An octogenarian, a man who has read Latin for pleasure all his life, recently remarked to me that, of all the Roman poets, Catullus was the one who actually seemed like a human being. I knew what he meant. Gaius Catullus was born in 84 B.C. to a provincial aristocrat in Verona, in the province of Cisalpine Gaul. His father had a villa on Lake Garda, where he entertained Julius Caesar. Later in Rome, Caesar, lampooned by Catullus in stinging epigrams (including one that ran: “I’ve no interest, Caesar, in currying favor with you, or indeed in learning whether you’re a white or a black”), huffily demanded an apology; Catullus obliged; Caesar said, “Come to dinner”; Catullus did. In Rome, Catullus had joined ranks with other young highborn poets like Calvus and Cinna in a loose conspiracy to reform pompous, heavy, elephantine Roman poetry by injections of Alexandrian wit, erudition, and concision. Catullus retained from old Roman poetry, however, a habit of personal vituperation, obscene and rank, that he was to deploy in a variety of registers from angry to playful. In the city, Catullus conceived a passion for the patrician Clodia, faithless wife and, after 59, faithless widow of the magnifico Metellus Celer, governor of Catullus’s home province. In 57-56, Catullus and Cinna served as lieutenants on the staff of Memmius, governor of a province on the Black Sea. (This Memmius, vituperated by Catullus, was himself a poet and was the dedicatee of the greatest of Roman poems, the De rerum natura of Lucretius, of whose social standing we know nothing and who died about the same time as Catullus.) During this duty, Catullus visited the grave, near Troy, of his brother, who had died a while back on (perhaps) similar duty. Catullus died at Rome in his thirtieth year of unknown causes.

This brief, and incautiously dogmatic, biographical sketch is designed simply to illustrate the milieux Catullus was at home in. It was a world not totally unlike that of the Whig grandees of the eighteenth century; Catullus’s swank was very much that of an impudent and un-Romanly frivolous puppy grandee. Roman men of letters had, until these chaotic and wild years of the dying Republic, often been slaves; even in the next generation, under the Empire, Horace was the son of a freedman, and both Virgil and Horace came from the bourgeoisie. Augustus liked his laureates common. The late Republic, a lurid interregnum between the stolid, rustic, family values of the old Republic and the megalopolitan decadence of the Empire, was the unique moment when a bird like Catullus, a suave Sidney with the sassy manners of a Marlowe, could flap his wings and fly. The venerable orator Cicero, savior and pillar of the Commonwealth, was an artistic fuddy-duddy with little time for Catullus’s “neoteric” poetic school, but he had heaped obloquy on Clodia and her incestuous brother, Clodius. Catullus rewarded Cicero with this gem of ambiguity:

Silver-tongued among the sons of Rome
the dead, the living & the yet unborn,
Catullus, least of poets, sends
Marcus Tullius his warmest thanks:

—as much the least of poets
as he a prince of lawyers.

Humble respects or a sarcastic hit at an old windbag?

Catullus’s oeuvre consists of some 116 poems, arranged in three divisions: sixty short pieces in short meters (most notably, the eleven-syllable and the sapphic); four long poems (two marriage songs and two mythological epyllia); fifty some epigrams in elegiac couplets (taking poem 65 as prologue to 66, which is a translation from Callimachus, the Greek master, far more than Sappho, of Catullus). I follow here the ingenious arrangement proposed by Guy Lee in his World’s Classics edition of the poems, although Charles Martin, in the last chapter of his new book on Catullus, suggests an equally intriguing patterning of the long central poems 61-68.1 But in general the grouping by theme, the delicate echoes, the occasional brutal switch from tenderly mournful to hair-raisingly obscene—all point to Catullus as the arranger of his poetry. Who else? As Wilamowitz said long ago, with Prussian finality: “If there is anybody who can’t see that, so much the worse for him.” But such issues as the tessellated placing of the poems among themselves and, as Charles Martin attempts to prove in his penultimate chapter, the chiastic ABBA thematic structure of poem 64, the longish and frigid epyllion on Ariadne, are not, finally, of interest to any but scholars or poetic technicians. And they are inevitably subjective and prone to triviality, as in the recent “discovery” of an acrostic in a poem of Catullus. The engine may be beautifully isomorphic but where is the gas?

Catullus lives only in his lines, in his audacious blend of Roman gravity, Italian insult, and Greek irony.

Catullus lives only in his lines, in his audacious blend of Roman gravity, Italian insult, and Greek irony. Three variously valuable translations of Catullus are currently in print: Peter Whigham’s lively paraphrase, in the spirit of William Carlos Williams, was first published by Penguin in 1966; the lines quoted above are his. Charles Martin’s rich and delightful marshaling of a Poundian toughness, married to a flexible and unegoistic respect for the sense of the original poet, was first printed by Abattoir Editions, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, in 1979 and was reissued by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1990. Martin calls his version “a measured paraphrase . . . written in measures that try to imitate those in which he wrote.” And a plain, donnish metaphrase by Guy Lee is in the World’s Classics; it has the homely domestic virtue of fidelity, the plus of a facing Latin text, and the surplus of an attractive small format and Titian’s Bacchus on the cover.

It is in the poems in elegiac couplets to his brother and to Clodia, whom he has, in homage to Sappho, called Lesbia, that Catullus finds a new language for love—but only by first finding a new way to love, a true approfondissement of sentiment that constitutes a revolution in human feeling and that, incidentally, gives the lie to C. S. Lewis when he says that “if we turn to ancient love-poetry proper, we shall be . . . disappointed. We shall find the poets loud in their praises of love, no doubt. . . . But this is no more to be taken seriously than the countless panegyrics both ancient and modern on the all-consoling virtues of the bottle. If Catullus and Propertius vary the strain with cries of rage and misery, this is not so much because they are romantics as because they are exhibitionists. In their anger or their suffering they care not who knows the pass to which love has brought them.” But no one had brought together separated spheres of emotion before Catullus in poem 72:

I loved you then, not only as common men
their girl-friend
But as a father loves his sons and

Martin has here:

I didn’t regard you just as my mistress then:
I cherished you
as a father does his sons or his daughters’

And Whigham:

I loved you then
not as men love their women
but as a father his children—his family.

None of the three seem to me to get the shock or power of:

Dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam
sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos.

Perhaps the stuttering pause in Whigham’s “his children—his family” comes closest to what Catullus is doing here: applying Roman words for male family affections to sexual love.

Poem 75 constructs a novel geometry of desperation:

Lesbia, my will has sunk to this through your
And so destroyed itself by its own kindness
That it could neither like you, even were you
Nor cease to love you though you stopped
          at nothing.

Martin has:

To such a state have I been brought by your
mischief, my Lesbia,
   and so completely ruined by my devotion,
that I couldn’t think kindly of you if you did
          the best only,
nor cease to love, even if you should do—

Martin’s “mischief” is better than Lee’s “frailty,” but I like the simplicity of Lee’s “kindness,” and Lee’s contrast of “like” and “love” hits off the point of the poem brilliantly. Whigham indulges in a coyly modernist parataxis that loses sight of Catullus:

Reason blinded by sin, Lesbia,
a mind drowned in its own devotion:
come clothed in your excellences—
I cannot think tenderly of you,
sink to what acts you dare—
I can never cut this love.

One is not far from Catullus the beatnik here.

The anguished poem 76 ends:

I do not ask now that she love me in return
Or, what’s impossible, that she be chaste.
I pray for my own health, to be rid of this foul
    O Gods, grant me this for my true dealing.

Martin has:

Now I no longer ask that she love me as I love
   or—even less likely—that she give up the
all that I ask for is health, an end to this foul

   O gods, grant me this in exchange for my

Martin’s colloquial American cadences carry the day here easily, except for that “worship”; Lee’s “true dealing” is both truer to the Roman social range implicit in “pietate” and better English. Whigham forgets the last line entirely and indulges in a New Age wail: “. . . as I once was whole, make me now whole again.”

And there is, of course, the almost too familiar poem 85, “odi et amo”: “I hate and love. Perhaps you’re asking why I do that?/ I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and am racked” (Lee). “I hate & love. And if you should ask how I can do both,/ I couldn’t say; but I feel it, and it shivers me” (Martin, who changes “shivers” to “tortures” when he translates 85 in his critical study). Martin’s is obviously the more powerful version; his “how” much more meaningful than Lee’s “why.” We know why; it is because of Lesbia’s sadistic behavior. It is the “how” that is interesting. Catullus’s word for his suffering, “excrucior,” is perhaps best rendered by Whigham, who has “I’m torn in two.” And it should be remembered that Catullus cannot only parse his own pathos; he can also dish it out, and revel in the rawest abuse of the wanton Lesbia:

Caeli, Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa,
illa Lesbia quam Catullus unam
plus quam se atque suos amavit omnes,
nunc in quadriviis et angiportis
glubit magnanimi Remi nepotes.

Lesbia, Caelius—yes, our darling,
yes, Lesbia, the Lesbia Catullus
once loved uniquely, more than any other!
—now on streetcorners & in wretched alleys
she shucks the offspring of greathearted Remus.
(Poem 58, Martin)

But the happiest, fullest notes in Catullus are those celebrating his ability to make art out of the raw material of his life, just as he made “Lesbia” out of Clodia. His signature poem, to me, is not the love or love/hate lyrics but 50, about poets and poem-making. I quote Martin:

Just yesterday, Licinius, at leisure,
we played around for hours with my tablets
writing erotic verse as we’d agreed to,
each of us taking turns at improvising
line after line in meter after meter,
adjuncts to wine & witty conversation.
And when I left you, I was so on fire
with all your brilliant & ironic humor
that after dinner I was still excited,
and sleep refused to touch my eyes with quiet.
In bed & totally unstrung by passion,
tossing in agony, I prayed for sunrise,
when I could be with you in conversation.
But when my limbs, exhausted by their labor,
lay on the bed in nearly fatal stillness,
I made this poem for you, my beloved,
so you could take the measure of my sorrow.
I beg you to be kind to my petition,
darling, for if you aren’t, if you’re cruel,
then Nemesis will turn on you in outrage.
Don’t rile her up, please—she’s a bitch, that

Martin is at his resourceful best as a translator here, keeping throughout to Catullus’s eleven-syllable count and occasionally reproducing the phonic shape of a Catullan line (as in “I beg you to be kind to my petition”) and frequently using English prosodic devices such as internal rhyme (“around for hours”; “as we’d agreed to”) to approximate the insinuating, convivial cadences of the Roman hendecasyllables. (Martin makes happily liberal use of his own translations in his critical study.) In this deceptively simple verse epistle about how hard it is to stop writing sexy poetry, Catullus starts with words stressing the merry, ludic qualities of poetry (“lusimis”; “ludebat”; “iocum”; “vinum”; “lepore”; “facetiis”; and “otiosi,” at leisure, which echoes in the next poem’s “otium,” the opposite of “neg-otium,” business). Martin correctly speaks of “a neoteric manifesto, a red flag waved in the faces of the censorious elders such as Cicero, for whom the notion of a day stolen from the active life and given over wholly to joining a friend in the composition of erotic verse in a spirit of mutual naughtiness would have been a serious provocation indeed,” and he compares the activities of “Japanese poets,” though I think rather of such Tang Chinese poets as Li Po and Du Fu. But Catullus goes on to image the solitary pain of creation, or, more exactly, of yearning to create, in such words as “furore” and “semimortua” and “dolorem,” —strong words.

The poem convivially celebrates the torments involved in being sexy in verse. Licinius Calvus, a poetic colleague and co-rebel of Catullus’s, was also a successful orator and pol and a colleague of Cicero’s; he moved in both worlds. The playful terms of palship that Catullus addresses to Calvus (“jucunde”—you cheerful guy; “ocelle”— eyehole buddy) have, pace the versions of Martin and of Lee, who is even worse with “precious” for “ocelle,” nothing of the homoerotic in them; this is about guys and dactyls. Catullus is elsewhere perfectly capable of homosexual verse—in many poems of scabrous abuse and in his love poetry to Juventius, which is, paradoxically, so much more conventional in expression than the poems about Lesbia.

One of the bogeymen in Catullan studies that Martin spends much, perhaps too much, time exorcising is the notion that Catullus must be either “a spontaneous songbird” speaking from the heart and using ingenium (a popular Victorian view) or “a cerebral Alexandrian” working from the head and employing ars (as later revisionists stressed). Catullus was, of course, like Donne and the Shakespeare of the sonnets, both. Phrases like “quot basiationes” (“how many of your mega-kisses” [Lee]) or “novem continuas fututiones” (“nine uninterrupted fuctions” [Lee]) brandish Catullus’s easy marriage of polysyllabicity and raunch.

This is unfair and indeed untrue.

Martin goes on to generalize about the next poetic generation: “The shutters of opportunity that Catullus and the neoterics had flung open were quickly closed by those who came after them,” that is, by the versifying propagandists for “the imperial state.” This is unfair and indeed untrue. In fact, the days of swashbuckling, impudent aristocrats were over, in Rome as in verse. In this sense, Catullus could have no heirs, any more than Ben Jonson could. But in art Catullus’s influence took, profoundly. In lyric, Horace, at a different temperature and with differing strategies, became the Wallace Stevens of Rome; Martin misreads him as “a model of poetic decorum” to make a facile contrast to Catullus’s “risk-taking venture.” In elegy, Propertius and Tibullus and Ovid and their myths and their mistresses are all Catullan, as is, every now and then, even Virgil. Ovid found, however, to his cost that it would no longer do to play Catullus in life: Augustus was no John F. Caesar. And Catullus qua foul-mouthed scourge of purulent, stinking vice certainly lived on. What is Martial but, as Martial admits, a long footnote to Catullus? It took Juvenal to raise this strain to art. Both Martial and Juvenal, be it noted, eschew Catullan attacks on the living and powerful, although only Martial goes to the opposite extreme of groveling before them.

It is a measure of Charles Martin’s stimulating book on Catullus that it can excite qualifying disagreement as well as enthusiastic assent. Martin has an uncanny instinct for the social, the convivial, the collegial assumptions and dimensions and inflections of Catullus’s poetry. His ear is very alert to nuances of aggression in play and of play in aggression. He examines the function of invitations and get-togethers and assignations; he traces the significance of the exchange of gifts and of, er, bodily fluids in the verses. He picks up the social (and sociable) tones of voice in Catullus, and convinces us that this is very important indeed in a poet so much of whose work was precisely targeted at a network of friends and ex-friends and lovers and ex-lovers and enemies and . . . but I can’t think of any ex-enemies. There is a Pope in Catullus as surely as there is a Keats.

Martin excels himself on poem 65, which starts by refusing a fellow-poet’s plea for a poem-gift on the grounds that Catullus is mourning his brother. Poem 65 then transmutes its own grief into restorative art in the course of an amazing simile; having said it cannot sing for grief, it sings beautifully. And it then, further, turns out to be “merely” an introduction to a translated piece of Callimachean court-flattering fancy about a lock of Queen Berenice’s hair becoming a constellation.

Martin’s book, funny, moving, smart, alive to twentieth-century poetic developments, is now the best book on Catullus in English. It constitutes another fine entry in Yale’s Hermes series, which, with urgent timeliness, strives to put before sophisticated general readers humane but critically focused discourse on the great Greco-Roman writers. It is good that classics, once derided as narrowly philological, elitist, and passé, should in this enterprise be a light unto the darkness that has fallen upon so many of its daughter disciplines.

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  1.   Catullus, by Charles Martin. Hermes Books. Yale University Press, 197 pages, $30; $11 paper. Go back to the text.

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