Stately Bawdiness: The Poetry of Catullus

Note: This is another old Thermidor post, originally published on January 18, 2018.

Having covered some of the great Greek poets, including Hesiod and Sappho, it’s time to move on to some of the Romans. With the Greeks, I tried to approach their literature roughly in chronological order, but here I’ll begin in the late Republic with Catullus. He’s among the Classical world’s most popular poets, at least among those who don’t have the mixed blessing of being frequently assigned to bored high schoolers like Homer, and perhaps the best way to introduce Catullus and see why is to jump right into one of his poems:

Furius and Aurelius, Catullus’ comrades,
Whether he’ll push on to furthest India
Where the shore is pounded by far-resounding
Eoan rollers,

To Hyrcania or effeminate Arabia,
The Sacians or the arrow-bearing Parthians,
Or those levels to which the seven-double
Nilus gives colour,

Or make his way across the towering Alps
To visit the memorials of great Caesar,
The Gallic Rhine, those horrible woad-painted
And world’s-end Britons –

All this, whatever the will of Heaven above
May bring, ready as you are to brave together,
Simply deliver to my girl a brief dis-
courteous message:

Farewell and long life with her adulterers,
Three hundred together, whom hugging she holds,
Loving none truly but again and again
Rupturing all’s groins;

And let her not as before expect my love,
Which by her fault has fallen like a flower
On the meadow’s margin after a passing
Ploughshare has touched it.

There’s a certain gravity or stateliness we tend to associate with just about anything written in Latin, and understandably so. Most of the books that have come down to us comprise the Roman highlight reel of Caesar and Cicero, Tacitus and Livy, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, and so on. As Latin passed out of common usage it was taken up by Medieval and Renaissance scholars, who generally used it for serious topics of philosophy, science, history, and the like.

On the other hand, we’re also all aware of the infamous decadence of the late Republic and the later years of the Empire. What makes Catullus interesting, then, is that he captures some of both aspects of Rome in the popular imagination, as a great poet who did write on typical, respectable topics, but more often would include at least some element of either obscenity or abuse of a personal enemy. I suppose we could call it “stately bawdiness.” Translator Guy Lee, in the introduction to his version of the poems, gives us a tally:

Even the reader who reckons that he knows Catullus’ work well will be surprised, when he actually counts up its total of obscene and/or abusive poems, to find out how very many of them there are. It is in fact much quicker to list those that contain no element of obscenity or abuse. Among the Polymetra they total a mere twenty, viz. I-V, VII-IX, XIII, XXXI, XXXIV-V, XLV-VI, XLVIII-LI, LV, LVIII B—that is, about one third. Among the elegiac epigrams the proportion is even smaller – ten out of forty-nine, viz. LXXXV-VII, XCII, XCVI, C-CII, CVII, CIX, and that includes one (LXXXVI) which could reasonably be counted out on the ground that it is insulting to Quintia. It must therefore be admitted that at least two-thirds of Catullus’ epigrams are such as either ‘do not lend themselves to comment in English’ (as Fordyce archly observes) or exemplify personal abuse or are at the same time obscene or abusive.

Lee adds that it’s not clear whether this proportion of offensive poetry was, at the time, unique to Catullus or not. In any case, he not only attacks real people such as his immediate social circle and other poets, but powerful people, including no lesser historical giants than Pompey and Julius Caesar, among others. He typically refers to them by pseudonyms, though it’s almost always clear who he must be referring to in a given poem. Presumably he could get way with this because he was well-connected himself and lived at a free and rather chaotic time in Roman history; Lee contrasts him with Martial, a provincial from Bilbilis, in Spain, living under the strong handed Emperor Domitian.

All that said, it would be unfair to Catullus to portray him as only a writer of obscene verse. Consider, for instance, poem XCVI, a response to an elegy written by one Calvus on the death of his wife, Quintilia. It includes the line “Forsitan hoc etiam gaudeat ipsa cinis,” which Lee translates as “Perhaps her very ashes may even be glad of this,” or, as an alternative reading, “Perhaps herself as ashes may even be glad of this.”

If anything grateful or welcome, Calvus, can befall
The silent tomb from grief of ours,
From the longing with which we relive old loves
And weep for past friendships thrown away,
Quintilia surely feels less grief at untimely death
Than gladness for your love.

Of course, Catullus being Catullus, he can’t just leave that touching poem alone. The arrangement of the poems does appear to be his own, and he follows that with one of the foulest works in the collection:

I thought (so help me Gods!) it made no difference
Whether I smelt Aemilius’ mouth or arsehole,
One being no cleaner, the other no filthier.
But in fact the arsehole’s cleaner and kinder:
It has no teeth. The mouth has teeth half-a-yard long
And gums like an ancient wagon-chassis.
Moreover when it opens up it’s like the cunt Of a pissing mule dehiscent in a heat-wave.
And he fucks many girls and fancies himself a charmer
And isn’t sent down to the mill and its moke?
Wouldn’t one think that any woman who touched *him*
Could lick the arsehole of a sick hangman?

It’s uncertain who Aemilius is, but he sounds like a charming fellow. On the bright side, he does get to live immortal in Catullus’ poetry.

Now, there have been many translations of Catullus’ work. I can’t judge their accuracy, but there are two traps that translators sometimes fall into. Some, particularly those from the Nineteenth Century and earlier, bowdlerise the poems; others, more recent, do the opposite and revel in the obscenity. Guy Lee’s version, published by Oxford World’s Classics, takes a middle course, and he succeeds in transforming Catullus’ work into competent English poetry. Conveniently, this edition also includes the original Latin in parallel text, as well as brief annotations on every poem and a helpful introduction.

Among modern translations, Loeb Classical Library publishes one by F. W. Cornish, but this is a prose translation and thus a non-starter. However, it does include poetry by Tibullus and the anonymous Pervigilium Veneris. Another option is David Mulroy’s, published by University of Wisconsin Press. This is similar to Lee’s in tone and presentation; as an example, here’s poem IX:

Veranius, best of all my friends,
all my countless throng of friends,
have you come to your home, to the gods of the larder,
your harmonious brothers and aging mother?
You have! Oh happy news! And I
will see you in safety and hear you describe
the people, the places, the customs of Spain,
in your usual manner, then hug your neck
and kiss your smiling mouth and eyes.
Legions of experts in blessings agree:
there’s nothing more joyful or blessed than me!

Those on a tight budget are also in a tight spot. There are a couple easily-found public domain translations, but neither are satisfactory. One is by Sir Richard Burton, edited by Leonard Smithers and published in 1894, and it’s impressively bad. Again, poem IX:

Veranius! over every friend of me

Forestanding, owned I hundred thousands three,
Home to Penates and to single-soul’d
Brethren, returned art thou and mother old?
Yes, thou art come. Oh, winsome news come well!
Now shall I see thee, safely hear thee tell
Of sites Iberian, deeds and nations ‘spied,
(As be thy wont) and neck-a-neck applied
I’ll greet with kisses thy glad lips and eyne.
Oh! Of all mortal men beatified
Whose joy and gladness greater be than mine?

I hate to be harsh, but mangling the English language to cram it into a metre while doing a late Nineteenth Century impersonation of Sixteenth Century English makes this a chore to read. One might also have low expectations of Robinson Ellis’s 1871 version, where he attempts to translate Catullus into English while retaining the metres of the original, which conventional wisdom rightly holds as a bad idea. However, though it’s not great or even particularly good, it’s clear from his introduction that he knows what he’s doing and it is at least readable. Also, it’s somewhat interesting for just making the attempt. Once more, poem IX:

Dear Veranius, you of all my comrades
Worth, you only, a many goodly thousands,
Speak they truly that you your hearth revisit,
Brothers duteous, homely mother aged?
Yes, believe them. O happy news, Catullus!
I shall see him alive, alive shall hear him,
Tribes Iberian, uses, haunts, declaring
As his wont is; on him my neck reclining
Kiss his flowery face, his eyes delightful.
Now, all men that have any mirth about you,
Know ye happier any, any blither?

Again, it’s awkward, and it’s awkward in large part because of the metrical gymnastics required to wrestle English verse into Latin metre. As a novelty, though, it’s worth a little something. Nonetheless, Catullus is essential reading for those interested in Roman literature, so it’s worth checking your local library, or interlibrary loans if needed, rather than relying on the public domain. A great poet, after all, deserves a great translation.