The Poems of Catullus
by Gaius Valerius Catullus
Sparrows and Scrubbers
A review by Emily Wilson
Peter Green, an eminent historian of the ancient world, is one of the best translators
of classical poetry in our age. He has done the definitive modern Juvenal, and
his version of Apollonius of Rhodes's dense, allusive epic poem The Argonautica
actually makes it enjoyable to read. His translations of Ovid's elegiac poetry
are probably his masterpiece as a translator. He manages to re-create Ovid's verbal
fluency and lightness of tone in a convincing English equivalent of Latin elegiac
meter. Green's Ovid, like the original, is always readable, always clever, and
frequently offensive. He has now produced a translation of the complete poems
of Catullus, with facing Latin original and extensive notes. It is a superb piece
of work, despite some disappointments. Green's translation should encourage readers
of all kinds to read or re-read Catullus, one of the greatest and most influential
of all classical poets.
Born in the provincial northern town of Verona sometime around 84 B.C.E., Catullus died in Rome, possibly of consumption, about thirty years later. He was an inspiration for the Augustan poets of the subsequent generation: Horace, Virgil, Propertius, and Ovid all look back to his work. So do many later European and American poets: Catullus's sparrow poems, for instance, have inspired many English imitations and acts of poetic homage, from John Skelton's remarkable poem "Phyllyp Sparowe" (written around 1500), to Carol Muske-Dukes's collection Sparrow (2003).
Catullus came from a wealthy family; unlike Virgil and Horace, he seems to have had no need to cultivate a rich patron to support him while writing poetry. His father was friendly with Julius Caesar and often invited him to dinner. Catullus wrote several vicious attacks on Caesar, which suggest that his military campaigns in Britain and Gaul are being criminally mismanaged by his chief engineer Mamurra, and that they are motivated by revolting avarice and greed on the part of Caesar himself, who is a "voracious/and shameless gut." Catullus also sneers at Caesar's bisexual promiscuity: "They're well matched, that pair of shameless buggers,/Bitch-queens both of them, Caesar and Mamurra" (Green's translation).
According to Suetonius, Caesar complained that a "permanent blot" had been put on his name by these poems, but "when Catullus apologized, Caesar invited him to dinner that very day." This anecdote could be taken as a sign of Catullus's socially privileged position: as the son of Caesar's friend, he was able to be extremely rude about the most powerful man in the world, and get away with it. But it can also be taken to prove Caesar's literary taste. He knew a great poem when he read one, even if it included slander against himself.
It is disturbing to remember that the poems of Catullus might well have been lost to us forever. The classical authors whose work was part of the Byzantine school syllabus, such as Virgil and Cicero, were read and copied many times over, from late antiquity to the Middle Ages. But the poems of Catullus were not a school text, for obvious reasons. Catullus is not an improving author. Our knowledge of Catullus's work depends on a single manuscript, which was discovered in a monastery in Verona, Catullus's hometown, around the year 1300, copied twice, and then lost again. As a result, the text of Catullus is far more difficult to reconstruct accurately than that of more consistently canonical authors. Even the order of the poems -- which, in this text, are grouped in three sets ("polymetric" lyrics, then long poems, and then short elegiac poems) -- may or may not reflect the poet's own arrangement.
If Catullus's work had been lost, it would not have been possible to imagine it. He is a poet of dazzling virtuosity and range. As well as his satirical attacks on Caesar and other acquaintances, he also wrote about sex, marriage, friendship, poetry, travel, loss, anxiety, nature, castration, mythology, and religion. He did so in many different meters, with self-conscious precision and verve.
Catullus wrote less than Ovid, but his work is extraordinarily varied: it is difficult for any translator to capture every Catullan mood equally well. Green is least successful when Catullus is tender and emotional, neither ironic like Ovid nor angry like Juvenal. When the poet mourns for his dead brother in the beautiful poem 101, Green becomes oddly stiff: "fortune, alas, has bereft me of your person,/my poor brother, so unjustly taken from me." The archaisms here read like old-style Loeb translation-ese, unworthy of Catullus and unworthy of Green.
Yet Green's affinity for Catullus as a wit and as a bad-boy satirist is very deep, and it allows him to bring out a side of the poet that has often been neglected. Those who concentrate on the Lesbia poems may be tempted to see Catullus primarily as a poet interested in love, sex, betrayal, and emotional conflict, the poet of "odi et amo" ("I hate and I love"). Green offers a convincing incentive to move away from a vision of Catullus as the intense young man in Yeats's poem "The Scholars," whose lines were "rhymed out in love's despair" only to be misunderstood by dry-as-dust scholars. Green's Catullus is more a hate poet than a love poet. He is macho, selfpitying, cruel, technically masterful, and supremely funny.
One of Green's greatest strengths is his equanimity about the poet's obscenity, which he sees as a sign of "youthful panache," a "characteristic upper-class Mediterranean phenomenon," "singular only in its oral obsession." Green assumes, I think rightly, that the dirty words in Catullus would have seemed less shocking and less interesting to his original readers than they do to us. His translation follows through on this insight. When Catullus hurls insulting threats at those who have dared to criticize his work -- pedicabo vos et irrumabo! -- Green makes the line sound as if it comes from an over-heated primary school argument: "Up yours and sucks!" More literal translations, such as Guy Lee's "I'll bugger you and stuff your gobs," sound too bizarre to be funny.
As an example of the liveliness and the vigor of Green's translation, here is one of Catullus's most famous poems (poem 2, Passer, deliciae meae puellae), in which the poet envies his girlfriend's pet bird.
Sparrow, precious darling of my
always her plaything, held fast in
whom she loves to provoke with
tempting the little pecker to nip
when my incandescent longing
just a smidgin of fun and games
for the pain she's feeling
(I believe it!),
something to lighten that
too-heavy ardor --
how I wish I could sport with you
as she does,
bring some relief to the spirit's
Catullus's choice of pet for his girlfriend clearly had a literary motive. Sparrows in real life are more or less untameable, but they are the birds that draw Aphrodite's chariot in Sappho's first poem, to bring her to the poet in times of trouble. Lesbia, it seems, is like a Sapphic goddess of love, but one who is not going anywhere. Catullus draws on a frivolous Hellenistic tradition of hymn-like poems addressed to the most insignificant members of the animal kingdom, such as the locust and the cicada; but he uses this trivial sub-genre to evoke serious emotions -- longing, alienation, melancholy.
The sparrow seems at first to have usurped the place Catullus wants for himself: the girl holds him in her "bosom" (the word sinus can also mean "lap" or "vagina"). The relationship of girl and bird is vaguely sexual. Green's use of the word "pecker" is a brilliant hint at the fact that passer in Latin, which means "sparrow," was also a slang word for "penis." Catullus was presumably conscious of this double entendre, although it is a simplification to regard it as the key to the whole poem (as many critics have done). By the end of the poem, it becomes clear that Catullus envies the girl as much as the bird. Although the poem seems at first to be about a comic love triangle, man, woman, and bird, it concentrates finally on two incompatible experiences of desire and pain: the girl can find comfort and relief from a plaything, but the speaker cannot.
It is possible, too, to see the poem itself as Catullus's own sparrow: poetry is a game, which may or may not offer the poet consolation in times of suffering. A meta-poetic interpretation is suggested by later Roman imitations of Catullus's sparrow poems by Ovid and Martial. Green's version manages to capture both the poem's charm and its complexity of tone. Like Catullus himself, Green mixes high diction ("bosom," "ardor," "spirit") with lively colloquial language. "The pain she's feeling (I believe it!)" is characteristically vigorous.
One of the best translations of the complete Catullus before Green
was the impressively laconic verse rendition produced in 1990 by Guy Lee. Like
Green, Lee includes the Latin text facing his English; like Green, he aims for
a line-by-line equivalence to the Latin. But the feel of his Catullus is very
different. Here, for comparison, is his version of poem 2:
Sparrow, my girl's darling,
Whom she plays with, whom she
Whom she likes to tempt with finger-
Tip and teases to nip harder
When my own bright-eyed desire
Fancies some endearing fun
And a small solace for her pain,
I suppose, so heavy passion then rests:
Would I could play with you as she
And lighten the spirit's gloomy cares!
Lee's version is in some places further from the Latin than Green's: "cuddles" is less literal than "held fast in her bosom," and to my ear sounds a little too infantile for this quasi-erotic embrace. But sometimes Lee is closer. "So heavy passion then rests" is, like the Latin original, almost impossible to understand, whereas Green has diverged further from Catullus in the attempt to make his version intelligible. Green has obviously borrowed a little from Lee: "to nip harder" is a shared phrase.
Perhaps the most important difference of technique between the two translations is that Lee relies heavily on English cognates of the Latin words that he translates: "small solace" for the diminutive solacium, "cares" for curas, "desire" for desiderio. In Green's version, by contrast, solacium becomes "just a smidgin of ... comfort," desiderio is "longing," and curas are "depression." One could complain that "smidgin" is a dated colloquialism, and that "depression" suggests a modern concept of mental health that would have been unfamiliar to the ancients. But it is also true that the Romans did not use Latinate language. They used Latin, which was not always a dead language. Latinisms in English often sound stiff and over-educated; there is no reason to think that Latin always felt this way to the Romans. Green is always anxious to find a modern English equivalent, rather than parroting the original with descendents of the Latin words. If he uses a Latinism (such as "incandescent," or even, in poem 5, ad infinitum), it almost never mimics the Latin of the Latin.
Classicists sometimes complain that Green is a "free" translator, because he occasionally glosses or skips references that the average modern reader might find obscure, and because his versions are racier, slangier, and more fun to read than most of their competitors. Readers who want a more straitlaced Catullus may be happier with G.P. Goold's unpretentious and clear translation, which appeared in 1983, or with Lee. But it is a mistake to think that more vanilla versions of Catullus, or indeed any classical poet, are necessarily more faithful to the original. A translator who tries to find "neutral" language -- as if there were such a thing -- may take a greater liberty with the original than one who casts his linguistic net as wide as it will go.
Literalism brings its own distortions. Consider, for example, the first words
of Catullus's libellus (little booklet), as rendered by the Loeb translator
F.W. Cornish: "To whom am I to present my pretty new book, freshly smoothed
off with dry pumice-stone?" This rendering is perfectly accurate. It conveys
the general gist of the lines; every word in the original is translated; there
are no obvious interpolations of extra material. It would do well as a crib
to help those with nascent or rusty Latin struggle through the original. What
it does not do is give any indication of what the original feels like. The Loeb
translation is not poetry, or even verse. It does not convey Catullus's stylistic
carefulness, his wit, his comic self-deprecation, or his consciousness of Hellenistic
literary antecedents -- all of which are apparent in the Latin. "Literal" translation
may make Catullus sound like a clumsy writer.
There are many conventional metaphors for translation that make it sound fairly straightforward. Translators are often said to "carry over" a piece of work from one language to another, or dress it up in new clothes, or pour it into a new vessel. They must choose, in the Ciceronian cliché, between translating "word for word" and "sense for sense." But translation, perhaps especially the translation of poetry, is never really so simple. Meaning, form, and language are intertwined. A poem belongs to the culture in which it was produced; sense is not separable from particular words, their rhythms, their connotations, their history.
One approach to this fundamentally insoluble problem is to try to produce a version that is as lively as the original, even if this means importing concepts that are obviously modern and unclassical. Sir John Denham, the seventeenth-century poet and classical translator, convincingly remarked that a poetic translator's business is not merely
to translate Language into Language, but Poesie into Poesie; and Poesie is of so subtile a spirit, that in pouring out of one Language, into another, it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will remain nothing but a Caput mortuum, there being certain Graces and Happinesses peculiar to every Language, which gives life and energy to the words.
Green transfuses a new spirit into his versions of classical poetry, and so he allows his readers to intuit something of the spirit of the original, in all its alien complexity. Reading Green, I often want to quibble with his choice of words or phrasing, and I sometimes mourn the loss of specific allusions and proper names. But even the sense of niggling discomfort is itself an invitation to think harder about the original, and about the process of cultural and linguistic translation. Green never allows his readers to be passive. He involves us in his own attempt to give spirit and imaginative life to a modern English Catullus.
Green's translation should come with a mild caution: it will be most
valuable to those who can read even a little of the original Latin. His modernizing
glosses will be sometimes hazardous for those who read only the right half of
the page. In poem 64, Zephyrus is translated as "the west wind." One
argument for this kind of gloss is that Zephyrus would have been immediately
comprehensible to any Roman reader, whereas a modern student may be left mystified
by it, or forced to scrabble through the notes. But if ease of comprehension
is gained, many connotations are lost. "Zephyr," unlike "west wind," suggests
that nature is magically alive. It matters, too, that Catullus uses the Greek
name rather than the Latin equivalent, Favonius: the poem evokes a lost
Greek world. Moreover, translating Zephyrus as "Zephyr" would have allowed
those unfamiliar with the name to learn it, and thereby expand their imaginative
But Green's willingness to look for modern equivalents for classical terms is almost always enriching for a reader who looks across the page to the Latin original. The absences help one think harder about why the allusion was there in the first place, and sometimes bring home the impossibility of finding parallels in our own language for the specifics of Roman culture. In poem 27, vintage Falernian wine becomes "vintage vino." Falernia was a region that produced strong, expensive, and highly regarded wines, praised by Horace, Pliny, and others. "Vino" is a good choice insofar as it suggests a comforting, homely drink; Falernian wine comes from the heart of the Italian countryside (in Campania, south of Rome). But vino also suggests foreign plonk, not wine suitable for a real celebration. There is really no exact equivalent for Falernian in modern Anglo-American culture: the wines we tend to think of as grand or celebratory are associated with non-English speaking countries. Wine does not belong to us, as it did to the Romans; wine reminds us not of our own heritage, but of somebody else's. Green's method of translation reminds us that we can never understand the ancients without thinking about both their likeness and their difference from ourselves.
There are many moments in Green's Catullus, as in his previous translations,
where he imports markedly colloquial language, even when there is no obvious
slang in the original. In poem 43, salve -- the standard Latin greeting -- becomes
"Hi there"; in poem 104, Green adds a "no way," which corresponds to no words
in the original (although it may help to convey an emphatic refusal); in poem
46, when Catullus's mind is praetrepitans ("trembling in anticipation"),
Green says, "My heart's in a tizzy," like a frazzled Monty Python housewife.
Di magni in poem 53, literally "Great gods!" becomes the Bridget Jones-ism,
"oh my god." Sometimes the language seems to come from the 1960s: "A really
dishy/ wife," "neat girl," and "shack up" all suggest that the promiscuous sexual
antics of Republican Rome might have something in common with Swinging London.
But there is also the Yorkshire burr of "t'other" in poem 57, while at the start
of poem 8, the speaker admonishes himself in the fruity tone of an Etonian ex-army
officer: "Wretched Catullus, stop this stupid tomfool stuff." Often the language
is modern American ("jack off," "prick," "cute," "asshole," "dumbass," "fuckwits,"
"a backwoods hick," "hotshots"). Sometimes this Catullus sounds like a British
schoolboy from a bygone age, who indulges in "rogering" and "expensive blowouts."
The result is a voice that veers about between wildly different registers, and
whose language is already dated, sometimes extremely so.
In two essential ways, however, Green's promiscuous use of language is faithful to Catullus's Latin, in its fashion. First, Catullus himself was not a poet who stuck to a single linguistic register. He brought into written Latin the spoken voices of the bedroom and the street. He is full of colloquialisms, slang, dirty words, puns, neologisms, diminutives, and jokes. He shifts with unnerving speed between elevated poetic language and conversational Latin. He was criticized in his own time for stylistic originality: Catullus and his circle were known to Cicero by the derogatory nicknames "New Poets" or "Innovators" (poetae novi or neoterics). A translation that presents Catullus as a poet with a bland, unvarying style and a limited vocabulary will be highly misleading.
Secondly, and more importantly, Green's mode of translation draws attention to itself. Nobody could mistake any poem from Green's Catullus -- even the most successful of them -- for an original composition by an Anglophone poet. This might be seen as a defect: Heidegger said that "the good translator disappears from view, even while preserving the text." But constant reminders of the translator's presence may allow for greater fidelity, of a kind, to the original. It is never possible to forget, reading Green, that Catullus wrote in Latin, and that our own culture is very different from that of ancient Rome.
Green's wide lexicon constantly makes the reader ask questions about the relationship of Anglo-American and Roman linguistic culture. English has a far larger lexicon than extant classical Latin: the most recent Oxford English Dictionary includes over 600,000 words, whereas the Oxford Latin Dictionary has entries for only 40,000. But it does not necessarily follow that English speakers can express fifteen times the number of thoughts and emotions that were available to the Romans. It may be that Latin speakers, like Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, made each of their words work harder than most English words do.
Puella, for instance -- an essential word both in Catullus and in later Latin elegists such as Propertius and Ovid -- is the ordinary word for "girl." But it is also used for the poet's mistress or girlfriend (words with very different connotations in English), and for an unmarried but sexually active young woman. Catullus uses the movingly stark but resonant phrase in the middle of poem eight: uale, puella. One could translate it, as Guy Lee does, "Goodbye, girl." This has a nice pop-song simplicity. But the neutrality of "girl" misses the suggestion that Catullus is saying goodbye to the woman he loves, his sexual partner and beloved; it misses, too, the implication that this is an attempted farewell to the seductions of femininity. Moreover, puella may have much less positive connotations. Catullus could be saying, "Farewell, darling," but he could also be saying, "Good riddance, whore." Green gives us a gentle dismissal: "So goodbye, sweetheart." But elsewhere in Green, a puella defututa is "that fucked-out little scrubber." Green's translation rightly reminds us that the connotations of puella run all the way from "sweetheart" to "scrubber."
Green is always extremely anxious to remain true to the technical qualities of his original, re-producing as closely as possible the Latin word-order, line-breaks, and rhythms. In Catullus, he sets himself a new and fascinating challenge: he tries to imitate in English all Catullus's meters -- sapphics, hendecasyllabics, iambics, choliambics, even galliambics. He remarks that "the only previous complete English-language version of Catullus with every poem done, as near as could be managed, in an equivalent of its original meter was that by Robinson Ellis (1871)." The word "equivalent" is always tricky in the context of translation. Lee uses a nine-syllable line quite successfully as an "equivalent" of Catullus's eleven-syllable hendecasyllabics. But Green is more ambitious: his hendecasyllabics, for example, are intended to re-produce the precise rhythmic pattern of Catullus's meter, although substituting English stress for Latin quantity.
Green is right to insist that the form of poetry is an essential part of its meaning. In choosing to write hendecasyllabics -- his favorite "polymetric" verse form -- Catullus was re-inventing an obscure Greek lyric meter that may not have been used in Latin before. Catullus's use of an unfamiliar meter helped to make his voice sound startlingly new. Hendecasyllabics seem to have what Green calls a "dancing, perky rhythm": the meter had been used for Attic drinking songs, and it reinforces Catullus's light, conversational tone. The choice of meter also signals Catullus's literary affiliations. Catullan hendecasyllabics are the rhythmical mirror image of sapphics. Catullus's favored meter, like his use of the name "Lesbia," hints that he will be a twisted Roman version of Sappho.
Green is not entirely successful in the technical feat he has undertaken. He relies heavily on various substitutions that Catullus allows himself only very rarely, such as the use of a ten -- rather than eleven -- syllable hendecasyllabic line. There are a lot of lines that scan properly only if one reads them with unnatural intonation. But, as Tennyson suggested in his own attempt to write Catullan hendecasyllabics, a poem "all composed in a metre of Catullus" is bound to risk metrical error, "like the skater on ice that hardly bears him."
No translation is ever perfect: traduttore, traditore. If Green sometimes fails, it is more astonishing that he succeeds as well as he does. Like Catullus himself, Green combines vast ambitions with a likeable boyish insoucience. His energetic and bracingly intelligent translation will bring new readers to Catullus, and will bring a new Catullus to readers who thought they knew him. It deserves, as Catullus said of his own book, to "outlast at least one generation!"
Emily Wilson teaches classics at the University of Pennsylvania.
four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free
For nearly 90 years, the New
Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous
examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today,
we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy
the magazine TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give
you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every
word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica
of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!
to sign up.