Catullus

#42



There is so much stuff on Catullus #42 on the web already, pitiful school translations and confused notions, all of which still don't ruin the wit of the poem everyone loves if only for the mock ire and the dirty words . With all this abroad I figured I just had to bring together some thoughts I have had in mind on this unusual poem.

One afternoon it occurred to Catullus while drinking his Falernan copiously with friends and discussing Greek metrics with an offhand reference to the glyconic flavor, that the term "hendecasyllabi" was itself a trochaic phrase and could be used in a poem as it stands. To the inebriated surprise of his fellow drinkers, the little Elevens began to take on a life of their own, as he sicced them on the last night's light-fingered lady guest, and here was the gist of the poem already forming . . . .

Attention, all you little polysyllabic Elevens,
you elves all together from here and there,
that horrid hooker thinks that I am a joke,
she won't give back my little notepad of poems,
if you can imagine that. The nasty nerve of it.
Let's follow her and clamor to get them back.

You ask who she is? She is the one you see
strutting in the streets swaying her hips galore,
laughing aloud with the face of a drooling hound.

Stand all around her and ask the notebooks back.
"You rotten hooker, give back the books of verse,
return, you dirty bitch, the books of verse."

She does nothing! Scum you are, you whore.
whatever is worse or lower, you really are.
But don't think that this is the end of it!
If nothing more let's squeeze a bit of blush
from that brazen dogface smile of hers.
Scream all together in a yet louder voice
"Dirty whore, return the books of verse,
Return, you dirty whore, the books of verse."

We are getting nowhere, she stands as stiff as stone.
You have to change your manner of address,
if you want to win her favor and succeed:

"O Lady chaste and fair, the notebooks if you please."


We are reading it here as a poem in English, but there are curious problems with the Latin verse form and with some of the words which do not translate directly:

The Elves, where do they come from? Well, we need some physical presence for the little guys clamoring in the street, and 'elves' gives a nice acoustic pun to the Elevens of the first line. Think of trolls or dancing Celtic elves here. There are real language and cultural connections between the Latin and Celtic languages, so this is not philologically baseless. But we do need a visual shot to go with the grammatical #11's parading down the busy city street.

But who ever heard of an eleven-syllable line of verse and what is the tone and meter of Catullus' Hendecasyllabic line? First it is for a Roman very foreign, not only the name but as a metrical borrowing from the ancient world of high Greek poetry, with more than a bit of the exotic. Here used for a scene in the street it has a double thrust, daily and exotic. The hendecasyllabic line is fast, hard and slyly aggressive, a perfect base for this poem.

The poem is in the trochaic metre, which has a long syllable followed by a short in a series, e.g. - u - u. But this is no ordinary line, it has in the second position a dactyl like the finger with one long bone and two shorts, or DA da da . And the first step or 'foot' can be eccentrically a long-short, a long-long or any mixture of the two. Read this line with a stress on the first word of each word break in this line:

iocum .......me putat.......esse ........moecha.......turpis.

a joke......she thinks me ......being ......horrid ......whore

This is quite different from the way we read our easy iambic pentameter in English. Of course this sound can't be actually written into this translation, but if you read the poem aloud with a "DA da" in mind, you should get something of the metric feeling which makes the Latin work.

I said "notepad", because the pugillaria are actually little hand-size notebooks like what our reporters use, but they are wood strips waxed for writing with a stencil. However they are small and for hand use; cf. the cognate word 'pugna' = fight (. . .hand) and 'pux' as a blow with the fist. Rare word from Plautus.

The Codicilli or Notebooks of these poems are much be larger. The Codex, later the block form of a parchment book, is originally a block or plank of wood. Codicilli as used here are thin waxed wood tablets for draft writing, the next stage for writing after the notes on the small pads. I could translate them as books, but better as Notebooks! We could say booklets but these are when published. My dictionary calls the codicilli 'tablets' but I find that locution hard to swallow here.

A Moecha is an adulteress, not technically a criminal in legal wise, but it could be slangy as here, not unlike our Hooker or Cunt or Slut. Actually for "lutum" my Scum is right word since this is gutter or sewer mud-dirt. Our now over-common Scumbag could be used as a negative word, but must be for a male since originally scum in a condom. Just 'scum' carries the point as a social word, but social scum in Latin is usually faex populi.

The dogface smile! A Gallician dog must be a hunting dog from the countryside of Provincia Gallia, hence a drooling hound, not at all like a city lady's pet poodle or Plato's little parlor 'kunarion'.

______________

Here is the text so you can get out the dictionary and check out the wording of my translation for accuracy if not for propriety in an academic literary essay:

adeste hendecasyllabi quot estis
omnes undique quotquot estis omnes.
iocum me putat esse moecha turpis.
et negat mihi nostra reddituram
pugillaria si pati potestis.
persequamur eam et reflagitemus.
quae sit quaeritis. illa quam uidetis
turpe incedere mimice ac moleste
ridentem catuli ore Gallicani.
circumsistite eam et reflagitate.
moecha putida redde codicillos
redde putida moecha codicillos.
non assis facit. o lutum, lupanar
aut si perditius potest quid esse.
sed non est tamen hoc satis putandum
quod si non aliud potest ruborem
ferreo canis exprimamus ore.
conclamate iterum altiore uoce.
moecha putida redde codicillos.
redde putida moecha codicillos.
sed nil proficimus, nihil mouetur.
mutanda est ratio modusque uobis
siquid proficere amplius potestis.
pudica et proba. redde codicillos.


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