Getting Close to Catullus

The Poems of Catullus

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

Catullus; drawing by David Levine

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…

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