbols do you know that today’s lovers use as an expression of their desire for a lasting relationship?
  • If the difference in intensity of the feeling of love is a fundamental problem in love – almost always one of the two loves the other more and therefore depends on his or her love in return: What advice would you give to someone in such a situation?

Contrasting elements

But also those elements should be picked out in contrast, which at first seem strange to today’s young people and which have to be especially opened up through interpretation:

  • Why does the lyrical I call upon the gods for help?? (Why is this necessary for the ancient man? – Which gods could he address? – What can and should the gods achieve at all??)
  • How could one have been assured of a person’s love in ancient times? (Examples: An oath before the altar of Venus or Juno, an expensive love gift, a love letter or love poem…)
  • Did marriage already exist as a sacred covenant in antiquity? (foedus aeternum sanctae amicitae)? (The different types of marriage covenant, the social meaning of ancient marriage, symbols in marriage, the Augustan marriage laws, etc.).)

The own interpretation does not necessarily have to be relativized in the lessons by historical localization – this depends on the didactic goals. Whoever wants to classify Catullus’ poem in terms of literary history can relativize the interpretation, which reaches into the psychological, by a linguistic-historical and literary-historical classification. This can be done in the form of teacher information or a work assignment.


Many of Catullus’ carmina have timeless contents; they are for the most part short and can be read in their entirety. This makes them a suitable candidate even for the beginning of the reading phase. This issue provides a diverse picture of Catullus and his works.

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Learn More?

This article is an excerpt from Rudolf Hennebohl, "Linguistic and existential interpretation using the example of c. 109", AU 3+4/2019, Catull, S. 10-21

You can find the detailed description of the teaching sequence in this post. He shows on the example of c. 109, how to interpret Catullus poems existentially, in such a way that – starting from a philological text and language analysis – one becomes aware of the existential relevance of the respective poem. The guiding question is: what existential feelings, longings and fears concerning "Catullus’" life and experience can be discerned from the linguistic coding and symbolization?

More lesson ideas from the "Catullus" issue

In The old language teaching no. 3+4/2019: "Catull" you will also find teaching ideas on the following topics:

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