Peter Kerr-Jarrett on the poetry of Catullus
My woman says there is no one she would rather wed
Than me, even if Jupiter himself were her suitor.
So she says. But what a woman will say to an imploring lover
Should be written on the wind and engraved on running water.
Such lines of self-deprecating, graceful cynicism tell us something about Catullus. They reflect the first of the two main foci of his surviving poetry his uneasy love for a wealthy, married and promiscuous woman; and the deceit and hypocrisy of his fellow Romans in the first century BC. The deep, uncomplicated feeling expressed in the love poems, and their casual fusion of timeless anxiety and confiding tone make them eminently readable today.
Catullus was not a poet of self-examination, nor does he seem particularly concerned with nature or the gods. But he is a connoisseur of regret and revenge, of betrayal and unrequited love, a writer whose insecurities that are balanced by a faith in the protective powers of the poetic abilities that served him so well throughout a brief but busy life.
Few biographical details have survived. His poetry nearly did not. Aubrey Burl's introduction to this enthralling and occasionally capricious book surmises that the collected works perished in the flames at the library at Alexandria in 47 BC. An often ignored aspect of this intellectual arson, but which belonged to the overblown cinematic quality of the time, is that the fire was involuntarily caused when Julius Caesar, besieged with Cleopatra by an Egyptian mob, sent fire ships into the port. A sole surviving manuscript of some poems reputedly served as a stopper for a wine jar until its eventual discovery, and the first printed edition appeared in 1472.
The son of a wealthy Verona businessman, Catullus arrived in Rome in his early twenties and rapidly evolved from educated but provincial outsider to streetwise society songmeister. Rome was a maelstrom of public disorder and rapidly changing fortunes as politicians like Julius Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Octavian and Mark Anthony manoeuvred for control of the Senate and of the streets. Catullus in turn had to find his way among the hacks and purveyors of doggerel that propped up Roman cultural life. Burl flavours his own dismissal of the literary scene with phrases like "turgid monstrosity", "another vapid buffoon" and "untalented rhymester". Similarly declaring his ambivalence towards the sensation-seeking and unreliable historian Sallust by advising us that his style was elegant, but his descriptions preposterous, he then approvingly cites Sallust's character assassination of Catiline before suddenly complaining about historical misreadings of Robin Hood. This surreal, vertiginous tone is struck periodically throughout.
Again, "Catullus may have known the taverns, gaming-dens and brothels of the Subura but it is unlikely that he ever went there on his own, and never by himself at night". But Rome in those days was easily navigated and if we are to assume anything, surely it should be that Catullus did know where the brothels were. Whether he went, and whether alone, doesn't alter Burl's eloquent truths about the Roman fondness for recreational sex.
He also performs a good job of reconstructing the tough, unforgiving nature of Roman public life and nicely details Julius Caesar's scheming personality and his single-minded drive for power. Sexual practice was yet to fall prey to Christian precept and welltodo women often aggressively pursued pleasure whether they were married or not. The object of Catullus' devotion, Clodia Metelli, artfully concealed as Lesbia in the poems proved to be a case in point.
Faithful to no one, she was dubbed Quadrantaria, or 'yours for four coppers', and through suspicion of having poisoned her husband was regarded as a bargain basement Clytemnestra. Catullus' devotion to her was unwavering, obsessive and futile. The murderously obscene verse that he occasionally turned on his rivals and enemies matched the aggression and violence of the time, but it also sprang from the same tormented and inspired source as his own helpless love.