Reading Catullus

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With the extra time to read on my hands these days, I’ve been dipping again into the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, Roman poet around the time of Julius Caesar. I’ve written in the past about reading Horace, a somewhat later Roman poet whom I greatly admire. I like to pick up a translation of Horace’s Odes or Epodes and read a few lines, maybe a whole poem, every now and then. Horace can be quite insightful and inspirational. Not so much Catullus for me. He’s entertaining in so many different ways. If Horace is a letter to the editor or an op-ed opinion, then Catullus is, for the most part, the editorial cartoon.

That may be a trifle unfair. What we have left of Catullus’s work is a collection of a mere 116 poems, although my translations leave out numbers 18, 19, and 20 as falsely attributed (there is some scholarly debate around them, especially 18). Most are short; some are love poems to his anonymous lover Lesbia (identified later as Clodia Metelli, a bit like Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of his sonnets), some are comments about or to other Romans, or on current events, some are scatological, some satirical, others obscene (or obscenely funny depending on your sense of humour). And a few are long, deep, and complex (like the elegaic Poem 64).

Obscene? you ask. Well, yes — by the uptight moral standards of suburban-consumerist-WASPish North American culture and that of the 19th century British school curriculum where he as required reading in Latin classes. Not by Roman standards – they were far more relaxed and open about many aspects of sex and sexuality, including homosexuality, in Catullus’ time. It’s one of the reasons Augustus tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to impose a straight-laced moral code, laws and all, on his own Roman culture. Even his own daughter failed to live up to his ideals and ended up being exiled for her wanton ways. But I digress.

Earlier translators of some of his poems tried to water down, bowdlerize, or even exclude the dirty bits. Others tried to mold his words to more sensual or erotic (and less explicit) forms. Even today some translators struggle with verbs like irrumare and try to soften them.  Me, I suppose I’ve come to the age when little in the classical world shocks me — that effect is reserved for the stupidity, selfishness, and corruption of today’s world (especially in the USA). Catullus’ frankness I find amusing.

Seen in the light of our online, easy-access-pornography culture,  I suspect Catullus’ words have less opportunity (or ability) to shock and titillate today. Many recent translations grapple to find a modern, yet linguistically accurate way to express Catullus’ sexual and scatological imagery, varying between euphemism and metaphor to outright obscenity. But Catallus, too, wrote in metaphors that one needs a critical guide to fully understand (I’m also reading Charles Martin’s Catullus, Hermes Books, Yale University, 1992, which offers an academic analysis of the works).

Perhaps the thing that strikes me most in his work— and in reading any of the classical authors — is that it shows how little human behaviour, reaction, passions, and emotions have changed in the intervening millennia. Catullus is at times horny, lustful, angry, lovesick, sad, blustering, thoughtful, friendly, and snobbish. He’s so very human in his writing, and in that he’s much like Horace.

Reading any poetry is to read about the world from the poet’s unique view, but  in translation it becomes an opinion; a perspective about the original; an art form in itself that stands apart from the original. Translations so often lose the sound, the alliterations, the puns, the rhythms of the originals, but take on those applied by the translator. There were stylistic forms in Latin that simply can’t be replicated in English, but there are other forms in English that are equally, albeit differently, resonant. Which is why I also like to have more than one translation of any work: to compare the artistry of the translator.

Every translator has to wrestle with how to turn the native language into something that not only can an English speaker understand, but appreciate. Style is as important as replacing the words. There are always compromises made in the choice of meter and word. But how is an English-only speaker to know which translation best captures the spirit, if not the exactness, of the original?

Even in translation, poetry is a door into another culture. Reading Catullus or Horace or Ovid helps me to understand Rome and the Romans better than reading a textbook or popular history of the era. My library has dozens of books of poetry translated from other languages and cultures past and present — Japanese, Chinese, Indian, German, Italian, Sumerian, Egyptian, Mexican, and others. Catullus is in good company.

Along with the poems, I’m reading a biography of his life: Catullus’ Bedspread:  The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, by Daisy Dunn (William Collins, UK, 2016). Dunn also includes her own translations of some of his lines, so I have another source to compare with my two translations (and some assorted versions in anthologies). Plus there are several online translations available if you are so inclined. 

Gaius Valerius Catullus lived for only three decades, from 84-54 BCE, yet despite his short life, he wrote a lot. He is now considered one of, if not the greatest writer of Latin lyric verse. Catullus was, however, self-deprecating in calling his work “follies,” “stupid ineptitudes,” or “trivial absurdities” depending on the translator (fragment poem 14B).

Some modern critics consider his work to be lyrically greater even than his near-contemporary, the poet Horace. I’m not sure about that. As I said, I lean heavily towards Horace as the better of the two; he’s more intellectual and less physical. But regardless of my personal opinion, reading Dunn’s bio and her comments on his poetry helps me understand the poet, his words, and his world.

One of the problems any layperson has is not knowing who the poet’s comments are aimed at. Catullus (as Horace does) names many people in his lines.  Who are they and why are they important? Were they friends? Enemies? Competitors? Lovers? Dunn explains them and the context of the poems where they appear. That provides a significant clarity for me, like having an annotated translation (yes, I read all the footnotes and endnotes, too, in every translation and guide).

Online, you can find a lot of scholarly comment on Catullus these days: he seems to be a favourite topic for classicists now (although some of the discussions may a appear a bit exotic or even picayune).

I’m sitting outside in this summer day as I write this, stopping now and then to pick through a book of Catullus’ poems (either the Green or the Lee translation) or to read a few paragraphs in Dunn. Somehow reading a classical Roman poet in the warm, quiet afternoon with a cup of tea by my side seems a perfectly civilized way to spend my time.

You can read some online translations yourself to decide if you want to delve further into Catallus: here and here as well as here are just three sites.

(N.B. This is a revision of a piece I saved as a draft more than a year ago. I decided to revive and publish it because in recovery I have some extra time on my hands to think, read, and write about many things).

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