Catullus I, Profane Poems

[#1-16, 21, 23, 25, 29, 35, 36, 37, 40, 45, 51, 63, 70, 72, 75, 76, 83, 92, 93, and any others you dare to read.  {Sacred poems for next class--#34, 61, 62, 63, 64.}]

        Note: Catullus is notoriously difficult to translate because he uses many rare idioms (sort of Roman "street slang") and often writes elliptically, leaving out subjects or objects (as in the common modern insult, "Up yours!"--what? <verb?> "up" "your" what?).  To give you an idea of some possibilities in Catullus' Latin, I have included some alternate readings below.


        Survival of Catullus' single complete manuscript collection of poems is either the strangest fluke in classical and medieval book production or a sign that his verse was so compelling that it literally forced Christian monks to copy it so that its sole "autograph" copy from Catullus' own hand would not be the sole record of the poems in history.  To see an image of part of poem #1 from one of the three surviving medieval manuscripts, Bodleian MS. Oxoniensis, click here.  This manuscript remained undiscovered in the Bodleian Library at Oxford until the nineteenth century.  The others are the Vatican Library's MS. Romanus and the Parisian Bibliotheque Nationale MS. Sangermanensis.


        For a scholarly article that places Catullus among the other "Neoteric" or avant-garde poets of late Greek and early Latin literature, see:

R. O. A. M. Lyne, "The Neoteric Poets." The Classical Quarterly , New Series, Vol. 28, No. 1 (1978), pp. 167-187


Discussion Questions:


1)  Modern scholars believe C collected and arranged this group  of poems himself.  Do you see any overarching thematic or dramatic  structure in the whole collection?


2)  How does C use the first poem (1 & 1B) as an "introduction" which draws the reader into his collection?  How does he give the collection a circumstance for its existence and give the reader a point of view from which to read?  Especially, how do you interpret the anecdote about Atalanta (look her up in Hamilton or Graves)?


3)  How does C use the sparrow in #2 and #3 to mediate  his love for his mistress?  What social/erotic positions is the  sparrow said to occupy for her and for C?  (The sparrow was  sacred to Aphrodite and Venus.)


4)  #5, famous for Ben Jonson's paraphrase (Volpone III.vii) and  its influence on John Donne, contains several usages drawn from  commerce.  He urges that they not appraise (aestimemus)  the old  men's opinions and that they should be confused by their kisses  (conturbabimus, with a pun (?) on conturbatoris, ruinously  expensive).  What is being exchanged for what in this bargain?   [See #48 for an agricultural production model of the same  metaphor.]


5)  #6 challenges C's friend, Flavius, to speak of his lover so  that C can write poetry about them.  How would you describe C's  drive to compose?  If the muse and the recording of the hero's deeds in song are the "creative engine" of the epic poet, what is the creative engine of the lyric poet of Catullus' type?


6)  #7 restates the "kissing" theme of #5 and returns to C's  mingled dread and pride in erotic publicity.  He fears curious  eyes who will count up in advance (prenumerare) their kisses or  bewitch in language (fascinare lingua, perhaps with allusive play on  fascia, bundle, and fascinum, the penis).  What's he trying to do  here?


7)  #8 marks one of the early turning points in the "Lesbia"  sequence.  How do its questions develop the poem's theme?  Why  does C speak of himself in the familiar second person (at tu,  Catulle) and order himself to persist in firmness (destinatus,  also betrothed [!]).


8)  Catullus' poems derive some of their disturbing power from their uncharacteristically self-absorbed focus.  What happens to #9's welcome home to Veranius?


9)  #10 brings us into the back rooms of the Roman aristocracy.  According to the Roman judge, Florentinus, slavery was a matter of public fact that merely needed to be defined: "Slavery is an institution of the ius gentium (law of all nations) whereby someone is subject to the dominium of another, contrary to nature" (quoted in Moses Finley, "Was Greek Civilization Based on Slave Labour?" 104).  What does this do to/for your reading of Catullus' poem?  What does he criticize in the woman's behavior and how do you evaluate that criticism?  What sort of character does Catullus give himself, and how do you interpret that?


10)  How do C's complicated passions shape "this bitter message," the "not‑love letter"  (non bona dicta, not good words?) he sends Lesbia (#11)?


11)  #12 records a threat against the napkin thief, Asinius.  How does Catullus understand the use of poetry, and with what Greek lyric poet might he be compared?


12)  #13 plays a gift‑giving game with Fabulus.  What has C  emptied of power to give, what does he offer (nonetheless) to  give F, and what will be the effect of the gift?


13)  This free translation of #16 somewhat obscures the fragment's opening lines: Pedicabo ego  vos et irrumabo / Aureli pathice et cinaedi Furi... [Fettered I  am by you and defiled / Unnaturally licentious Aurelius and  sodomite Furcus].  Martin's use of the profanity is intended to transmit the force of both verbs, but he over-simplifies their function.  Who is fettered and defiled in this poem?  (Cf.  #7 and fascia, bundled)  What is C's argument about the poet and  the poem, and how can he (of all people) claim to be a "sacred  poet" (pium poetam)?  Hint: what is the difference between the poet, himself, and the persona of the lyric you read?  For a recent English court case involving this particular poem, see Charlotte Higgins, "Catullus Still Shocks 2000 Years On: Lines from the Roman poet are at the centre of a court case - and many news organisations still dare not translate them," The Guardian, 24 November, 2009.


14)  #21 threatens Aurelius that he will be defiled (irrumatus,  see #16).  What tool  does C use for the job?  (See also #25 in which C threatens to  scrawl with a whip [flagella conscribellent] upon Thallus' hands and rump.)


15)  The "economy of love" returns in #23, but it's in a recession.  Furius' poverty provokes Catullus to one of his characteristic tirades.  How does he characterize his habits, and why is he angry rather than sympathetic?


16)  In his attack on a bloated bureaucrat (#29), Catullus addresses Romulus (mythic founder of Rome and long dead) as well as Caesar, the current emperor.  What does the language of the attack tell you about the aristocracy's freedoms under Caesar?  Also see #93.


17)  #35 addresses his "paper" (the poem as if it were alive)  and, through it, another poet.  Notice the way this other poet  has used his art‑‑who is Cybele?  (See #63.)  Notice, too, the reference to  Sappho.  How do these Roman poets understand their place in history?


18)  #36 records a curse on the work (cacata charta, shitty  pages) of a rival poet and a bargain made with Lesbia, similar  to vows found inscribed on tablets buried beneath the racetrack  by bettors at the Hippodrome.  What role does the poem play in  the bargain?


19)  #37 records the famous double‑edged attack on Lesbia (Clodia  Metelli?) and her new friends.  Once again, what  is C threatening when he says he will write "scorpions" all over  the front of their "tavern" (namque totius / vobis frontem  tabernae scorpionibus scribam)?  Martin gives us one interpretation of what this might mean‑‑how  else might C be "writing scorpions"?  Also see #40.


20)  How does #45 parody the conventions of epic and of erotic lyric?  What devices or strategies do you recognize from more serious works, and what is Catullus saying about the modern Roman borrowing of them?


21)  #51 closely paraphrases Sappho (#2 in Lattimore), especially  following S's description of love's psycho‑physical effects.   Flame descends, the ears hum (tintinant), the  tongue is dulled.   Why is Sappho's position as a lover so easy for C to appropriate?  How does he change the consequence of desire from the version in Sappho's poem?


22)  Contrast the writing in the famous epigram #70 with the  various metaphorical writings C has referred to in previous  poems.  How does desire affect the written thing (in C's work)?


23)  #85 is one of C's most famous and compressed erotic  epigrams.  Martin's translation uses a European English "how" to  render the imagined question‑‑it's quare (why) not quam or  quomodo (how).  Why does C answer the "why" with a "how" (sed  fiere sentio et excrucior, "but I feel it and I am in torment"  [Loeb])?  Compare longer but parallel expressions of this situation in #72, #75, #76, #83, & #92.