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.

Aurelius and Furius, true comrades,
whether Catullus penetrates to where in
outermost India booms the east- ern ocean’s wonderful thunder;

whether he stops with Arabs or Hyrcani
Parthian bowmen or nomadic Sagae;
or goes to Egypt, which the Nile so richly dyes, overflowing;

. . .

you’re both prepared to share in my adventures,
and any others which the gods may send me.
Back to my girl then, carry her this bitter message, these spare words…

Did he really mean it? If these two are his “true comrades,” ready to go to the ends of the earth with him or for him, to take his message to Lesbia, how can he make the degrading threats that open poem 16?

Anyone who has ever served time in an enlisted men’s barracks knows, of course, that startlingly obscene and even threatening language is common coin between acquaintances and even friends (though the specific threats made by Catullus would in any real situation be regarded as fighting words). For that matter, I have heard Washington luminaries of the legal, medical, and musical worlds exchange, in the sauna of a health club, insults they would be appalled to see reproduced in print. There is an element of play in such threatening exchanges, and Martin explores this aspect of Catullan invective, drawing on Gregory Bateson’s theory of metacommunicative discourse, in which signals are exchanged that carry the message “This is play.” These signals constitute a “frame separating play from reality” and one of the key signals is exaggeration. Martin suggests the example of a father who playing with his three-year-old son “strikes an exaggerated posture of threat and says: ‘I’m gonna getcha!’ ” The child understands that this is a play situation.

The “frame” of the Catullan threats is of course poem number 16, the artificial construct in which they are embedded and which distinguishes them from the random and formless obscenities of the barracks latrine and the sports locker room. The intricate patterning of those opening lines, so sophisticated in their arrangement of the Latin verbs, nouns, and adjectives (something “Alexander Pope would have appreciated”), acts “as a counterbalance” to the horrendous threats and keeps “the playful frame intact.” And as the poem proceeds it becomes clear that the precise terms of the sexual threats have been carefully chosen. Aurelius and Furius think they have detected indications of effeminacy in Catullus’ poetry; these threats are the classic response of the virile male to such a charge. But the exquisitely artificial form of the threats undermines this assumed persona of hairy-chested, outraged masculinity, and in any case, it turns out, the offense of Aurelius and Furius is literary—they have misunderstood, or misinterpreted, one of Catullus’ poems.

The poems, then, especially those of the first section of the book, are to be read with the caution firmly in mind that “for Catullus the poet’s responsibility lies within the poem rather than outside it” and that, for the poet, “exaggeration in the service of persuasion is no vice.” These are formulas that, as Martin himself admits, are “getting close…to modernist notions of the self-referential work of art.” They may be useful guides to our understanding of passages like the ribald onslaught on Aurelius and Furius, but what about Lesbia? How much play is at work in the poems that have made Catullus famous, the triumphant lyrics of love returned and the despairing elegies of love betrayed, the apparently unrestrained outpouring of desire and ecstasy, of hatred and contempt, that have encouraged Romantic critics and romantic readers to accept the Lesbia poems as slices of life, to construct a history, even a chronology, of the love affair of Caius Valerius Catullus and Clodia Metelli? For Clodia, we are told by a later writer, Apuleius, was the real woman to whom Catullus gave the name Lesbia in his poems.

She was the most notorious and talented of three aristocratic sisters who were all, in the Roman patriarchal fashion, named Clodia—the name of the family—until they could assume in addition the name of a husband and become “somebody’s Clodia,” as Catullus’ Lesbia became “the Clodia of Metellus,” the wife of Quintus Metellus Celer. Information about Roman wives of the Republican period is not usually abundant, but Clodia is an exception. Unfortunately for her reputation, she was a key witness in 56 BC for the prosecution of one Caelius, who had persuaded Cicero to undertake his defense. Cicero had good private grounds for hating Clodia and even stronger grounds for hating her brother Clodius Pulcher. In the masterly speech he delivered in court he set out to blacken her name. He started by calling her a prostitute, proceeded to hint broadly at the truth of rumors that she was her brother’s mistress (“that woman’s husband—excuse me, I meant to say brother—I always make that mistake”) and suggested that she had poisoned her husband Metellus, who had died in 59 BC. How much truth there may have been in Cicero’s allegations and innuendoes we cannot estimate, but he obviously counted on their effectiveness in the courtroom. Nevertheless, Clodia was a member of one of the most distinguished families of the Roman aristocracy; she was wealthy and also cultured. Catullus must have been just as flattered and overwhelmed by her initial acquiescence as he was humiliated and embittered by her later infidelity.

In the Lesbia poems, Martin warns us, we should remember that Lesbia is not Clodia; she is “that complex fiction to which Catullus gave the name of Lesbia,” a “theme running through many” of the poems, “an emblem abstracted and idealized from the poet’s experience, the projection of his erotic expectations and disappointments.” The play factor is not to be entirely discounted. The numbers game in poem 5, for example,

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
another thousand next, another hundred,
a thousand without pause & then a hundred…

is, like the threats to Aurelius and Furius, a case of playful exaggeration and, as Martin reminds us, literary play is at work in disconcerting fashion in one of the poems (number 60) that has often been taken as Catullus’ last, perhaps even dying, word to Lesbia.

Either a lioness from Libya’s mountains
or Scylla barking from her terrible bitch-womb
gave birth to you, so foul & so hard your heart is:
the great contempt you show as I lie here dying
with not a word from you! Such a beastly coldness!

In 1983 George Goold pointed out in his edition and translation of Catullus7 something “that had been overlooked for at least the past seven hundred years” of scholarly commentary and interpretation: in the Latin text, the initial letters of the lines reading downward, followed by the terminal letters of the lines reading upward, form the words NATU CEU AES—“by birth like bronze.” The lover’s last agonized cry is encased in an Alexandrian acrostic straitjacket.

Yet, though Lesbia is not Clodia, the ecstatic happiness and the racking torments of the poet’s love for her are brought to life in lines that for emotional impact and immediacy have no parallel in ancient literature. And many of the elegiac epigrams of the book’s third section seem, as Martin puts it, “to have been written as antidotes” to the playfulness of so many of the polymetric poems of the first. “They are satirical or analytical instruments of discovery and correction,” and they are aimed not only at others but also at Catullus himself and his “lapses in self-awareness.” It is a process that culminates in the renunciation of his love in poem 76.

Now I no longer ask that she love me as I love her, or—even less likely—that she give up the others:
all that I ask is for health, an end to this foul sickness! O gods, grant me this in exchange for my devotion.

Martin finds the poet’s obsession with Lesbia not only in the first and last sections of the book, where she is named, but also in the central section, the long poems (61–68), where she is not (though she is clearly the woman referred to in poem 68). Here, however, the illusion of conversation with and criticism of a real woman in a variety of social situations is abandoned for a strategy of “mythologizing their relationship and projecting its drama onto a larger screen than the lyric can provide, thus transforming his passion and her infidelities into something beyond the reach of praise or blame.” In poem 68, a reminiscence of the lovers’ meeting in a house provided by Allius, to whom the poem is addressed, Lesbia appears as “my radiant goddess,” who came to him “stepping / lightly and paused to stand with the sole of her sandal / on the well-worn threshold as her bright foot crossed it.” Since she is one of the immortals, Catullus must put up with her infidelities and be grateful for what she grants him, but, as Martin says, the immortal with whom Catullus chooses to compare her comes as something of a shock:

…often Juno herself, the greatest of goddesses,
gulps back her passionate rage at the sins of her husband, knowing the countless tricks of promiscuous Jove!

Lesbia is Jove, and Catullus, as Juno, must play the silent, acquiescent wife to a philandering husband.

Martin sees an even more drastic mythological image, of Lesbia as a cruel and dominating goddess, in poem 63, in which Attis’ passionate devotion to the goddess Cybele drives him to the extreme of castrating himself to become a priest in her service. When he comes to his senses and tries to return to his home, the goddess sends one of her lions to drive him back into the forest. “The impetuous and ferocious domina wills both the emasculation of her slave and his exile in the forest, an endless separation from the rational and supportive society he willingly abandoned to join her service.” And he finds another echo of Catullus’ doomed love for Lesbia in poem 64, the epyllion, the minor epic that describes the wedding of Peleus and Thetis; it is the long, pathetic lament of Ariadne as she stands in the shore eddies watching Theseus’ ship vanish in the distance on its way to Athens—another instance, says Martin, of “thematic cross-dressing,” like the casting of Lesbia as Jove and Catullus as Juno in poem 68.

For most readers, the most puzzling and alien poem in the whole collection is this minor epic that is clearly one of Catullus’ major offerings, an Alexandrian compact, allusive narrative, exquisitely crafted and probably, like the lost Smyrna of his friend Cinna,8 the end product of many years of work (Cinna’s epic, we are told in poem 95, took nine). Catullus’ poem 64 is a narrative with no real action, hardly any characterization (Ariadne is the only figure that leaves an impression of a real personality), and in which almost half of the lines are devoted to a description of an embroidered coverlet on a couch in the palace where the guests for the wedding of Peleus and Thetis are gathering. This coverlet illustrates Ariadne’s abandonment on the island of Dia off Crete and her lament as she sees Theseus’ ship leaving without her, Jove’s consent to her prayer for vengeance, Aegeus’ instructions to his son to hoist a white sail if he returns safely, Theseus’ forgetfulness in hoisting a black sail and Aegeus’ suicide9 on learning of the supposed loss of his son, and, finally, the arrival of Iacchus (Dionysus) to comfort Ariadne.

Martin’s analysis and justification of the poem invokes the structural feature already seen at work in the two lines addressed to Aurelius and Furius—chiasmus, a pair of balanced sequences in which the elements of the second reverse the order of the first. As in Pope’s line: “Prose swell’d to verse, Verse loitering into prose.” Martin divides the poem into eight unequal sections to which he gives titles that point up their complicated relationship. They are: 1) The courtship of Peleus and Thetis. 2) The Wedding Feast, Part I. 3) Ariadne’s search. 4) Ariadne’s lament. Bridge: the judgment of Jove (almost central in the poem, a bridge between the two halves). 5) Aegeus’ lament on seeing the black sail. 6) Iacchus’ search for Ariadne. 7) The Wedding Feast, Part II. 8) Conclusion.

This neat scheme, like many of the similar tables constructed by structuralist critics of mythology, loses some of its cogency when compared with the text on which it is based. It is hard to find any passage in which Ariadne is engaged in a “search,” except for two lines in which she climbs a steep mountain to “scan the ocean’s wide expanse”; for the rest of the long episode she is standing at the water’s edge. And it is not easy either to find the “lament” of Aegeus that will parallel the sixty-nine lines of Ariadne’s denunciation of Theseus. Though Aegeus’ speech, delivered as Theseus departs for Crete, does contain some lines of self-pity, it is mainly concerned with his instructions (mandata) to Theseus about changing the sails; the speech is followed by an account of Theseus’ neglect of these instructions and his father’s suicide.

As for the section headed Wedding Feast Part II, it consists mainly of a long prophetic chant by the Fates, who foretell the martial glory and early death of Achilles, the offspring of the marriage of Thetis and Peleus, concluding with a violently realistic picture of the sacrifice of Polyxena, a blood offering demanded by the ghost of Achilles (who was treacherously killed by Paris just as he and Polyxena were about to be wed). Wedding Feast I, its chiastic counterpart, consists of a mere eighteen lines, three of which introduce the couch on which is spread the coverlet that tells the story of Ariadne and Theseus, the subject of the next two hundred lines.

Still, Martin makes a good case for the intricate correspondences in the poem—“the multiplicity of view-points we now recognize as polyphonic”—and adds significantly to our appreciation and understanding of it. Equally interesting is a different approach he takes to its subtleties of construction, a comparison with “developments occurring in the work of the visual artists” of the period, especially those still preserved for us in the frescoes on the walls of Roman late-Republican houses. These “artists invited gods, goddesses, and heroes into the homes of their patrons, mingling mortals and immortals in the same way Catullus does in poem 64.” They created the illusion of depth by placing some figures higher on the picture’s plane and scaling their size down; they also created lines of perspective converging “on a vertical axis (or axes) at or near the center of the painting.”

Martin’s analysis of poem 64 studies Catullus’ attempt to arrange words “in lines and then in scenes that would give the illusion of depth.” He emphasizes the visual immediacy of the scenes that are presented to us as the poem moves from broad seascape to rich palace interior, and back to Ariadne standing half-naked on the shore, scenes composed “with a painterly eye” and set in a frame that re-creates in words the mural artists’ illusion of perspective. “The center of the poem, the vertical axis on which all sight lines converge, is the mast of Theseus’ ship as it disappears over the horizon.” This is a valuable insight, which strengthens and enriches the reader’s appreciation of the basic chiastic structure. And it is a remarkable coincidence that this proposal to elucidate the structure and meaning of poem 64 by a comparison with contemporary work in the plastic arts appears in the same year as its mirror image: an attempt to solve the perennial mystery of the figures on the Portland Vase by identifying one set of them as Peleus, Tethys, the mother of Thetis, Oceanus, her father, and Jove, which goes on to claim also that “the structure, mechanics, and the theme of the frieze…are drawn directly from Catullus 64.”10

Martin ends his book with a chapter called “Lifting the Poet’s Fingerprints.” Here he tentatively claims to “have found the poet’s fingerprints on the arrangement of his Book,” and attempts to demonstrate the existence of a unifying pattern in the group of longer poems, 61 to 68, that presumably constituted the contents of the second of the three papyrus rolls in which Catullus’ complete works were first issued. According to Martin, poems 61–68 form a sequence, even “a single poem in eight parts, each of which may be read as a poem by itself, and each having its place in the sequence as a function of its relations with the other poems in the sequence.” Briefly summarized, his thesis is that the themes of poem 64—“unsanctified passion (Theseus and Ariadne) and the erotic fulfillment possible in marriage (Peleus and Thetis)”—recur in the poems that surround it, contrasted in the same chiastic pattern that governs the relation of parts to whole in 64 itself. Thus 61 and 62 are marriage hymns, while 67 and 68 deal with adultery; 63 (Attis) presents us with “destructive erotic obsession” and 65–66 (one poem, not two) with “the devoted and faithful bride of her royal husband.”

Martin develops these connections with a wealth of striking corroborative detail, to make a case that, though it may not convince everyone, will certainly enrich everyone’s reading of the poems, which have usually been treated as an editor’s omniumgatherum of long poems that would have been out of place among the short polymetric poems or the elegiac epigrams. And, of course, if Martin’s thesis is correct, we can dispense with that posthumous editor and see, as everyone would wish to see, the poet’s fingerprints in the arrangement of his poems. “Most poets,” says Martin, “arrange their own poems for publication: they know their own work best and who else would do it for them?”

Martin sees Catullus as “not just a poet of unimpeded spontaneity and uninhibited self-expression” but also one whose “intentions and accomplishments have much in common with those of our modernist and late-modernist masters.” He hopes to “offer the common reader access to the art, the artifice, and the matchless intelligence behind the maker’s impassioned intensities.” That he has done, and brilliantly; his “little book” should send the reader back to Catullus with a fresh eye, to the Latin if he can handle it, but if not, to Martin’s own superb translation, which provides the English-speaking reader with an equivalent of the spontaneity and artifice of the original.

This Issue

December 3, 1992