An­gry young man with a good line on sex

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - The Times

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.

Daisy Dunn

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