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Downright Rude: Reading Catullus

By (April 1, 2012) One Comment

Ruminating on “the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists, / The careless athletes and the fancy boys” of ancient Greece, the poet-classicist Louis MacNeice wondered how much we can ever really know about the distant past:

    And how one can imagine oneself among them
     I do not know;
    It was all so unimaginably different
     And all so long ago.

Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Roman, not a Greek, but he lived a long time ago ( roughly 84-54 B.C.E.) in a world very different from our own. And yet, notwithstanding the paganism, the gladiatorial combats, the animal sacrifices, the slaves, the militarism, the cult of suicide, and the rapacious colonialism, I can imagine myself eavesdropping on Catullus’s conversation, appalled but intrigued by his cynicism, wit, and honesty. Maybe it wasn’t so unimaginably different.

When I read Homer and Virgil I often find myself thinking, Very nice, but couldn’t it be a little less, you know, barbarous? I believe I have some appreciation of the stark mythopoeic power of classical epic and of its profound psychological intuitions. Nevertheless, I’d be happier if the death agonies of so many heroes weren’t described in such slavering detail (“the famous spearman struck behind his skull, / just at the neck-chord, the razor spear splicing / straight up through the jaws, cutting away the tongue”), and sometimes I wish that Apollo and Diana, with their implacable cruelty and smug perfection (they are, after all, Gods) would just go away. So yes, Homer and Virgil do at times seem alien to me in a way that Catullus does not. Apart from writing lyrics (mostly) and largely dispensing with the trappings of mythology, he employed a voice as uncannily “modern” as that of any jaded, highly intelligent New Yorker or Roman of the early twenty-first century. For example:

    I hate and love. You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?
    I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified. (85)

    Life is really a bitch for your Catullus,
    Cornificius, and (my god!) so boring. (38)

    Ameana, that fucked-out little scrubber,
    just had the nerve to ask me for ten thousand. (41)

    What’s left, Catullus? Why not die right here and now?
    That pustule Nonius occupies a curule chair. (52)

If some of these lines read more like graffiti than poetry, that’s partly an effect of Peter Green’s fine translation, but only partly. Why shouldn’t poetry read like graffiti? From scurrility to holiness, verse embraces almost every conceivable possibility of diction, tone, and theme. If Catullus’s tonal register tends to the men’s latrine side of things, it also includes tenderness, pathos, and delight. In his work (as in our lives, and manifestly in our bodies), the obscene and the beautiful are never very far from each other. His mistress Lesbia might have jacked off anonymous partners in alleyways, but she was also accorded some of the loftiest love poetry in the Western tradition.

Catullan specialists like to invoke Yeats’s “The Scholars,” as if to demonstrate that, far from being the desiccated pedants the poem describes, they’re really wild and crazy guys. I’m no scholar, but surely Yeats is a trifle unfair to all those honorable men and women without whose laborious emendations, annotations, collations, and disputations we wouldn’t have a Catullus to read in the first place. (It’s a near miracle that his work survives at all. A few corrupt copies of a corrupt codex — lost and found and lost and found and lost again — are all those specialists have ever had to work with.) Maybe Yeats was just in a bad mood:

    Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
    Old, learned, respectable bald heads
    Edit and annotate the lines
    That young men, tossing on their beds,
    Rhymed out in love’s despair
    To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

    All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
    All wear the carpet with their shoes;
    All think what other people think;
    All know the man their neighbour knows.
    Lord, what would they say
    Did their Catullus walk that way?

Despite the loaded rhetoric, Yeats makes the useful point that the poems were written by a human being. There was a man named Gaius Valerius Catullus who lived in Verona and Rome a little over two thousand years ago. He wrote poetry about his life and the world around him. We’re still reading it. If we read it with a heightened interest in the life behind it, we can hardly be blamed; Catullus virtually compels such a reading. Not that the poems are mere transcriptions of this or that experience. As Kenneth Quinn aptly put it in Catullus: An Interpretation (New York, 1973), “The Lesbia poems aren’t a bundle of love letters, or a kind of diary in verse the pages of which have got out of their proper order. Nor are they a work of art independent of the circumstances in which they arose. They are in a way both these things.” The same wild and crazy scholar also said, “The Lesbia poems have, too plainly, that peculiar quality of being about something that really happened; something even . . . that the reader is expected to know about, something about which the main facts were common knowledge.”

Catullus wrote about politics, friendship, art, inspiration, cult worship, death, petty larceny, personal hygiene, and all sorts of sexual activities, but the twenty-five or so poems to and about his mistress Lesbia constitute the core of his achievement. Rather like Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets, they run the course from dizzy infatuation to frank disgust. It’s no wonder the affair was so intense (and so brief — on the evidence of the poems, he lived just long enough to be thoroughly and bitterly disillusioned). Reckless, debauched, and corrupt, they seem to have been born for each other, though according to him, her proclivities far outclassed his own. In Poem 79 he intimates that among her many many lovers was her brother, a charge partially substantiated by no less a witness than Cicero.

The first of the Lesbia poems is thought to be 51, a loose translation of Sappho made to fit the case. In light of the rancor and obscenity that are to follow in later poems, it’s well to recall the ardor and longing that Catullus was capable of expressing. Even the name “Lesbia” – she was Clodia Metelli, most likely – conjures by inevitable association with Sappho a romantic grandeur:

            the instant I catch sight of
    you now, Lesbia, dumbness grips my voice, it
        dies on my vocal

cords, my tongue goes torpid, and through my body
thin fire lances down, my ears are ringing
with their own thunder, while night curtains both my
    eyes into darkness.

That’s not what he wrote, of course. It was more like, “nam simul te, / Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi / ” and so on, and even that is subject to debate. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the English, though the translator, Peter Green, maintains that it closely follows the Sapphic strophe of the original (“three lines built, as always with aeolic verse, round a central choriamb (︶︶), and followed, for closure, by a shorter line known as an adonean or adonic.” Got that?) If I knew Latin, I’d probably be shocked by the departures from the original even in this scrupulous translation, but the sense of weak-kneed helplessness in the first stage of infatuation, half shameful and absurd as the poet knows it to be, comes through powerfully. Contrary to what Robert Frost said, the poetry doesn’t always get lost in the translation.

If I read poetry to find myself, I also read it to lose myself. For me Catullus exemplifies this essential doubleness. On the one hand he seems to be thinking my own thoughts, the ones that still occasionally keep me awake at night. I had my Lesbia, who, unlike the prototype, was faithful and loving and kind. Luckier than Catullus, who died at about thirty (probably of tuberculosis), I’ve lived long enough to put most of the grief behind me, but his struggle, depicted in Poem 76, has been my struggle:

        Then why torment yourself any more?
    Why not make a firm resolve, regain your freedom,
     reject this misery that the gods themselves oppose?
    It’s hard to abruptly shrug off love long established:
     hard, but this, somehow, you must do.
    Here lies your only hope, you must win this struggle:
     This, possible or not, must be your goal.

On the other hand, here I am living my life in twenty-first century Brooklyn, where I just got back from the supermarket (bread, toothpaste, toilet paper, spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, ice cream), and where I must soon decide which movie to see this afternoon. (Woman in the Dunes at Film Forum or 127 Hours at BAM?) It’s a pretty decent life and one I wouldn’t exchange for any other, even in a time and place as fascinating as that of the late Roman Republic. But as scholars remind us, that world, with all its parallels to modern times, is not our world. “Studying ancient Rome should be like visiting some teeming capital in a dangerous and ill-governed foreign county,” wrote T. P. Wiseman in Catullus and His World (Cambridge, 1985); nothing can be relied on, most of what you see is squalid, sinister or unintelligible, and you are disproportionately grateful when you find something you can recognize as familiar.” So if I find a part of myself in Catullus’s emotional journeyings, I also lose myself in that foreign country of his mind.

Not that I would want to “identify” too rashly with Catullus. I’m right there with him when he counts Lesbiia’s kisses (5) or celebrates the homecoming of a dear friend (9); less so when he imagines stuffing radishes up the ass of a hated rival (15) or gleefully raping a slave boy (56). (This last, by the way, he considers funny: “So ridiculous, really too too comic — / I just caught my girlfriend’s little slave boy / Getting it up for her, and (Venus love me!) / Split him, tandem-fashion, with my banger!”) Although the evidence is one-sided, Lesbia must have been a piece of work if this man found her morality objectionable. Catullus the poet of tender love play and comradely fellowship is also the poet of violent hatreds and invective, and the one is no less compelling than the other. Nothing concentrates the mind quite like loathing and disgust; they worked wonders for Catullus. Who but he would liken an epicene acquaintance to “an old man’s languid penis with its cobwebby senescence” (25), twice accuse the wretched Egnatius of scrubbing his teeth with piss (37, 39), and urge the disreputable son of a disreputable father to “sod off to exile in some / hellhole, since Dad’s larcenies are public / knowledge, while you, son, cannot hawk your bristly / asshole, no, not even for a penny” (33)? Maybe in his table talk Catullus fell back on the Latin equivalents of our everyday banalities, but his invective survives because it is expressed as verse – formal, structured, metrical, musical. I’m sure the rage and pain were very real – but not so overwhelming that he couldn’t put them to use. “As a poet,” wrote T. P. Wiseman, “he was in control of his material, able to present it as a drama, with himself and his infatuated illusions among the personae.” There wouldn’t seem to be much to say about bad breath, for example, but Catullus found a way when the otherwise unknown Vettius made the mistake of exhaling in his direction. Now Vettius is immortal, the victim of Catullus’s mastery of hyperbole:

        Against you if against anyone, rot-breath Vettius,
          the complaints about gaping charmers can be laid.
        With that furred tongue of yours you could, had you occasion,
          lick assholes, or the soles of peasants’ boots.
        If you want to destroy us all totally, Vettius, you just need to
          open wide: you’ll score a complete success. (98)

This is more than bitchiness raised to the level of genius. Vettius gets it in the neck because his morals are even worse than his hygiene. He spreads malicious gossip, he can’t keep his mouth shut. No wonder his breath stinks. Given the loathsome words that issue from his mouth, everything associated with that particular orifice of his is bound to be foul. The hygiene is a correlative of the morals, and the morals are determinative. There must have been otherwise upstanding Romans with breath as fetid as that of Vettius, but Catullus didn’t write poems about them. Vettius probably got what he deserved. And if the orality of the poem makes us squirm slightly, that is, I believe, a measure of its psychological acuity. Like many great poets, Catullus makes us think about things we’d rather not. Yes, we’re all very grown up, but we still suck and lick and kiss like babies.

In a number of poems the invective fails to achieve a discernable literary purpose. I like those ones too:

Up yours both, and sucks to the pair of you,
Queen Aurelius, Furius the faggot,
who dared judge me on the basis of my verses. (16)

you dumbass fuckwits
sitting lined up there, you really suppose I wouldn’t
dare fill two hundred cocksucking squatters’ mouths? (37)

your amrpit’s valley is home to a rank goat. (69)

that grin of his yawns about as wide
as a mule’s cunt splits for pissing in hot weather. (97)

Even when settling scores (and few poets ever had more scores to settle), Catullus generally modulates his spite with ethical censure. He savages Lesbia not merely because of her unforgivable rejection but because of her moral vacuity — even if it took the rejection for him to see the vacuity. As is often the case with scandalous provocateurs, an outraged conservatism, even a touch of puritanism, accounts for much of his cynicism. What Vladimir Nabokov imagined as his own epitaph could almost apply to Catullus: “Far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist, kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel – and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.” Catullus didn’t waste his time ridiculing cruelty (did anyone in the Roman Republic?), but the power of his poetry derives from more than a case of hurt feelings. What he gives us in the unfolding portrait of Lesbia is the horrifying spectacle of someone incapable of love or not even knowing what it is. While not overly fastidious about such matters as adultery (he cuckolded her husband, she cuckolded everyone), Catullus offered her what neither her husband nor any other lover apparently did: his trust, his faith, his honor. Either she didn’t recognize the preciousness of the gift or she didn’t care. And like many a spurned lover from that day to this, he tried to convince himself that it was her loss:

        Long may she live and flourish with her gallants,
        embracing all three hundred in one session,
        loving none truly, yet cracking each one’s loins
         over and over.

        Let her no more, as once, look for my passion,
        which through her fault lies fallen like some flower
        at the field’s edge, after the passing ploughshare’s
         cut a path through it. (11)


Well, it was her loss. We don’t have Lesbia’s side of the story; she might have been daringly independent and unconventional rather than treacherous and deceitful. But we do know some things about Catullus, and I’d say that any man capable of subsuming his conflicting passions in his last emissary to the love of his life into the image of a common flower cut by a ploughshare – I’d say that such a man still has a thing or two to tell us about how to love (and hate).

If the splendidly inventive obscenity and invective were all, Catullus would have been an interesting minor poet. He’s a major one because — rancid, cruel, and oblivious though he can be – his range of thought and feeling is expansive and informed by a morality untainted by piety. The key Catullan maxims still obtain: live your life, not someone else’s (“Let’s live, Lesbia mine, and love – and as for / scandal, all the gossip, old men’s strictures, / value the lot at no more than a farthing” 5); be strong (“Wretched Catullus, stop this stupid tomfool stuff / and what you see has perished treat as lost for good“ 8); honor the dead (“A journey across many seas and through many nations / has brought me here, brother, for these poor obsequies” 101); don’t steal the dinnerware (“Your left hand, friend Asinius, you provincial, / works its mischief while we drink and gossip, / snitching napkins from distracted guests” 12); and try to do the right thing (“If a man derives pleasure from recalling his acts of kindness, / from the thought that he’s kept good faith, / never broken his sworn word . . . / then many delights still wait for you, Catullus” 76).

Bewitching as she must have been, Lesbia’s disregard for most of these precepts (she was an aristocrat, so she wouldn’t have needed to pilfer anyone’s napkins) ultimately made reciprocal love impossible. Not that a little venality here and there especially bothered our poet. In Poem 29 he rails at Caesar for abetting the plundering of local economies by greedy subordinates; in Poem 10 he rails at a praetor for not abetting the plundering of local economies by greedy subordinates, one of whom happens to be Catullus. Well, no one said poets must be moral paragons. It’s enough that they address ethical questions as part of the totality of a poem, along with its psychology, imagery, structure, and all the rest. Although I happen to consider Catullus undervalued as a moralist, I wouldn’t want to argue too strenuously for the ethics of a man who liked to imagine vultures feeding on the severed tongue, crows pecking out the eyes, and wolves and dogs tearing at the intestines of one of his many forgotten enemies (108). “Downright rude” in the approving estimate of Lord Byron, Catullus still has the power to appall. I’m afraid I can’t foresee a time when I won’t need him to shock me back into life.

Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.