A Dangerously Modern Poet

Catullus

by Charles Martin
Yale University Press, 197 pp., $11.00 (paper)

The Poems of Catullus

translated by Charles Martin
Johns Hopkins University Press, 181 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Yeats’s poem about Catullus, The Scholars, published in 1919, speaks of “lines/That young men, tossing on their beds,/Rhymed out in love’s despair/To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.” Charles Martin, in his book on Catullus in the Yale Press’s Hermes series, is fully aware of the poet’s “unimpeded spontaneity and uninhibited self-expression,” but he is interested also in presenting him to modern readers as “a masterful ironist practicing a highly sophisticated art.” Martin, like Yeats, is a poet; the difference in emphasis is in part due to the gap between their generations.

There might well have been no text of Catullus for them to differ about, for his work came within a hair’s breadth of perishing forever in the centuries that saw the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the European kingdoms. The production of books was the province of the Catholic Church and its monastic scriptoria; they preserved, partly for educational purposes, the classic works of the Augustan and later ages. They even had copies made of Juvenal, who could be just as scabrously obscene as Catullus and on occasion more so. But Juvenal wore the mask of a harsh moralist, while Catullus’ mask was that of a fashionable, loose-living young man about town.

From the second century until the ninth, the only citations of Catullus that turn up in the literature are fragments preserved by grammarians and encyclopedists. One poem, our number 62, a dialogue between choruses of youths and maidens at a wedding ceremony, appears in a ninth-century anthology, and in 965 Bishop Rather of Verona, a contentious Fleming, wrote in one of his sermons: “I am reading Catullus…[whom I] never read before.” It was in Verona, Catullus’ home town, that early in the fourteenth century a complete text of the poems came to light; its discoverer, one Benvenuto Campesani of Vicenza, claimed, in an enigmatic Latin poem he wrote on the manuscript, that it had been “shut up under a bushel.” This reminiscence of the New Testament suggests that the phrase may be metaphorical; Campesani probably found the manuscript lying neglected in the library of the cathedral at Verona, where Rather had left it when, at odds with the ruling dynasty and the local clergy, he was forced out of office in 968.

Campesani’s manuscript soon disappeared, and has never resurfaced. Fortunately copies had been made; on them depends the text of what Catullus, in the dedicatory poem that opens the collection, calls his libellus, his “little book.” It consists of 113 poems, in lengths ranging from two lines to four hundred and eight. They are arranged in three sequences of roughly the same size; the first consists of fifty-seven poems, most of them short, in different meters; the second is a group of longer poems, also in a variety of meters, with the longest, number 64, its center; and, lastly, a run of poems in elegiac couplets, most of them short, many …

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Letters

The Wrong Catullus! January 14, 1993