Angry young man with a good line on sex
Di et amo. I hate and I love. The Roman poet Catullus excelled at both. His 85th poem, one of many to his mistress Lesbia continues: “You ask me why I do this? I do not know, but I feel it happen and I am torn apart.” No three-star reviews from him. Life is always bliss or buggeration. As a result, Catullus, of all the Roman poets, seems most like a human being.
He lacks the grand vision of a Virgil, the spark of genius of a Horace or the elegance of an Ovid, who all came in the generation that followed him at the end of the 1st century BC, but the open emotion and lurid realism of Gaius Valerius Catullus speaks as eloquently to readers today as when his poems were first heard in Rome. He was the original angry young man.
Little is known, though, of the life of this minor aristocrat who was born in the provinces around 82BC, mixed with Caesar, Pompey and Cicero, and died in his 30th year. There is no ancient biography and scant mention in the histories of the period. He lives on only in his lines.
The task of piecing together a biography from verse alone is one Daisy Dunn performs with creativity and diligence, despite the body of work that was handed down from the Middle Ages being ordered not by chronology or theme but higgledy-piggledy like a greatest hits album. It is a world of prostitutes and drunkards, of men on the make and rascals on the rampage. In common with sculpture of the time, which was moving away from the body beautiful to depicting warts and all, Catullus’s cast are often grotesques, such as the “alleyway adulterers” of poem 37 and a twice-mocked hairy Spaniard called Egnatius whose teeth are always gleaming because he brushes them with urine.
Politicians also get the sharp end of his wit. Julius Caesar, a friend of his father, is a “shameless, grasping gambler” whom Catullus openly says he has no desire to please. Wisely, though, he directs most of his fire at Caesar’s entourage rather than the big man himself. Arrius, Caesar’s election agent, was mocked for putting on airs and graces, adding an unnecessary “h” to words to sound posh. Mamurra, one of his wealthiest officers, is given the obscene nickname Mentula (a slang for penis) and Catullus runs through a list of his girlfriend’s bad points — big nose, flat feet, pale eyes, stubby fingers and so on — before concluding that none of those are as damning as her choice of lover.
Sex dominates our view of Catullus. The bedspread of Dunn’s title appears in poem 64, one of Catullus’s few forays into the myths that formed a fertile subject for other poets. It adorned the bed of Peleus and Thetis, parents of Achilles, and showed the romance of Bacchus and Ariadne. Catullus’s own bedspread would have stories to tell. From the moment he became an adult, he writes in one poem, he began shagging: “I was no stranger to Venus.”
To one lover, Ipsitilla, he pleads for an exhausting afternoon. “Brace yourself for nine consecutive f..ks,” he writes. “I’m poking through my tunic and cloak.” Men stirred his feelings, too. After a drunken afternoon spent writing erotic verse with his friend and fellow poet Licinius Calvus, Catullus writes: “Undone by passion I tossed and turned all over the bed”, which sounds rather messy.
When it came to his great muse, though, Catullus is rather restrained, almost dainty — or at least he is until it all goes sour. In his most famous poem about Lesbia, who was really Clodia Metelli, wife of a consul, he imagines her playing with a sparrow in her lap, teasing it with her fingertip and encouraging it to nibble her. “I wish I could play with you,” he sighs.
Dunn takes this plaything to be a literal bird, though some have assumed it to be a euphemism either for Catullus’s penis — playing with the pecker, we might say — or a reference to Lesbia masturbating. In any case, compared with the blunt crudeness of his other poems, Catullus seems coy.
He is similarly doe-eyed in another famous verse. “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love and let us rate the opinions of grumpy old men as being not worth one penny,” he declares, before going on to demand her kisses by the hundreds and thousands until there are so many that they lose count.
To his friends, this was not the roisterer they knew. Aurelius and Furius accused him of going soft, which got an obscene rebuke. “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo” begins poem 16, providing a huge problem for sensitive translators until relatively recently. Dunn translates it as “I shall f..k you anally and orally”, an improvement on the Victorian version we had at school of “nuts to you, boys, nuts and go to hell”, though “I’ll shag you and gag you” might convey more of the violent force.
The essence of his rebuke, probably deliberately exaggerated for comic effect, is how dare anyone extrapolate a poet’s true nature from his verses? Well, Dunn has dared to do the same and, in the main, has done it well. If the shade of Catullus feels she has got him wrong, he has no one to blame but himself.