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A Dangerously Modern Poet


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,1 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 of them epigrams.

Catullus’ word libellus cannot be a reference to the book that has come down to us. A papyrus roll large enough to contain the entire collection would have been too bulky for use and too liable to tear. The word probably refers to the first sequence of short poems in different meters; the rest would have been accommodated in two more rolls. The poems were presumably organized in one book when, in later centuries, the codex, a volume of folded sheets sewn together, became the standard book form. We do not know whether the arrangement of the poems in the book reflects the intentions of the poet; it may be the work of an editor who assembled the collection from the poet’s manuscripts after his death, at the age of thirty, probably in 54 BC. There are what look like fragments of unfinished poems in the manuscripts and missing lines here and there; opinions differ on whether these phenomena are the result of accidents in the transmission or the decision of an editor to include everything he found in the poet’s papers.

The three earliest copies (now in Oxford, Paris, and Rome) suggest that if Rather in the tenth century was reading the same manuscript found by Campesani in the fourteenth, he must often have scratched his tonsured head in despair of making sense of it. It has been calculated that it contained at least a thousand errors, some of them so compounded as to produce garbled nonsense that was changed into metrical and meaningful Latin only by the magic wand of scholars on the order of Scaliger, Bentley, and Housman. But the state of the text was not the only thing that must have disturbed the bishop of Verona. The content of many of the poems is explicitly sexual (and not all of it heterosexual) and, at times, flagrantly, if often wittily, obscene. We do not know what Rather’s reaction was, but Catullus has proved too hot a brew for more than one modern editor. A recent English edition (1961), with a valuable commentary by C. J. Fordyce, professor of Humanity at the University of Glasgow, would have been even more valuable if he had not omitted “a few poems which do not lend themselves to comment in English.”2 That “few” amounted to thirty-one items out of the total of 113. “Tropic of Cancer,” so ran a review in the Glasgow University Magazine, “has been published in vain; Lady Chatterley has tiptoed through the bluebells to no avail.”3

The book also contains some of the most exquisite love lyrics ever written, equaled in their passionate intensity only by those of Sappho. Catullus acknowledges his debt to her by adapting for Latin verse her characteristic meter and stanza, even going so far as to translate the first three stanzas of the famous poem in which she details the physical symptoms produced by the fearsome combination of desire and jealousy. Sappho, however, is not the only Greek poet so honored; poem 66, as Catullus tells us himself, is a translation of Callimachus’ courtly compliment to Berenice, wife of King Ptolemy II of Egypt. It celebrates the disappearance from the temple of the lock of her hair she had dedicated when her husband went off to war and its reappearance as a constellation in the night sky where, neighbor to Bootes and Virgo, it still shines, known to stargazers and astronomers as the Coma Berenices.

Callimachus was the Alexandrian scholar-poet par excellence, the arbiter of literary elegance, the scourge of long-windedness, the high priest of subtle allusion. He had become the New Model for a whole generation of Roman poets of the last days of the Roman republic, the age of Julius Caesar and Cicero. These are the poets whom Cicero—himself a gifted poet-translator, though known to posterity mainly as the author of one superbly fatuous line4—referred to with the Greek word neoteroi and the Latin words novi poetae, words that in his mouth and in their context were not entirely complimentary. The two members of this group best known to later generations were Licinius Calvus (affectionately addressed by Catullus in poems 14 and 50), whose work has not survived, and Catullus, whom later Roman poets described as lascivus—“playful” but also “licentious”; argutus—“clever, witty,” and, most frequently, doctus. This word—“learned, sophisticated”—is a clear reference to his adherence to the Alexandrian program. He avoided undue length; his nearest approach to an epic is only 408 lines long. He favored exotic subject matter; poem 63, for example, features a young Greek devotee of the goddess Cybele who in a wild frenzy of devotion castrates himself in order to become one of her eunuch priests and then bitterly regrets his action. And he rejoiced in near-pedantic mythological allusions: “maiden of Amarynthus,” for example, is Artemis, a puzzle that must have sent many an older Roman reader in search of his equivalent of Lemprière’s classical dictionary.5

This poetry, as Cicero realized, was a radical break with the Roman epic tradition of Ennius that he himself admired, and it is appropriate that Charles Martin, introducing Catullus to modern readers, should set his poet in a similarly neoteric context. He mentions William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Henry Miller on page 4, quotes Archibald MacLeish and Wallace Stevens on pages 6–7, Pound on page 8, and Williams on pages 9 and 10; he goes on to cite Ivor Winters, W. H. Auden, Frank O’Hara, and Marianne Moore, as well as writing, on pages 20–21, a “neoteric manifesto” for Catullus and his friends, “based on a similar document concocted by Ezra Pound and F. S. Flint at the instigation of Harriet Monroe, who wished, in 1913, to explain Imagism to the readers of her new magazine Poetry.” Martin is aware that “this may be too facile an analogy” but claims that there are “similarities between these ancient modernists and ours.” And he proceeds to explore them, in what must be the liveliest, most consistently interesting and rewarding introduction to the poetry of Catullus that the general reader could ever hope for.

One of the reasons for its brilliance and effectiveness is that, unlike many critics who undertake to introduce ancient authors in translation, he doesn’t have to wrestle with the deficiencies, inadequacies, and even outright errors in an English version that, for all its shortcomings, is the best one he can find. Martin relies on a translation that successfully re-creates in English the wit, the lyric exaltation, the playful banter, the despair, the scurrilous invective, and the dramatic flair of the original, all of it moving easily in artfully contrived and skillfully controlled English equivalents of Catullus’ many and varied meters. This translation is his own; it was published in 1990 by the Johns Hopkins University Press.6

Not the least of its virtues is that, as might have been surmised from the mention of Henry Miller in the opening pages, Martin is not one for whom Lady Chatterley has tiptoed through the bluebells to no avail. The opening hendecasyllable lines of poem 16:

Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,
Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi…

appear as:

I’ll fuck the pair of you as you prefer it,
oral Aurelius, anal Furius…

This is slightly milder than the original, but that is no fault of Martin’s. “The English language,” he explains, “provides the groaning translator with no exact equivalent for most of the terms Catullus uses.” These two lines, and many others like them, certainly justify Ovid’s description of Catullus as lascivus in the letter he wrote to Augustus from his place of exile in Romania apologizing for his own risqué Art of Love. But besides meaning “free of restraint in sexual matters,” lascivus can also mean simply “playful, frolicsome.” Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo…. “Does he really mean it?” Martin asks himself and the reader. It is a good question, for in another poem, (number 11), one of the most famous in the book, Catullus addresses the very same pair in very different terms.

  1. 1

    Modern editions number the poems 1 to 116 but numbers 18, 19, and 20 are omitted. These three items, mistakenly attributed to Catullus, were inserted by Muretus in his influential edition of 1554, printed in Venice. They were later, in the nineteenth century, expelled from the text. But the numbering had become standard for reference and so is retained to this day.

  2. 2

    See C. J. Fordyce, Catullus: A Commentary (Oxford University Press, 1961).

  3. 3

    See T. P. Wiseman, Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 242. The review was signed “Asinius Pollio,” and Professor Wiseman was reliably informed that the author was “a student in Fordyce’s own department.”

  4. 4

    O fortunatam natam me consule Romam. “O happy Roman state born in my consulate!” Cicero is boasting about the drastic measures (later indicted as illegal by his enemies, among them Clodius Pulcher, Clodia’s brother) to save the republic from the coup d’état planned by Catiline. The translation is that of W. V. Clausen in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Vol. I, Latin Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1982) p. 178

  5. 5

    Unless the correct text is Rhamnusia, in which case the goddess referred to is Nemesis—an only slightly less arcane allusion.

  6. 6

    The original publisher was Abbatoir Editions, University of Nebraska at Omaha, in 1979.

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