Badmouthing City

William Fitzgerald

  • The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition translated by Peter Green
    California, 339 pp, £15.95, September 2005, ISBN 0 520 24264 5

Peter Green’s splendid new translation of Catullus makes quite a substantial volume: more than three hundred pages in all, with an introduction, parallel text in Latin and English, notes, glossary and index. Such treatment doesn’t feel quite right for this ‘new witty booklet, all fresh-polished with abrasive’, as Catullus describes the book he dedicates to Cornelius Nepos in poem 1. The standard Latin text of Catullus’ works (which may or may not include this ‘witty booklet’) is one of the slimmest volumes in the Oxford Classical Texts series, and yet this diminutive collection of ‘trifles’, as Catullus calls them, has generated enough commentary to fill a small library. But for all his deprecation of the ‘booklet’, Catullus ends his dedication by praying that it may ‘outlast at least one generation’. Two thousand years later we are opening yet another translation to see how Catullus’ uniquely elusive and enticing voice survives. The news is good. This is a translation that sounds like Catullus, ‘all fresh-polished’ but abrasive too.

Catullus was not just being modest when he called his poems trifles. Their nugatory quality is deliberately provoking, intriguing and puzzling. What, they seem to say, makes this note to Cicero a poem?

Sweetest-spoken of Romulus’ descendants,
past or present, Marcus Tullius, and all who
may yet follow in the distant future –
warmest thanks to you herewith from Catullus,
who’s the worst of all poets, by as much the
worst of all living poets, as yourself are
best of all courtroom lawyers for your clients.

Green is remarkably successful at catching the rhythm of Catullus’ 11-syllable metre, though he can’t resist the temptation to make this a ‘better’ poem by expanding the vocabulary and varying the constructions. In Catullus’ Latin, awkward jingles, bare symmetries and a restricted and repetitive vocabulary all lend a dutiful sound to the string of superlatives (most eloquent, best, worst, warmest). The poem seems to compose an awkward silence that falls on its completion. Even Cicero, who was not a modest man, must have suspected that there was more to this than meets the eye. Was Catullus parodying his self-importance and the orotund symmetries of his prose? Would he be immortalised as the sort of person who would swallow something this bald? Or were these just paranoid imaginings? Modern readers are in much the same situation, not sure whether we are in on the joke or not. Unlike Cicero, we don’t know what occasioned the poem. Green’s excellent notes lay out some of the possibilities, including the speculation that Catullus is thanking Cicero for sending him some of his (wretched) poetry. But the point of this poem lies in the teasing deadpan itself, which challenges us to imagine the verse as speech, to give it a tone of voice and supply the missing context, while not actually confirming any of our speculations.

Catullus’ poetry has its roots in the world of social intercourse, which in first-century BCE Rome was changing, as the elite found new arenas for the competitive display of their pre-eminence. The ability to write an elegant letter, whisper a malicious witticism, turn a compliment or snub a boor had become an essential part of being a Roman. Traditional values of fides (‘trustworthiness’), constantia (‘steadfastness’) and gravitas (‘weightiness’) were no longer enough; they needed to be tempered with humanitas and urbanitas, qualities that encompassed an appreciation of Greek culture, social sophistication, wit and an ability not to take oneself too seriously. Catullus’ poetry introduces a circle of friends who insist on standards of urbanity and wit in their social relations. They share literary tastes and principles, engage in savage polemics, swap enthusiasms and tease each other (to the extent that it’s often difficult to tell friend from foe). Their watchwords span the aesthetic, social and erotic spheres – ‘charm’ is about as close as one can get to this concatenation in English – and many of Catullus’ poems concern who does or doesn’t qualify as ‘urbane’ or ‘charming’.

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