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Literary Criticism

Introduction on Catullus

Full name Gaius Valerius Catullus (84-54 BC),
Roman poet, often considered the greatest writer of Latin lyric verse.

Introduction on Catullus
taken with kind permission of Ken Hope

The poems of Catullus might have suffered the same fate as those of Archilochos and Sappho but for a single manuscript which made its way to Verona, the poet’s home town, early in the 14th century. Since Catullus is generally thought to have lived between 84 and 54 B. C. E., this manuscript was a copy of a copy of a copy… going back for some 1400 years–though nothing is known about those earlier manuscripts. In fact, the text of Catullus that we use today, while it derives ultimately from this single manuscript, is based on copies, and on copies of copies, of that one, since the manuscript itself is long gone.

So we know roughly when Gaius Valerius Catullus lived, and we have a few facts about him. He was born in or near Verona in 84 B.C. to a family of considerable wealth and connections–his father was a friend of Julius Caesar. Encouraged by his elder brother, he wrote poetry as a youth, in which he was influenced by Callimachus and other Alexandrine and earlier Greek poets. His poetry was in the style of the neoterics, who prized highly polished technical achievement in their sophisticated, urbane, witty, short poems. His brother died in 58, and between 57 and 56 he spent a year in government service in Bithynia, where he visited the tomb of his brother. He had by then apparently begun and possibly already ended a tempestuous relationship with a married woman whom he named in his poems Lesbia (apparently after the Greek poet Sappho who lived on Lesbos). Scholars have identified the poet’s Lesbia with a real woman named Clodia. Catullus made fun of Julius Caeser and one of his nechmen in his poems, but apologized and was easily forgiven. He died, apparently at age 30, in 54. We do not know much more than that, although the poems, like the others in this collection, do encourage speculation as to character and temperament.

If Archilochos is the first lyric poet in the West, the poet who invented the “I,” as it were, Catullus is the first poet we know enough about to construct a sense of who he is from the poems themselves. In fact, everything we know about him is created in his poems. Without them we know next to nothing.

The character that emerges in these poems is lively, dynamic, engaging. If it is not Catullus whom we come to know, yet we do feel we come to know someone with a personality, whom we may as well call Catullus, since that is how he is called in the poems. Certainly there are inconsistencies of character, but these seem to be are part of the poet’s basic material: “odi et amo,” he says, “I love and hate.” He is not saying that he swerves from one passion to the next, but rather that conflicting emotions dwell within him at the same time, and these help as well as anything else to define who he is.

These poems read like letters to friends–Catullus is deeply aware of friendship and of who his friends are–which we catch a glimpse of. We can’t always figure out the context–it is like we are overhearing a conversation or reading over somebody’s shoulder–but we pick up enough to be intrigued, and curious. As we read these poems we begin to realize several things. Although they are in much better shape than the poems of Archilochus and Sappho, we may still think of them as fragmentary. Although the poems appear to be complete as poems, in reading them we find ourselves being asked to construct a sense of the writer and his milieu and immediate siuations in our own minds. The poems are our only clues, and in that sense they remain fragmentary, incomplete. We fill things in from our own lives and imaginations with what the poems suggest to us.

In the first poem Catullus dedicates his “libellum,” little book, to a fellow writer, and calls attention both to the attractive physical qualities of the scroll itself–which has been carefully polished with pumice-stone to sand down the edges and smooth them out–and to his own ironic sense about these poems as “trivial.” From this initial image, we have the sense that Catullus is a consummate artist who chooses to comment both directly and indirectly on his poems themselves, and what he is doing with them. As helpful as this is for readers of the poems as poems, because it gives Catullus marvelous opportunities for poetic turns and ironic stances, it does little for those who wish to come to know the historical Catullus any better. As with Archilochus, we do not always know when Catullus means to be funny, but we have the strong suspicion that he is having fun, and pulling some tricks on his readers. While apparently writing about himself and his friends, Catullus seems most interested in writing about poetry itself.

Catullus is particularly well known for his rude and crude poetry which, however finely polished, astonishes us with vitriolic obscenities and gross violations of good taste. Many of his poems were routinely left untranslated–or left out altogether–of early editions. That such gutter language exists in poems as finely crafted as these is just one of the ironies. He is also capable of the most refined and lovely language–and the most jocular. Even when he seems to at his most trivial, however, as in his two songs about Lesbia’s pet sparrow, there is much that is apparent below the surface–though we may not all make it out in the same way.

Catullus is, with Sappho, one of the world’s best and most influential love poets. Since so much more of his work has survived, he is far better known than Sappho, and has been a major influence in lyric poetry throughout the west. In some respects these poems help to define the term for us, or at least to provide us with a frame of reference by which the term is understood. The poet’s creation of Lesbia is the first of many important creations in which male poets summon through their poetry the image of a woman whom they love–perhaps at a distance, perhaps not–and whose attraction is so powerful it helps the poet write the poems that, in describing this love affair, define himself. Other such figures include Dante’s Beatrice, and Shakespeare’s “dark lady” and “young man.”

Stephen Coote, Editor, The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (New York: Penguin Books, 1983, rec. 1986)

F. O. Copley, Catullus, The Complete Poetry (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1957)

Daniel H. Garrison, The Student¼s Catullus (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).

Francis R. B. Godolphin, ed. The Latin Poets (New York: The Modern Library, 1949)

Horace Gregory, Poems of Catullus (New York: Grove Press, 1956).

Jane Wilson Joyce, “Catullus,” in Diane J. Rayor and William W. Batstone, Editors Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry
(New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995), pp. 3-29

Guy Lee, The Poems of Catullus (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press: 1990)

Jack Lindsay, Catullus: The Complete Poems (London: Sylvan Press, 1948).

Charles Martin, The Poems of Catullus (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, 1990).

Adrian Poole & Jeremy Maule, The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995)

C. H. Sisson, tr. The Poetry of Catullus (New York: The Orion Press, 1967).


About Ima Kulit

restless. independent. rock music and classical music, third world poetry and literature, theory and criticism, beaches, sunsets, wide open spaces, sports and running, laughter, art, and photography sustain me. i love to travel alone. it's the best way to get lost in the labyrinth of my thoughts.


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