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From the Archives: Miss Hamilton Disposes

From kingdom to republic to empire, the ancient Romans have transfixed the imagination of the ages, inspiring bestselling novels, plays, poems, movies, and TV productions (not to mention several nations and more than a few dictatorships). Throughout 2009, Steve Donoghue will trace their pomp and circumstance in “A Year with the Romans.”

She has a wonderful story to tell, and she rises to the occasion.

We expect no less from Edith Hamilton, the best-selling author of Mythology and a handful of other well-received popularizations of classical literature. The erstwhile Headmistress of Bryn Mawr came to writing late in life and made up for lost time by publishing one bestseller after another, and her 1932 The Roman Way was no exception. Here is Miss Hamilton’s walking tour through the great literature of Rome’s writers: Plautus and Terence, Julius Caesar, Livy, Virgil, Seneca, Horace, Juvenal, Cicero – all are brought before us with her customary skill, painted vividly in apt quotations and deft summaries. She’s an enthusiastic guide, and never more so than when she can work with good material.

This particular story is very good material: the Roman poet Catullus, a young man from the provinces, coming to capitol burning with talent:

He came to Rome from Verona, sent by a careful father to be cultivated and polished out of small town ways. He was perhaps twenty or so when he was introduced to the grand house on the Palatine where its brilliant mistress held a salon for all the great world.

This brilliant mistress, we’re told, was Clodia, the scandalous, convention-defying sister of political rabble-rouser Publius Clodius Pulcher and wife of the much older Quintus Caecilius Metellus. As Miss Hamilton tells the story, Catullus came to Rome with a first-class education in his head (his family seems to have been wealthy; his father hosted Julius Caesar in Verona on more than one occasion) and an ardor for fame that quickly, seamlessly transformed into an ardor for Clodia, ten years his senior, who captivated him – and vice versa, according to our guide:

We must conceive him on his first entrance a very shy young provincial, hesitating on the edge of the gay company. But there is much in his verse to prove that he was extraordinarily attractive and it is impossible not to believe him beautiful, too, with the beauty so strangely given to poets in all ages everywhere.

This is hardly staid, especially that rather breathless bit about the universal beauty of poets in all ages (Ben Jonson? Pope? Allen Ginsberg? Shakespeare, God help us all?), but we read on because the story has all the elements of a potboiler romance or a Hollywood blockbuster:

Clodia was a woman of mind and taste, able to see a distinguished talent. She liked to play the critic and the connoisseur with the gifted young Veronese and they had delightful times tearing bad writers to pieces.

Miss Hamilton describes this scene of the two lovers happily trashing the day’s bad poetry because Catullus hints in one of his poems that he and his Lesbia did just that. She hews very close to such details as they’re divulged by the poems, and she sets the scene expertly – but she also embellishes, as good storytellers must often do:

This was strong wine for a young head, a country boy preferred to all the elegant worldlings by a most beautiful great lady, full ten years his senior. Of course he fell madly in love and for a time he moved her to love him, perhaps surprised at herself that a youthful rustic could make her feel so much. The story is plain to read in the poems. They have come down to us helter-skelter, in no chronological order; poems that belong to the end of his life are among the first in the collection; but about the order of the love poems there can be no doubt. They speak for themselves.

There’s enough naked extrapolation going on here to give even a non-classicist pause, and any skeptical reader is going to ask, “do we really know all of that is true? Does Catullus really tell us all that?”

It’s something of a miracle that Catullus tells us anything at all. As Miss Hamilton mentions, his poetry comes down to us in no order (though the learned commentators who’ve argued for one kind of order or another in the poems are as numberless as sands on the shore), and the 116 poems that make up his entire literary output were lost for centuries when fragmentation swallowed the old Roman Empire. His name survived in various anecdotes and compilations, but his verse survived in only one manuscript, found in Verona around 1305. This manuscript stuck around just long enough for a couple of copies to be made, then it disappeared again, and one of the copies disappeared not long afterward. The copies are full of copyist errors; the organizing hand of Catullus himself is nowhere evident. And that includes the Lesbia poems, which only speak for themselves with a little help from the romantically inclined, although there’s no arguing how clearly they speak, in any sequence. “Their like cannot be found in all the range of English literature,” Miss Hamilton tells us. “Only a few poems scattered through the centuries approach them in passion and poignancy. Poets of love there have been many in England, but poets of passion almost none.”


Catullus at Lesbia’s
by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema, 1865

The affair was mutually embraced at first, according to our storyteller: the enthusiastic young poet fired the jaded passions of the older city woman, and the two became lovers. At first they hid their assignations from Clodia’s clueless husband, and then after only a few months, when that husband died suddenly (so suddenly poison was suspected, and Rome got yet another reason to talk about Clodia), they were free to pursue each other more or less openly. Openly, and artistically: in Miss Hamilton’s version of the story, Catullus is a publishing poet this whole time, a member in good standing of the so-called “neoteric” group of new-school poets, fond of less ponderous, more sparkling verse on more personal and whimsical subjects. Lesbia is only mentioned in some two dozen of the poems – our guide reminds us that those 116 poems entertain more subjects than just this one:

Catullus could write on other themes, too. He could turn out a charming bit of verse on whatever he pleased, his sailing boat, his little “almost island” home where the lake water laughed in the wind, a dinner party, a friend’s grief, or what not. He could honor a marriage with a lovely song and divert himself by telling fairy stories.

But all this “what not” doesn’t distract her from the central glory of her pretty artist:

But a poet is judged by his best; his bad makes no difference whatsoever in the final estimation of him. Catullus was Clodia’s lover-poet and his fame is secure … His distinguishing characteristic, beyond that of all other poets, is to put love’s rapture and agony into words so direct, they seem to leave no veil between the reader and the poet’s heart. He pours out what he feels with a burning passion that will have nothing but the plainest expression.

The author of The Roman Way is entirely right about one thing, certainly: Catullus writes of “love’s rapture and agony” (his famous “odi et amo” – “I hate you and love you”) as virtually no other poet did before or since. Miss Hamilton can practically feel his exultation:

The love story tells the concentrated story of all loves. He traverses the whole gamut of lovers’ feelings everywhere. But this is not to say he is the typical lover; such fervor of feeling can never be typical; rather he is the quintessential lover. Into a few brief poems he puts the essence of the passion of love.

But the course of this true love doesn’t run smooth for long. Clodia, it turns out, is too much the sophisticated woman of the world (or perhaps too much of the promiscuous slattern Cicero gleefully describes in the Pro Caelio, his blistering courtroom speech about her), to cleave to any one boy forever, especially a boy so boring as to be head over heels in love. Her fascination with his worship begins to pale, and her amorous attentions begin to wander. In one touching poem, Catullus claims he can handle that wandering, provided he himself isn’t totally excluded from her favors, but the reader doesn’t believe him (the reader almost certainly isn’t meant to believe him). He captures perfectly the sick, irrational need lovers have to believe in each other, even after they know they shouldn’t, and our guide is once again watching closely:

He longed to believe; he could not quite. Into his lines he put the true lover’s invariable feeling of the holy purity of a great love, no matter what – a husband in the background or anything else. A passion conceived of as eternally faithful has always been felt to be its own justification and through his life Catullus loved Lesbia only.

In Miss Hamilton’s narrative, eventually this disregard grows too great (and too public) even for the long-suffering poet to bear, and there comes a break. Watching that transformation in the poems is a perpetually fascinating, subvertingly personal experience, and our guide hints that we aren’t even getting the most poignant moments of it, which she maintains were kept private:

But his descent from that high point of – almost – believing that the same holy bond bound her was swift. No doubt the mature woman of the world soon found it trying to be a poet’s ideal and something less than passion’s lofty heights more agreeable for every day in the year. She wearied of perpetual ecstasies. His agony when he first realized that she was unfaithful to him must be imagined. If he made a poem of it, it has not come down to us. Perhaps it was too terrible for even a poet to be able to write it out.

It’s easy to be charmed by this account. When our author spins a narrative, she knows what she’s doing – that’s what makes Mythology such a staple of undergraduate courses and such a reliably pleasant re-read. And when it comes to the basic details of the Lesbia story, she’s hardly alone in her version – it’s in every single potted account of Catullus’ life and times, ever since the mid-second century when Apuleius first proclaimed that Lesbia was in fact Clodia (at the time, he was on trial for using sorcery to seduce a wealthy widow, a fascinating story – all Apuleius stories are fascinating – that will have to wait for Another Year with the Romans). The 20th century classicist Moses Hadas will stand just fine as an example:

Catullus came to Rome in 62 B.C., the year following the excitement of the Catilinarian conspiracy. Among the people of wealth and fashion who received him was the urban praetor Q. Caecilius Metellus, a noble of ancient family, and his wife, Clodia, some ten years Catullus’ senior, of an even prouder family, notorious for its wilfullness. Catullus became infatuated with Clodia at once, and the series of poems which reflect the course of his love, from bliss to despair to disillusionment to resignation, make this affair one of the most memorable of its kind in literary history.

There’s a dramatic cleanliness to the story, so it’s understandable that it caught on early and stuck. In telling such a neat, heartrending tale, Miss Hamilton disposes of everything in that body of 116 poems that doesn’t fit, and in doing this, she’s in broad company. The case that Lesbia is Clodia seems irrefutable – the scholars who’ve tried to assign another identity to Catullus’ femme fatale have usually been reduced to claiming she was one of Clodia’s sisters, which hardly helps. And it’s possible to draw a plausible connection between Clodia and Catullus, since Clodia’s husband had been governor of the Roman province of which Verona was the capitol, and Catullus’ family, as we’ve seen, was prominent.

What’s a whole lot less plausible is that Clodia ever said anything more to this provincial young poet than perhaps, “Could you please pass the olives?” She wouldn’t need to, in order either to spark his infatuation or to spark his inspiration to fake infatuation. After all, as we’ve seen, Clodia was what we nowadays call news; a hungry young poet on the rise could certainly make worse marketing decisions than to center an outrageous sequence of love-cycle poems on her (today’s online community calls this RPF, Real Person Fiction – and it wasn’t entirely unknown to artists even before the Internet). That Catullus knew about her is beyond question; that she knew about him is probable (then as now, Rome is a city that lives on rumor); that she ever entered a love affair with him, a poet with a penchant for public acts of autobiography, is very nearly inconceivable no matter how touching a story Miss Hamilton can make of it.


Neara reading a letter from Catullus by Henry Hudson
And what about the chances that he loved her anyway, even from afar? It’s possible (although there is no record that she ever inspired affection – as distinct from lust – in anybody except her brother), but there are mitigating factors, and the severest of them falls squarely into the category of “what not”: mixed in among those 116 poems are a dozen explicitly homoerotic ones, including a cycle devoted to a pretty boy named Juventius (possibly another pseudonym, although many scholars have pointed out that the clan name turns up often on inscriptions from the time – in Verona). Catullus mentions Juventius by name specifically as his lover more times than he mentions Lesbia by name specifically as his lover, and Miss Hamilton no doubt considered the nature of those mentions a bit alarming for her neat little narrative. “Give me a thousand kisses,” Catullus famously implores Lesbia, as even poetry dabblers know – but he offers Juventius 300,000 kisses, and numbers don’t always lie.

Miss Hamilton doesn’t mention Juventius in her account of Catullus. Neither does Moses Hadas. And the scholars who do bring him up tend to sound distinctly nervous. Kenneth Quinn, in a 1973 book on the poems, practically contorts himself:

We need not doubt that the persons talked about or addressed in the homosexual poems exist: if not all historically identifiable, they are too tightly enmeshed in the known facts of Catullus’ life to be fictitious. To that extent, at least, the poems can’t be dismissed as literary exercises in the Hellenistic manner.

…but the poet’s confessions mustn’t be taken as true confessions ….

The Juventius poems move in an area where confusion easily expands into fantasy, in order to inhibit credulity, and in order to make it clear that the reader is being offered a demonstration of urbanitas, rather than a true confession.

Urbanitas here, Quinn carefully explains, signifies a kind of ironic, super-suave detachment – readers may think almost anything of these poems, in other words, except that Catullus actually meant them with the “plainest expression” they’re happy to ascribe to him whenever he’s nattering on about Lesbia. It’s a strange reflex that has dogged this pitch-perfect poet of love, all love, and perhaps Miss Hamilton understands more of it than she herself is willing to admit (perhaps she brushed up against this understanding during the years she was living with investment banker Doris Fielding Reid):

The only poems really comparable to those of Catullus are Shakespeare’s sonnets and in respect of passion alone. In every other way the two poets are a world apart: Shakespeare torturing language to express not only passion, but the entire universe of man’s heart, with death and time and eternity and life’s tragedy of joy never fulfilled; and Catullus seeing nothing in the universe but Lesbia and able to speak with perfect simplicity because he felt nothing that was not simple.

Comparable indeed: they were both in love with a beautiful boy. There’s probably a good story in that.

___
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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2 Comments »

  • celzmccelz says:

    Why couldn’t Catullus have been in love with both Lesbia and Juventius? Bisexuality was the norm in antiquity.

  • “That we have in the poems of Catullus a real and not an imaginative sketch of a love-episode cannot be once doubted by him who reads.” (Elmer Truesdell Merrill)

    Any (non-tortured) reading of the poems shows quite clearly that Iuventius was merely a ‘boy toy’ with whom Catullus had a passing frolic, but that Clodia’s repeated betrayals were the most painful experiences of Catullus’s life, other than the early death of his older brother.

    Regarding Donoghue’s comment: “[P]erhaps Miss [sic] Hamilton understands more of it than she herself is willing to admit (perhaps she brushed up against this understanding during the years she was living with investment banker Doris Fielding Reid).”

    All the more reason why Hamilton would be able to perceive when the love of a woman is real, and when a fling is no more than that.

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