Thursday, June 13, 2013

Catullus (84 BCE? – 54 BCE?)

(first published 2006 in Intercapillary Space.)

Grotte di Catullo, Sirmione - image from

This is about the dead past. Every one of us has sixteen great-great-grandparents, yet I wonder if there’s a single person on earth who can name all sixteen. (Perhaps there are cultures who would go this far, but really I doubt it; instead the ancestor-worshippers go for uni-dimensional lineage, which is the origin of canonization – but I’m anticipating myself.) It doesn’t sound so desperately difficult to know, those sixteen people, but why don’t we know, why would we have to “unearth” them, and why don’t we bother, why is there a repulsive pressure - just “let it go”? Simply, these personal ancestors, now dead and unable to affect our present lives, have slid off the desk of human relevance. They become like the zenith directly over our heads, where we hardly ever look. They become like the dreams of last night whose causality is severed by waking. And since anyway my sixteen are not your sixteen, we never have occasion to talk about them.

That’s how things go. They slip quietly away, those multitudinous ancestors and their loves and grievances, to make space for our own. [*see note at end]

Anyway, we have something better to talk about: the classic authors. By classic authors I do not mean specifically Greek and Roman authors, I mean authors who are widely embraced by educational schemes and arouse a usually unreflective excitement. And by authors I mean makers in the broadest sense, so this idea also comprehends artists in other media, scientists, thinkers, statespersons who left a legacy behind; for that too is an artefact. They who have left widely-embraced artefacts are in principle capable of causality – like a temporarily out-of-action toy that might if jiggled with long enough suddenly start working again. So it’s a convenient social contract, these canonical pseudo-ancestors, and we willingly agree to talk about Catullus, you and me, though he’s no relative of ours to our knowledge. Of course this is no mystery. It’s why the review pages of the newspapers contain hardly any new art but invariably turn with relief to biographies, histories and of course translations and other re-exhumings of these common inheritances. People are acquainted with Catullus and everyone can tag along to the miniscule debate even if they don’t have their own little axes to grind. And I’m not refusing the invitation; that’s just the kind of re-view I’m writing now – or Mario Petrucci’s pamphlet, to be honest, probably wouldn’t justify such extended attention.

But I’m uneasy. Because we do it, because of the very ease of doing it, we don’t know why we do it.

The poems of Catullus survive because of a single manuscript that surfaced in the fourteenth century. They were perhaps all written in the last couple of years of his life. He was part of a combatively innovative literary circle – the works of his friends Calvus and Cinna, however, are lost. They disliked most of the other Latin poetry around at the time; that too (fortunately, Catullus would subjoin) is lost. Thanks to that one lucky manuscript Catullus’ own work survives more or less complete, the first collected short poems in Latin Literature. The intimacy and directness of his poems – most of them, anyway – mean that he is easy to take as a sort of honorary modern poet who happened to live a long time ago, like Sappho. He was upper-class, he speaks his mind flippantly and fiercely on national figures but unlike Cicero was not involved in political controversy; we know very little of what he did, apart from have love affairs, see his mates, and travel (in what we suppose a junior capacity) on government service to Bithynia – his poems don’t bother to mention anything he did there apart from look around, so there’s no alienation effect. He is highly accessible and for the last hundred years perhaps the only Latin author who is widely influential on poetry; perhaps not so much a real influence as a sort of reassuring reflective mirror. Modernists (via the Zukofskys) and children of the sixties (see Whigham below) reached out for him, but the unfortunately widest impact of Catullus is on anti-modernist poetry which greets his work with relief as evidence of an a-historical conception of the eternal model of what a lyric poet ought to be; along with, for example, Herrick on Julia’s clothes.

Catullus’ accessibility manifests itself (as with other classic authors) as a pyramid which as you ascend it makes you pay more for less. The base of the pyramid is the immense number of texts, translations and notes that are freely available on the Internet and where this paper is content to take its modest place. The classical authors act as magnets that attract immense communal aggregations of enthusiastic work, a mixture of the amateur and the out-of-copyright.

Everyone knows that these authors sell ten times as many books as any contemporary literature. Their significance as a kind of adhesive of educated society is beyond my ambitions to discuss: it can sometimes feel inspiring, more often a little sad. One of the more impressive monuments of Catullan enthusiasm is This site only contains translations of the poems into many languages, but it has 154 contributors! Here is the English translation of V by Rudy Negenborn himself:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us judge all the rumors of the old men
to be worth just one penny!
The suns are able to fall and rise:
When that brief light has fallen for us,
we must sleep a never ending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them all up so that we don't know,
and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.

That not-quite-idiomatic simple English isn’t the voice of Catullus (which spoke and still speaks Latin, nothing else) but it is the authentic representative voice of the great base of the pyramid, and so is this, for the base has many voices:


Lesbia, let us love and live,
While the greybeards shake their fingers!
Not a penny will we give
For their talk while life still lingers.

Suns may set and suns may rise,
But, as soon as we are bidden,
We must close in sleep our eyes
For ever, and our light be hidden.
Kiss me then a thousand times, etc.
That’s John Anthony Bernard Harrisson (1909-1983), whose translations – delicately bowdlerized and with a long-superseded biographical note – can be found on his son Geoff Harrisson’s family website (, and it's my example of the weird, various, moving, depressing, essentially un-dialogic murmur that arises from all of us when we’re not talking to anyone in particular.

Ascending to the middle cornice brings us to the books you can buy “in any good bookshop”. They are inexpensive and handy. For instance, for £6.99 you can buy all of Catullus’ 116 (or 117) poems with English translations by the classical scholar Guy Lee, and rudimentary commentary (Oxford World’s Classics, 1989); enough, anyway, to gain some kind of foothold.

The ostensible target of Lee’s waspish Introduction is Yeats’ disrespectful poem “The Scholars” (“Lord, what would they say / Did their Catullus walk that way?”); the real target I think is that bracingly anomalous Penguin Classic, Peter Whigham’s free-ish translation of Catullus (1966) in a Poundian spirit and a manner strongly recalling both W.C. Williams and the “Children of Albion” – a real piece of sixties culture.

 At his best, Whigham is like this (from IV, the boat poem):

        you witnessed the beginning
        when she stood
straight on a hill-ridge behind the port,
in your waters
        you saw the new oar-blades first flash,
thence through the impetuous seas
carrying her owner
       the call
first to lee
       then to larboard
sometimes the wind-god falling full on the blown sheet.
While in sharp visual contrast, on the facing page (you know the poem by now)

Kiss me now a
thousand times &
now a hundred
more & then a
hundred & a
thousand more again
till with so many
hundred thousand
kisses you & I
shall both lose count

Whigham comes into his own with the most artful poems (the long LXIV in particular) – where Pound and Jones proved fertile influences – and he instinctively weighs what’s at stake in our stupefyingly patterned way of employing the classic authors, as Lee (for instance) never thinks of doing. Faced with such pages as these we have new things to think about. On the other hand Whigham is inaccurate, disappointingly uneven and sets us a lot of unintentional puzzles – some of them, admittedly, the effect of forty years – that we have no hope of clearing up.

Guy Lee, true to the more conservative objective of giving us a credible “sense” of a historical writer, deserves praise too – for his really skilled deployment of the immense resources of common educated language; this is much better for the long-distance conspectus (as if the main reason people have for reading Catullus is to be able to talk about him, which is indeed largely true) – until the time comes when he too slips out of date, but meanwhile there’s the recent Peter Green translation, and by then no doubt there’ll be A.N. Other.... Lee is at his best with the discursive and epistolary, as here, from LXV:

For lately a wave rising on the flood of Lethe
Lapped the pale foot of my poor brother,
Whom the land of Troy has snatched away from our sight
And crushes beneath the Rhoetéan shore.
Shall I never again be able to hear you speaking?
Shall I never, brother more lovable than life,
Set eyes on you again? But surely I shall always love you,
Always sing songs saddened by your death,
Like those the Daulian sings beneath the bough’s thick shade
As she mourns the fate of murdered Itylus –
Yet still despite such sorrows, Hortalus, I send you
These songs of Battiades translated for you,
Lest maybe you should think your words were vainly spent
On the wandering winds and slipped my mind...

Lee makes no overt claim to be a poet and values accuracy above all, yet surprisingly is sometimes hard to understand. Thus he ends poem V (see above) thus:

Or lest some villain overlook us
Knowing the total of our kisses.

where Lee is so concerned to avoid the not-quite-accurate rendering of “invidere” as “envy” that he ends up not really translating it at all, so you have to go back to the amateurs to catch the drift.

Similarly that literary disagreement with Aurelius and Furius, who think the kissing poems are a bit soppy, starts off:

I’ll bugger you and stuff your gobs (XVI, 1).

(Pedicabo ego uos et irrumabo)

which in its search for brevity ends up introducing a fatal vagueness. You more or less get the idea, but the sociolinguistic tone is all wrong. (“I’ll fuck you in the ass and make you suck my dick”).

Finally at the apex of the triangle is the expensive stuff like new scholarship, comprehensive editions in hardback, and the efforts of modern poets.

Thus it will cost you £4.50 to be seen with Mario Petrucci’s Catullus, a pamphlet that contains the Latin texts of eight of the shorter poems along with sort of translations – free versions, imitations, travesties... Economics shouldn’t really come into this, but still, it seems a high price for being on the cutting edge.

Petrucci, of course, is trying to make poems where Lee thinks only of making translations. But this is not necessarily to Petrucci’s advantage. He can’t subside into Lee’s comfortable range of received literary language. Lee is tastefully at ease when he admits “maybe you should think” and “slipped my mind” (in the quotation above), but see what happens when Petrucci tries to mix spoken idiom and classicism:

Not one girl isn’t in the know...

I’ll not tire or wilt in extra time...

What does that sound like? A poet being slangy; no-one else.

Anyhow, down to business.

LXX (Nulli se dicit mulier)

This is the four-line poem about not taking literally what a woman says in passion. “Lesbia would rather tie a knot with me”, begins Petrucci – somewhat encumbered by the idea of marriage – his expression permits the interpretation “have sex with”. But when it comes to the crucial last line he does well: “consigned to air - / inscribed in skipping water”, which is lovely for “rapido” and throws open the prospect of delighting in Lesbia’s mutability and in impermanent inscription. I must add that the poem as a whole runs uncomfortably close to Whigham’s translation, so it’s only a minimal HIT.

XXXII (Amabo mea dulcis Ipsitilla)

Catullus’ lustful after-dinner request. Petrucci renders it more so by making the “tight little door” sexual. The original poem says “make sure no-one bolts your door” but this idea of a protective husband is unwanted. “If you’re up for it” strikes the blokey note but “I’ve pigged out” looks wrong sociolinguistically – blokes don’t talk like that. Why Petrucci thinks he makes things better by incorporating “Then add to this one further favour” (translationese, but he’s not translating anything) and a new weak ending (“as if already nine tenths the way to your place”) I don’t understand. MISS.

LXIX (Noli admirari)

The principal poem about Rufus’ B.O. Petrucci lets the imagery go into overload, and I quite like the climax “day and night in each cave of your armpits is tethered a goat”, but Petrucci says everything twice like someone who can’t decide which of his choice expressions to use. MISS.

XXIII (Furi cui neque)

Catullus’s fantasy about the begging companion Furius. Petrucci is even more fantastic:

                                You eat your way out
of trouble: forest fires, earthquakes, pillaging
armies, lakes of poison, Armageddon – all go
down before an advancing hunger whose each
carcass you call ‘body’ is a cornucopia stuck
in reverse.

And much more. It doesn’t start well but it turns out to be the best of these poems by a fair distance, mainly because the whole matter of supply and nothing, profusion and desert, strikes Petrucci’s environmentalist imagination. HIT.

V (Vivamus mea Lesbia)

The famous-to-the-point-of-hackneyed poem for which I gave those naive translations earlier. Aurelius and Furius might not accuse Petrucci’s version of being a bit soppy; those thousands of kisses have turned into a just-lie-back-and-enjoy-it blow-job, the penny’s become a snatch and even the sun works “its bright end in / and out of the planet’s soft quim”. In all this excitement the original reason for the sun being in the poem slips away. In Catullus’ poem those unnumbered kisses are a desperate recipe against “perpetua nox” – let’s never slow down enough to write our memoirs. Yet Petrucci (again in environmentalist mode) has something to say about unaccountability too:

                        And whoever
finds the forest of kisses our bodies
have made, would he not walk
in its loving shade?
The ease of a forest, for us, is so critically a matter of not being able to count the trees. So a MISS, but with qualifications.

XLVIII (Mellitos oculos tuos)

In Catullus, this is another poem about thousands of kisses, addressed not to Lesbia but to Juventius. Petrucci goes off on a word-association thing:
Honey – when it come to kissing
we’d out-score Juventus...

Cue footballing metaphors: Catullus as Nick Hornby. It also, of course, hetero-normalizes the poem, makes Catullus catch the 07:10 to Cannon Street every Monday morning and chaff his workmates about the week-end results, and does away with any exclusive elitism (which the neoterics, however, possessed in good measure). Besides, Italian teams and high scoring don’t go together. MISS.

VII (Quaeris quot mihi basiationes)

The third kissing poem – the one about grains of sand. This is free but the additions are very Catullan (“desires that lie deeper than marrow in bone”), and its ending nods at the future of Catullus’ poems, and at Yeats’ “Scholars”, besides contemplating the extinction of all our loving moments.

unless curiosity unleashed sets them peering
into our dark of sky a thousand years to gabble
away each speck of light with corrupt tongues.

Which, I think, is another way of expressing my earlier uneasiness. We keep dressing the marble monuments of these immortal classics, but isn’t the freshness of that past horribly betrayed by exhumation, and reverence a kind of irreverence? HIT.

XI (Furi at Aureli comites)

All of the Latin is given but Petrucci works only on the “not good words” that end it, which in fact he decontextualizes to make a fiercely moralistic close; the rhythm, biblical and crushing:

                                        and let this adulterer lose
all touch with the faithful who, through that adulterer’s
own folly, must fall – just as the furthest tallest flower....
But the sound is already contradicting Catullus’ individual pathos, the one cut flower; you can hear it: we’re all going down in swathes, faithful and false together. After earlier suppressions of a marital context this sermon is such an eccentric thing to produce that it collapses the fabric of Catullus and translator altogether, leaving us to witness a pencil-beam into a vast, still universality of expression. And adultery, as on the last page of Troilus and Criseyde, then becomes somehow irrelevant. HIT.

Mario Petrucci, Catullus is published by Perdika Press ( (ISBN: 978-1-905649-00-6)


*Note: Sixteen great-great-grandparents. My claim that no-one can name them is perhaps most vulnerable in regard to royalty: Prince Charles' sixteen great-great-grandparents are probably quite easy for anyone to discover; none, I imagine, were commoners. In aristocratic circles such distant forebears continued until recently to seem relevant from the point of view of inherited loyalties, claims and connections. Better documented still are the 16 (and even the 32) forebears of famous racing thoroughbreds, such as Seabiscuit - but of course their remoteness in time is less - records painstakingly maintained because of a widespread belief (probably erroneous, but valuable to horsebreeders) in the relevance of pedigree to racing potential.

* Reflections (in Swedish) on Catullus and Sappho:

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