O filth, O beastliness

Elspeth Barker

  • Catullus by Charles Martin
    Yale, 197 pp, £22.50, July 1992, ISBN 0 300 05199 9

With characteristic perversity, Gaius Valerius Catullus has left us a grand profusion of vivid glimpses into his life, but no overall account. The known facts are few. He was born in 84 BC to a wealthy family in Verona. At the age of fourteen or so he moved to Rome to further his education; there he remained. Although he made regular visits to his family’s properties in the north, the city was his element:

Illa domus,
Illa mihi sedes, illic mea carpitur aetas.

He began to write poetry under the patronage of Memmius and circulated at least one collection of poems. His beloved elder brother died in Bithynia, and in 57 he visited his grave while on a year’s diplomatic service in Asia Minor. He had a long and turbulent affair with a woman whom he called Lesbia. In 54 he died. One hundred and sixteen poems survive.

Catullus is generally regarded as the most accessible of Latin poets. His language is simple, his voice direct, his imagery colourful and often lurid. He and his fellow spirits, rich, dandified and hedonistic young men, were innovators, neoteroi, reacting against the old Roman epic tradition and mocking it where it persisted: cacata charta. Their models were the poets of Alexandria, whose work was characterised by extreme sophistication of technique, experimental rhythms, erudite allusion and word play lurking under a veneer of concise simplicity. To this Catullus added a powerfully personal element. The majority of his poems directly address friends, enemies, places, himself, even a door. Any subject was fit for versifying; only the didactic incitement to civic or martial duty was rejected. So he created an effect of effortless colloquialism and spontaneity which belies its own artistry.

Charles Martin’s handsome book seeks to emphasise the modernity of Catullus’s poetry and examines the relationships of individual poems to each other with a view to proving that they were arranged by Catullus himself, and not, as is often claimed, by some unknown posthumous editor. They are set out in three groups, according to length and metre. The first 60 poems, which are fairly short, are written in a variety of metres and generally described as the polymetrics. In the centre of the book is a series of long poems, followed by 47 more short ones in elegiacs. The very first poem offers the book in dedication to Cornelius Nepos; the final one seeks a worthy recipient for the poems of Callimachus. This is the sort of formulaic evidence on which Martin makes his case for Catullus as editor; it is unconvincing, to say the least. What of the fragments? The poems which may have been lost? Catullus’s works disappeared at some point in the late Classical period and were undiscovered until a parchment codex was found by Dante’s patron (putative but pleasing) at Verona in 1300. This copy could not have been made until (at the earliest) the third century AD when the codex form began to replace papyrus scrolls. Why should the first poem addressed to Lesbia be the 51st in the book, and the last be number 11?

According to Martin, the long poems, which consist of four poems in different metres, followed by four in elegiacs, are a single entity with eight sections, ‘linked by chiastic inversion’. This claim is illustrated by a diagram and a discussion of the poems’ themes – sanctified married love and unsanctified passion. It is all quite interesting and quite fun, but one can’t but feel that it just doesn’t matter. And it really is very hard to believe that Catullus, iconoclast as he was, would have intended his address to a door to be regarded as part of the Peleus and Thetis poem, or indeed the Attis and Cybele. You can dwell too much on a fondness for chiasmus.

This said, Martin does provide an excellent chapter on the Peleus and Thetis taken in isolation, explaining the apparent lack of unity between the description of the wedding feast and the description of the coverlet in terms of a series of wall paintings. This is a device which Catullus also uses in his celebration of his boat, her life and times. Here Martin is at his best, writing with vigour and enthusiasm, tracing the repetition of images, the convergence and dispersal, the elegance of structure with the vanishing mast of Theseus’s ship as its axis. He illustrates his points, as he does throughout, with his own competent and conscientious translations. In the case of Catullus, this is a rare achievement. And, while on the subject of translation, let me add that it is more than time that a new Loeb Classical Library version appeared. The current one was first printed in 1913, is remarkably vapid and archaic – ‘O filth, O beastliness!’ – and is so prudish that it simply ignores the existence of any lines it deems improper. This means that a lot is left out.

Catullus’s most celebrated poems are the 25 which deal with his relationship with ‘Lesbia’, a pseudonym chosen, not, of course, to suggest that she was a homosexual, but as a compliment, implying that she was a puella docta of Sappho’s calibre. As Martin points out, it also has the same metric weight as Clodia, thought to be her real name. Propertius said that Lesbia was more famous than Helen of Troy, while Clodia herself was notorious for her profligate behaviour. Ironically, the poem which comes nearest to identifying her is one in which Catullus refers to Lesbia’s incestuous relations with her brother, complaining that she prefers him: Lesbius est pulcher. Clodia’s brother (described in court by Cicero as Clodia’s husband) was known as Clodius Pulcher. Martin discusses the Lesbia poems with a certain literal-mindedness: ‘What Catullus wants is nothing less than sole and exclusive possession – given all those thousands of kisses, when would she have time for anything else?’ I don’t feel we need this. What he fails to mention is that this poem, ‘Vivamus’, contains some of the most marvellous lines ever written.

Connecting the lament for the sparrow with ‘Vivamus’, he remarks: ‘The conclusion to the logical syllogism we expect is overwhelmed by the conclusion to the poetic syllogism. This is a syllogism of pure intentionality.’ What can he mean? Every now and then such grim turgidities occlude his normally lucid style, perhaps his vision too. He takes the famous last lines of the final Lesbia poem, with the image of the flower broken by the passing plough, as indicating a role reversal, with Catullus playing the flower and Lesbia the plough. Certainly the poem discusses Lesbia’s brutal behaviour, but the flower is not Catullus – it is his love for her. And he discovers the anagram Lesbi in the phrase at tu dolebis. This is absurd.

Turning to the other shorter poems, both polymetric and elegiac, Martin points to the differences between the poet’s trade then and now: notably, the social nature of Roman poetry, which was written to be read aloud, in the colonnades of forums, at organised readings, at dinner parties. Thus Catullus is able not only to single out his friends and enemies for abuse, but also to render this abuse immediately public. There is none of the isolation which attends the modern poet. But the expectations of audiences were different too: few, even now, could publicly bandy the obscenities which flow so easily from Catullus, conjuring up images of a sultry city seething with twined male bodies, prostitutes lurking by bath houses, incest and pederasty. But just as Catullus can combine intellectual and technical virtuosity with marvellous lyricism, so he infuses his scatological poems with a saturnine merriment and meticulous structure. Even in the notorious

Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo
Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi,

which as a delicate Scotswoman, I don’t propose to translate, there is the crisscross of chiasmus; even in the most obscene of all, to Aemelius, where there is the pissing mule (to put it very, very mildly), the language is chosen with deliberate artistry.

Martin makes much of Catullus’s poems of invitation and threat as aspects of his ‘modernity’, evanescent in that they are specific, offering no generality. Sometimes they are in monologue, sometimes in dialogue, but are set by their nature in the present, with an implied future, and in this respect they do, of course, differ from the old poetry of Rome. They exist in themselves, for themselves. But ultimately they are simply elegant jeux d’esprit. The same, I feel, goes for the poems on present-giving. Martin gets carried away on the fusion of death, dinner and desire.

The best part of the book, to my mind, are the pages which discuss poem 65, to Ortalus. This was written at a time of profound grief, after the death of Catullus’s brother. Ortalus has asked for a poem. Catullus cannot write; he addresses his brother in lines of great beauty:

at certe semper amabo
semper maesta tua carmina morte canam.

The poem passes from acute pain and sorrow, through the legend of Procne and Itylus, into a promise to send some verses, and then an image of renewal, an apple or pomegranate rolling across the floor. The poem is wonderful, and so is Martin’s exposition.