GAIUS VALERIUS CATULLUS


Gaius Valerius Catullus (84BC?- 54BC) lived in almost the same years at Lucretius, but everything about him and his history is of an entirely different cast. Coming from a middle-class family from Verona in the north of Italy, he went early to Rome with the same enthusiasm with which everybody of importance in 20th c. American literature went first to New York and then to Paris. The varied life of The City (the Urbs as Rome was called informally) suited his volatile nature, and gave him the city sharpness of wit we see in his slim volume of poetry.

We know much about his life, his connections with Caesar, Cicero, and above all Clodia, whom he styles Lesbia in his verse for her literary rather than lesbian interests. Dying about his thirty third year, he left a small volume which prints up now in less than eighty pages of text. But into this small compass he injects love, hate, sneers at the rich and noble, as well as poems of the utmost tenderness, delicacy and madness.

Coming from an upper-class background, versed in city ways and interested in what the new Alexandrian poets in Egypt were doing in Greek verse, Catullus is aware of everything, vitally involved in everything, a young man plunging headlong into "life" on every level. Involved with Clodia, his great but clearly disappointing love, he goes in with tenderness, struggles with anger and bitter reproaches, and ends with a sad sense of resigned malaise. He dies young, it is hard to think of this flashing phenomenon of Roman literary brilliance living to grow old. The only complaint we can have about Catullus' writing is that there is so little of it, but even so Catullus is a major figure in literature, his fire and romantic sense of involvement is rare overall, and unique in the annals of Roman writing.

Catullus is often brutal, and never hesitates about being obscene. Part of this comes from the general Roman lack of verbal restraint, as compared with the prissy and controlling literary forces which have monitored English writing well into this century. That Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover could have been banned on the basis of one or two elemental words, would have seemed insane to any educated Roman. But there are different levels of obscenity. Body function words, whether sexual or excretory, are in our times considered to belong to the lowbrow speech of the working classes. But in Catullus' world it was the emancipated men of the upper-classes who could use obscenity with a telling punch. Catullus is an aristocratic young man-about-town, and while his obscenities may be gross, they belong to his class. Reading him in English translation, we often get a mistaken idea about his place in the social spectrum of late Republican Rome. When Frank Copley translated Catullus many years ago, and put the indecent poems into a mock Brooklyn-ese dialect, he missed the social aspects of Catullus' obscenities entirely. Catullus is obscene as EE Cumming can be obscene when the mood moves him.

The wide variety of metres which Catullus employs stems from his interest in the Alexandrian experimentalists. When one reads Catullus, it is important to get the meters in focus, which can be done with the aid of any good commented text. Merrill's turn of the century school text (reprinted various times) still has the clearest exposition of the Catullan metrical schemes. Perhaps the best test of one's ability to read Latin verse well is to be found in Poem #63, with its unique and brilliantly involved Galliambic metre. The later part of the volume is largely elegaic, and an easier place to start for an uncertain metricist.

There is very little more to say about Catullus, except that if you get into his writing early and sincerely, there will be enough artistry and brilliance there to last you the rest of your years. One changes gears over the years, and some early favorites pall as time passes. It seems safe to say that if you once really "perceive" Catullus, his poems will stay with you for life.

Crede experto.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris