Dy­ing poet catches nasty tone of an­cient Ro­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Barry Hill

ACLASSICIST with a pen itchy with id, A. D. Hope did not have much room to move in the Aus­tralian cul­ture that framed him. But to­wards the end of his life he had the plea­sure of re­turn­ing, free of cen­sor­ship, to the fa­mous and filthy Ro­man poet he loved most: Cat­ul­lus ( 81- 54BC). This in­struc­tive and amus­ing book, from a hith­erto ig­nored man­u­script in the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia, is the re­sult.

With rel­ish Hope has ren­dered Cat­ul­lus in our ver­nac­u­lar: 102 po­ems out of a pos­si­ble 116, in­clud­ing the 32 po­ems an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion’s Ox­ford edi­tion found too hot to han­dle.

Four- let­ter words flow as freely as ex­cre­ment along the Tiber, along with umpteen ref­er­ences to ar­se­holes and what can be shoved up them: radish and mul­let was the go for adul­ter­ers, in a place where, as Cat­ul­lus, put it, ‘‘ noth­ing breeds so fast as adul­tery’’.

To which he might have added sodomy, as he was a sodomite him­self, which de­tracts some­what from his sple­netic at­tacks on ‘‘ Cae­sar the catamite’’, who once dined at his fa­ther’s ta­ble, and who loved ‘‘ ef­fem­i­nate Ma­murra’’. No mat­ter. Cat­ul­lus was less in­ter­ested in moral

The Shorter Po­ems of Gaius Va­lerius Cat­ul­lus: A New Trans­la­tion by A. D. Hope Brandl & Schlesinger, 79pp, $ 26.95

con­sis­tency than in his in­stinc­tive ven­ti­la­tions, be they about the li­cen­tious­ness of friends or en­e­mies, boys or girls. Here he writes from the wounded quick, with a wryly fad­ing Aus­tralian poet hold­ing his hand.

Hope is bold in other ways. He ig­nores the tra­di­tional or­der of the Ro­man’s po­ems. He sug­gests that they had lit­tle his­tor­i­cal ba­sis in the first place and of­fers an ar­range­ment ac­cord­ing to themes: the poet on him­self ( an all too easy topic, Cat­ul­lus seems to have felt); on his great and las­civ­i­ous love, Les­bia; other loves ( of whom there were many); on friends and en­e­mies.

It’s a splen­did way to be in­tro­duced to Cat­ul­lus. Hope weaves in his­tory and bi­og­ra­phy when you need it, with­out de­tract­ing from the po­ems. A pic­ture of Rome burn­ing leaps into the mind. As does the low siz­zle of lit­er­ary life, one on the edge,

per­haps, of in­vent­ing prizes for the most cor­rupt. Cat­ul­lus rev­els in ri­valry, and when in doubt, dashes off some­thing poi­sonous, abu­sive or both.

Hope’s cen­tre­piece, re­ally, is Les­bia, as Cat­ul­lus would ev­i­dently have liked. He loved her well, and when she left him to whore around ( so it was said and writ­ten), he loved to hate her. The po­ems run the gaunt­let of what we now know as the ro­man­tic agony: My tongue re­mains idle; I feel a flame

steal­ing Down through my mem­bers, the ears in

my head are In­wardly ring­ing, the light of my eyes

quenched In black­ness and in night.

Hope does not ex­plain why Cat­ul­lus refers to mem­bers in the plu­ral. Per­haps he had a forked prick ( Hope’s favoured term of trans­la­tion) as well as a forked tongue, one sharp­ened by what was to be­come ‘‘ one un­end­ing night to be slept through’’.

I have to say I was sick of Cat­ul­lus by the time I fin­ished this book. He is per­haps of peak in­ter­est if you have Latin or want to project de­sire back to the time when English pub­lic school­boys could use an an­cient Ro­man poet as an out­let, an epoch that long shad­owed no­tions of lit­er­ary re­straint in Aus­tralian academe.

The Cat­ul­lus I like best can paint vivid scenes be­fore he brings his nasty self into the pic­ture. Hope’s fi­nal moder­nity ( af­ter a life­time rail­ing against such a thing) is won­der­ful here:

But in spite of your si­lence You don’t sleep alone, as wit­ness the

gar­lands, The scent of the Syr­ian oil the bed reeks of And the bed it­self too, th­ese all loudly

pro­claim it; Pil­lows on both sides tossed hither and

thither, Bed­clothes so tum­bled, its shak­ing and

creak­ing, Noth­ing, no, noth­ing can ever con­ceal it. So what? And your­self, al­ways look­ing

f . . ked out too . . .

Barry Hill is po­etry ed­i­tor of The Aus­tralian. His new book is As We Draw Our­selves ( FIP).

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