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Getting Close to Catullus

The Poems of Catullus

translated with an Introduction by Peter Whigham
Penguin, 246 pp., $1.25

It would be easier to determine how far the decline of classical culture had gone if everyone would agree to be candid. The evidence of criticism and the better literary conversation (in America, hardly in England) suggests that Homer and the tragedians stand rather high at present. Yet the translations in which many of their admirers read them leave one wondering what exactly it is they admire. The Iliad that emerges in the best-known modern version is a work perhaps not quite so well written as Aurora Leigh. The worst Jacobean tragedy is surely far better reading than the best Greek tragedy in the Chicago series.

The reputation of Catullus (the only Roman writer we claim to esteem very highly) is rather more solid for it is grounded in some acquaintance with the text. Most people who care for poetry and are not impenitently monoglot have at some time encountered Catullus’ Latin, even if only a few deciphered lines (“amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla,” “nox est perpetua una dormienda“), and experienced that “direct shock of poetic intensity” which counts for more than volumes of criticism.

Catullus has been highly regarded ever since he re-entered the European bloodstream in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but he won a special position during the Romantic period when his passion and directness came to seem preferable to the more measured art of Horace. (“There are chords of my mind which he touches as nobody else does,” Macaulay wrote towards the end of his life. And Landor, in 1842, can take it as self-evident that he “has greatly more than” Horace.)

The modern approach, which seems to be about a hundred years old, goes even further. For Swinburne, for the poets of the Nineties, for Pound and Eliot, and now for Allen Ginsberg, Catullus has been found to be, in different ways, “contemporary.” (“He has living human interest,” Ginsberg says.) Decade after decade, he has fitted our major myths and demands. His poetry, unlike that of the Victorians, was direct and passionate (“Old poets outsing and outlove us,/ And Catullus makes mouths at our speech“). In its intensity, it was free from their discursiveness, a model for those who wished to purify poetry. The castrating experience of his love for Clodia made his life tragic and left him with what Yeats declared to be the artist’s only portion in the world, dissipation and despair. He rejected, in an un-Roman fashion we find sympathetic, the claims of public life, devoting himself instead to love and poetry and friendship (“Utter indifference to your welfare, Caesar,/ is matched only by ignorance of who you are,” poem 93 runs in the new translation by Peter Whigham). Like Donne—and unlike Virgil and Milton—he wrote from that unified sensibility which was possible before the fatal dissociation; setting up no privileged areas of subject matter, he seemed to possess what Eliot called “a mechanism of sensibility that could devour any kind of experience” and make poetry out of anything; his diction, by turns colloquial, ironic, tender, obscene, magniloquent, exemplifies the freedom and flexibility that poets of the last two generations have aimed at.

AS A RESULT Catullus alone of classical authors still belongs to poets and literary people while the rest have been handed over to the professors. We form our own opinions about Catullus; we fashion him according to our needs and images as men did with Virgil and Horace and Sophocles in the days when Greek and Latin literature was still a living force. Critics of course continue to offer us their views on Sophocles and (rather less often) on Virgil and Horace, but these views do not usually arise from the direct literary experience which they enjoy with Marvell and Yeats.

Catullus should then be the one ancient author we can hope to translate successfully. For translation—considered as an art; translation as a service, the more or less literate trot, is another matter—can only occur when a sufficient number of readers truly possess the original. It is in the critical relation to its parent text that a translation exists; without this it can only be a trot—or a new work. It is also necessary that the original, or some important part of it, live or can be made to live within contemporary experience. The Vita Nuova (for example) is not translatable at present; possibly even the Aeneid is not. (A true translation of Virgil, perhaps the greatest single need in this field, would be a major literary event.)

Of course no ancient author is wholly alive in our experience and the translator’s critical task, before he ever sets pen to paper, is therefore to “bring him over” and refashion him (or as classical scholars say, correctly from their point of view, “distort” him). Pound’s dealings with Propertius are exemplary. As J. P. Sullivan has shown, he intensified Propertius’ dubieties about imperial politics and imperial programs for poetry until they matched his own hatred for the British Empire and for Virgil (who is made to stand in for Milton). Pound also heightened a neglected aspect of Propertius’ poetry, “the stress on the relation of the artist to society, the vindication of private poetic morality against public compulsions,’* in the process making him a mouthpiece for two of his own major themes, the social importance of art and the sense of cultural crisis. Unless these elements—or other equally interesting ones—had really been present in Propertius, he could not have been translated at all. Equally, no translation could occur until they had been “adjusted” and brought into a significant relation with contemporary interests.

This may sound heretical; it is in fact perfectly traditional. What Pound did with Propertius, Pope did with Homer, and Edward Fitzgerald with Omar Khayyám; Robert Lowell is doing the same thing with a number of poets today. The real innovators are those who attempt, like Professor Lattimore, to put an ancient author almost word for word into English lines. Bentley objected that Pope’s Iliad, although a pretty poem, could not be called Homer; the objection to Lattimore’s Iliad is that it is not a poem. What makes Pound’s example so important is that by the polemical violence of his methods he drew attention to the old principles of the art of translation, in an age when the emergence of a large new reading public requiring straight renderings of the masterpieces of foreign literature has made it seem that the translator’s task is primarily to provide this rudimentary service.

WE HAVE no Homage to Gaius Valerius Catullus, but the translation, by Peter Whigham, of the whole oeuvre in a recognizably modern idiom is an event of some importance. Whigham has thought hard and intelligently about every poem, and his use of models (Pound, William Carlos Williams, and presumably Cummings) is interesting. If an initial criticism may be offered, it is that he seems sometimes to have thought more about his models than about what is still truly living in his author. But his approach is often successful:

…You do not spend bachelor nights.
Your divan, reeking of Syrian un- guents,
draped with bouquets & blossoms etc.
proclaims it,
the pillow & bedclothes indented in several places,
a ceaseless jolting & straining of the framework
the shaky accompaniment to your sex parade.

If this exercise in the ironically magniloquent manner of Homage lacks Pound’s brilliant verbalism, the tone of the last few lines goes some way towards suggesting the polysyllabic wit of “tremulique quassa lecti/argutatio inambulatioque.” Elsewhere—in number 32, for example—with some assistance from Cummings and our new sexual permissiveness, Whigham makes something gay and charming out of a poem that for an earlier translator would either have been impossible (novem continuas fututiones“? or dirty:

Call me to you
at siesta
we’ll make love
my gold & jewels
my treasure trove
my sweet Ipsíthilla…
prepare yourself
to come nine times
straight off together,
in fact if you
should want it now
I’ll come at once
for lolling on
the sofa here
with jutting cock
and stuffed with food
I’m ripe for stuffing
you,
my sweet Ipsíthilla.

Most of Whigham’s successes are in the predominantly social or occasional hendecasyllabics of the first section which have tempted translator after translator—usually to their undoing. The difficulty is that no English poet of comparable power—Marvell, for instance—has done so much within such seemingly casual structures. The wonder of these poems is that what seems so slight should be so strong; that the fragile circumstance of one man’s suffering and happiness should be transmuted into words so durably compacted. The objects and scenes of these little poems are as solidly “there” as Williams’s red wheelbarrow and more depends on them. Let the translator, armed with some relaxed system of “free verse,” set to work as nonchalantly as Catullus seems to do et tout lui craque dans la main. If Whigham has done better, it is largely because his versions belong recognizably to serious traditions of modern poetry whose founders owe not a little to the example of Catullus.

These are Catullus’ “modern” poems, and modern techniques work well here. For a longer piece, the wedding poem for Manlius and Junia, Whigham uses another contemporary form, the brief, sharply incised metrical cola, usually in falling rhythm, of Pound’s lyrical Cantos. It is a good enough idea and Whigham scores some local successes, but there is not much to be done with this marvel among poems in which the Latin language moves to its Greek measure with a radiance it never achieved before or after and yet loses nothing of its native strength, for the poem is rooted in Roman ceremony and is full, too, of an Italian tenderness of gesture and detail. The translator can get no purchase on a poem that lives so wholly in its own words and rhythms.

IT IS, HOWEVER, with the so-called Alexandrian Catullus that one begins to have doubts about Whigham’s approach. He does well with number 66, “The Lock of Berenice,” which he casts in heroic couplets, a justified allusion to Pope’s masterpiece paralleling Catullus’ allusion to Callimachus. This works because “The Rape of the Lock” provides a valid model. However, a longer poem in the same group, the decoratively mythological “miniature epic” on the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, becomes, more dubiously, a Poundian Canto. Now Pound’s poem may, in a sense, be called “Alexandrian”; but not in Catullus’ sense. The modern use of the past is very different, our approach to myth is very different. Moreover the Poundian technique of discrete lyrical cola does not readily lend itself to continuous, sometimes rather diffuse, narrative. Whigham succeeds at those places where the Latin exhibits the imagistic concentration which is at the heart of Pound’s best writing.

Zephyr flicks the flat water into ridges

This is modern; it is also very close to the Latin (“horrificans Zephyrus proclivas incitat undas“). Whigham’s translation would work better if the original poem were all as well written as this.

How then, it may be asked, should the poem be translated? The answer, quite simply, is that it should not. (This is not at all to say it should not be read, in Latin. We can enjoy, by an act of historical sympathy, much that we cannot translate.) There is no contemporary mode to which it belongs. The critical point—which the intelligence of Whigham’s work helps to establish—is that a complete translation of an ancient poem or body of poems is impossible. All that can be done is to do what Pound did in Homage and concentrate on those parts which are alive today.

A further area where I think Whigham fails is with the personal elegiac poems of the third section, notably number 76, “Siqua recordanti,” in which Catullus struggles to conquer the long sickness of his love for Clodia. The difficulty, in part, is simply that this is very great poetry, perhaps the most moving and, in the best sense, personal poem that antiquity has left us. But there is also something in the poem, an inner strength and confidence, that reveals the gulf between Catullus and ourselves, and this may have inhibited Whigham. In any remotely comparable modern poem—Baudelaire’s “Réversibilité,” for example, or Lowell’s “Night Sweat”—the hope is simply to come through alive. Yet Catullus, in the depths of his abasement, can pray for health and joy. This is very grand; it is one of the reasons why we turn back to the great art of the past; and there is nothing whatever we can do about it today.

Whigham’s versions will probably strike the classical reader as “too free.” In fact, they are not free enough. He was committed, so be it, by the terms of his endeavor to do Catullus complete. Following his masters a little too externally, he has concentrated too much on the form, not perhaps enough on the substance. This is Catullus done in a modern style; it is not quite Catullus made new. It remains a most interesting piece of work, a modest landmark in the arid lowlands of classical translation. It sends one back with renewed excitement to the original. And it raises, partly to its own cost, fundamental questions about the nature of translation, that central literary performance about which modern criticism has done strangely little serious thinking.

  1. *

    Ezra Pound and Sextus Propertius, a Study in Creative Translation, Austin, 1964, p. 28.

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