Reflections of Catullus 38
in Allen Ginsberg’s
“Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo”

Alan M. Corn (Bexley High School, OH)

For over two thousand years lyric poetry both Greek and Latin have remained remarkably consistent. The essence of ancient lyric poetry is as vibrant and refreshing in the 21st century as it was once upon a time. The Beat Generation of Allen Ginsberg and the Neoterics of Catullus share common ground. Both groups contained a close circle of friends who were attempting to “push the envelope” literarily.

The points of comparison are metrical, narrative, and thematic. Ginsberg mirrors and closely approximates the hendecasyllabics of Catullus #38 in his own inimitable poetic voice. He substitutes Kerouac for Cornificius, and changes Catullus’ sadness into happiness; thereby, inverting Catullus’ anger.

This is a wonderful example of both translating and recapitulating an ancient poem into a modern idea. Concerning #38 Fordyce states: "A message written in physical illness...or, more probably perhaps, in mental distress." Ginsberg takes this apparent curmudgeonly poem and makes it into one of exultation. The sadness is not emanating from the addressee, but coming from the receiver of the poem. Through a careful line-by-line examination, we can see the way both Ginsberg and Catullus fashion a similar view of a lyric poetical world.

I will compare and contrast these two poems in order to show the similarities between Catullus and Allen Ginsberg. As a result, we will be able to see that ancient lyric poetry is as modern as anything being written today.

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