Revisiting Catullus, from political battles to Roman contraception

Daisy Dunn's Catullus's Bedspread: the Life of Rome's Most Erotic Poet, alongside her new translations of his poetry, offer a rollicking good read - as long as they're not taken too much at face value.

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“Studying ancient Rome,” wrote the Catullan scholar T P Wiseman, “should be like visiting some teeming capital in a dangerous and ill-governed foreign country; nothing can be relied on, most of what you see is squalid, sinister or unintelligible.” The problem for today’s classicists, in supplying a burgeoning demand for popular histories, is how to square such obscure and often unknowable material with a reader-
friendly approach.

Daisy Dunn’s answer in Catullus’s Bedspread, her new “biography” of the 1st-century BC Roman poet, is to marry a breathy, vivid narrative voice with know­ledgeable digressions about the peculiarities of Roman life. And so she describes the early days of Catullus’s affair with the woman he called “Lesbia” in his poems, sometimes identified as the infamous Clodia Metelli: “Catullus made himself look the fool for having missed the warning signs. But love, as he knew, renders one deaf and blind . . .” This is followed by an eye-watering exploration of Roman methods of contraception: spider parasites that could be inserted into deerskin and then attached to a woman’s body to ward off pregnancy, or a concoction of herbs and berries that “Catullus might smear on his penis”.

The difficulty here is that Catullus is perhaps one of Rome’s most shadowy figures. All we know is that his poetry mentions a posting as a junior official to Bithynia, Asia Minor, in 57-56BC, but no date later than Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC. According to Latin poetic tradition, he died young at the age of 30 and so his birth is often backdated to roughly 84BC. But even this is a matter of debate.

Dunn knows Catullus’s work inside out and skilfully interweaves an impressive number of his surviving 117 poems into her text. She also provides valuable context: the hapless Arrius’s habit of aspirating his speech from poem 84, for instance, leads to a discussion of the inverted snobbery fashionable in republican Rome.

Dunn proves to be an expert guide to Roman political manoeuvring, unravelling the machinations of Caesar, Cicero, Crassus, Pompey and a host of minor characters who might shock even the most experienced Westminster analyst. Exhaustive endnotes also provide relevant source references, as well as fascinating additional material on subjects ranging from ancient fragmentary Latin poetry to a much-debated decision to include some of Catullus’s more sexual poems in a Latin A-level syllabus in 1989 (it was later agreed that no questions would be set on them).

Such scholarship, however, can sit uneasily with the romantic flights of Dunn’s main text: “Only the stone of the deserted Ponte Pietra,” she writes of the (imagined) night that Catullus learns of his brother’s death, “gleamed with the whiteness of babies’ teeth.” And, with so little certain about the poet’s life, the “facts” presented by Dunn’s central narrative could be described more accurately as conjecture.

She takes as read that Catullus’s Lesbia is Clodia Metelli, known to us from Cicero and other contemporary sources, and then rearranges his poetry to form an ordered story of their doomed affair. Yet Lesbia’s name occurs only 16 times in the poems (the less specific puella, or “girl”, is found almost as many times) and her identification with this particular Clodia was first made as late as 1554. Nevertheless, the fascination with Catullus as a lover, which began with Ludwig Schwabe’s reconstruction of Catullus’s biography in 1862, has since become a staple of historical fiction, as in Helen Dunmore’s 2008 novel Counting the Stars.

By contrast, classical scholars such as Charles Martin have suggested that Lesbia should be considered not as a real person but rather as “an emblem, abstracted and idealised”. Catullus’s poetic voice is extremely fluid, moving easily between learned reference and gutter humour, a blank page on to which we project our own readings, whether Tennyson’s “tender” poet or Swinburne’s priapic idol – a character Harold Nicolson declared “vindictive, venomous and full of obscene malice” and whom Dorothy Parker, adopting Lesbia’s female gaze, found pathetic: “He’s always hymning that or wailing this:/Myself, I much prefer the business type.”

Where Dunn makes free with the poet’s biography, her accompanying translations, The Poems of Catullus, offer rather less risky readings of his text. Here are sound versions, perfect for the student or general reader looking for accuracy and precision. At the same time, Dunn is not afraid to call a spade a spade (or, in the case of poem 80, a blow job a blow job). Yet Catullus’s intricate and slippery verse cries out for transgression, with the most successful renderings often the most innovative (Henry Stead’s recent collaborative audiovisual version of poem 63 for London Poetry Systems springs to mind). In their correctness, Dunn’s translations sometimes sacrifice the musicality and verve of the originals so that the full force of Catullus’s jokes becomes muted. For example, poem 32’s teasing sexual innuendo rather loses its force; the play on ne quis liminis obseret (in English, something like “Don’t block your passage”) becomes the more literal and tame “Let no one bolt the door”. And Catullus’s mock-learned obscenity fututiones, or “fuckoffiscatings”, is here the less complex “fucks”.

That said, Catullus is a notoriously tricky subject for any translator. As Ezra Pound confessed: “I have failed 40 times myself so do know the matter.” And The Poems of Catullus provides a fine foundation for the future. Both this and Catullus’s Bedspread represent a rollicking good read for all – so long as, like Catullus’s glittering, playful poetry, the reader doesn’t take them too much at face value.

Catullus’s Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet by Daisy Dunn is published by William Collins (320pp, £16.99). The Poems of Catullus , translated by Daisy Dunn, is also published by William Collins (176pp, £8.99)

Josephine Balmer is a poet and translator. Her books include Chasing Catullus: Poems, Translations and Transgressions  (Bloodaxe) and The Word for Sorrow  (Salt)

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming