Dying poet catches nasty tone of ancient Roman
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).