odi-amo-tone

The classic, and classical, poem addressing a lost brother is by Catullus (84– 54 BC; author of “odi et amo”, “I hate and I love”) :

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus

advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias

ut te postremo donarem munere mortis

et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem.

Quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,

heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi,

nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum

tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,

accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu

atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

[I’ve traveled far across many peoples and many seas

and come, my brother, for this—your— miserable funeral

so that I can give you this last gift of the dead

and speak, pointlessly, to your silent ashes.

Since fortune took you away from me—

God-awful, totally unfair, my brother taken from me—

now still anyway these rites, inherited from our family

and handed down in the gloomy tradition of funeral services,

accept them, my brother, flowing in this stream of tears

and hey, always be well. My brother, be well.]

I imagine the speaker here nearing the end of his long trip to his brother’s funeral, writing his eulogy, a ten line unrhymed poem in elegiac couplets. The gift he brings in line three, and that he asks his brother to accept in line nine— what is it, exactly? Grammatically it is somewhat unclear— the direct object of accept is haec, a pronoun that refers mostly to the “funeral rites” that their family is accustomed to. But the speaker’s gift is also the words he wants to speak, in line 4, and which he actually does speak in the last line of the poem: hey, always be well. My brother, be well. It is eerily like “December 2”, where the speaker repeats his request— I only want to say hello to him— twice in the chorus. Catullus wants to say hello, and he does, knowing that his brother’s ashes can’t reply. But he doesn’t say his brother can’t hear him.

The gift in this poem is also the rites flowing in a stream of tears. Or the gift is, as the novelist Frederick Exley quoted someone else as saying, the abundant tribute of my tears. Which leads us to the next, and best, poem on the loss of a brother…maybe tomorrow.

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