Comfort Classics: Sarah Cullinan Herring

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Sarah Cullinan Herring

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

In an academic context, I identify primarily as a Hellenist. All my work centres on Greek literature, particularly early Greek Epic and Lyric poetry – so it was surprising for me to realise, when I pondered this question, that the material from the ancient world that I turn to for comfort is not in fact Homer’s Odyssey, or the fragments of Sappho, but the poems of Catullus.

When did you first come across these poems?

This was the first un-adapted ancient text I ever read, in a very battered copy of Fordyce’s Catullus, which I still have, filled with my youthful (and sometimes rather embarrassing) notes. 

I grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland and attended Belfast Royal Academy, a state-maintained grammar school.  It was there that I was given the chance to study Latin for the first time, and thanks to an incredibly inspiring teacher, Mr John Reilly, it became my favourite subject at school and later on, the focus of my university study and my career.  The thing that really thrilled me about Catullus, when I first read his poems aged 16, was both how modern he seemed, and the sheer variety of both tone and subject-matter in his poems.  We had spent a lot of time early on in Latin reading endless adapted passages of Caesar, and the military exploits, geographical descriptions and tactics of his Gallic Wars had failed to really engage me, although I always loved the process of reading and translating Latin texts.  Suddenly to encounter these poems where the narrator was hopelessly in love, sulking because his girlfriend had dumped him, or making fun of his friends and rivals was a revelation to me, and certainly the moment when I realised how much ancient literature still has to teach us about human relationships and about life itself.

Can you tell me a bit about Catullus and his context?

I am far from an expert on Catullus, but offer these very basic remarks for those who may be coming to him for the first time. We know frustratingly little about Catullus’ life – even his dates of birth and death are not certainly known.  It is thought that he was born around 84 BCE and died around 54 BCE.  He was part of a group of Roman poets often called the neoteric poets, who emulated the literary, intellectual and refined poetry of the Greek Alexandrians such as Callimachus.  Catullus’ poetry is incredibly varied, both in metre and in subject-matter, spanning love, rejection, the social mores of Rome, witty criticisms of contemporary Romans as well as, in the longer poems, epic and mythic themes. 

What is it about Catullus’ poetry that appeals to you most?

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus

advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,

ut te postremo donarem munere mortis

et mutam nequiquam adloquerer 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. 

Catullus CI

Borne through many lands and across many seas

I come to these sad funeral-rites, brother

so that I can give you the final gift in death

and I can speak, although in vain, to your silent ashes,

since fortune has stolen your beloved self from me,

alas, my poor brother, taken unfairly from me.

Now, since it is all I can give, accept these gifts,

which have been handed down in the ancient custom of our ancestors,

a sad duty to the dead, soaked in a brother’s many tears

and – forever –  brother, goodbye and farewell.

My brother Ben died suddenly in August 2020 aged 29.  When I returned to Oxford after his funeral, I found myself reaching for my battered copy of Catullus and reading once more poem 101.  I have lived in England since I came here for university when I was 18 (I am 35 now) and this poem captured so much of my grief and sorrow at the untimely death of my brother, but also that sense of separateness that is caused when death strikes a family when it is geographically divided.

The poem moved me before, of course, but now I find that particular words resonate with me even more deeply, for instance the heart-breaking ‘nequiquam’ in line 4, when Catullus says he has made this journey ‘so that I can speak to your silent ashes in vain’.  This perfectly captures one of the hardest things about losing my brother, that I can never talk to him again. The other moment in this poem that gained a deeper, more personal meaning for me after my own loss was the closing line atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale (and forever, brother goodbye and farewell).  The terrible finality of death is something that is easy to accept rationally, but it is another thing entirely to be faced with it in the inner core of your own family.  This line now seems to me to express not only the finality of death but the permanent nature of grief, even if it is not always as intense or painful as it was when the bereavement was new, it is clear to me that our family will never be the same again, and equally clear that we wouldn’t want it to be.

This may all sound very gloomy, but I was deeply comforted and moved by re-reading this poem and feeling the profound truth of this shared human experience stretching from ancient Rome all the way to my family in Belfast in 2020.

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

I spend a lot of time outdoors walking in the countryside with my husband, Patrick – we recently did a trek across the Alps on the GR5 trail.  When indoors, I am comforted by the sporadic attentions of my small grey cat, Monty.  Comfort reading is also definitely helping with lockdown blues: anything from Jane Austen to pop-science via 1920s boarding school stories and modern fiction.  I’m currently reading What are you Like by Anne Enright which is a gripping read and very distracting!  Another excellent read for anyone who likes Catullus is ‘Bad Kid Catullus’ – a collection of different translations of different Catullus poems by modern poets and artists, which raises intriguing questions about where translation stops and homage or re-working starts.  Another therapeutic pleasure for me is cooking, and I have appreciated having more time to experiment with new recipes while working from home: I only made one (not very nice) lockdown banana bread but I have added several new savoury dishes to the repertoire.

Dr Sarah Cullinan Herring is the Hody Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Wadham College, Oxford and Senior Instructor in Latin and Ancient Greek at the Classics Faculty, University of Oxford.   She is the author of several papers on aspects of Greek epic and lyric poetry and is currently finishing her first monograph for OUP exploring depictions of poetic performance in Greek literature.

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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