Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Catullus 50: Poetry 'Couched' in Erotic Terms

Many people seem intent on defending Catullus against charges of homosexuality, and apart from being stupid, it's unnecessary.

Hesterno, Licini, die otiosi
multum lusimus in meis tabellis,
ut convenerat esse delicatos:
scribens versiculos uterque nostrum
ludebat numero modo hoc modo illoc,     5
reddens mutua per iocum atque vinum.
Atque illinc abii tuo lepore
incensus, Licini, facetiisque,
ut nec me miserum cibus iuvaret
nec somnus tegeret quiete ocellos,     10
sed toto indomitus furore lecto
versarer, cupiens videre lucem,
ut tecum loquerer simulque ut essem.
At defessa labore membra postquam
semimortua lectulo iacebant,           15
hoc, iucunde, tibi poema feci,
ex quo perspiceres meum dolorem.
Nunc audax cave sis, precesque nostras,
oramus, cave despuas, ocelle,
ne poenas Nemesis reposcat a te.       20
Est vemens dea: laedere hanc caveto.

William C. Scott is typical. In 1969 he wrote a lot of romantic nonsense about a man of genuine taste and perception discovering a true soul and passionately recording the find for posterity. Many who followed him assumed the same and continued to rephrase his sentiments. These scholars tend to write about what the poem is not, ignoring what it is.

It is not, they say, about homosexuality. And after many pages stomping vainly along a path much tread they conclude that Catullus uses erotic imagery to express the depth of his passionate (heterosexual) friendship. Content with the old dust on their shoes they trot away accomplished critics.

We would have been better served had they simply written 'I concur' in Scott's margins and not bloated our journals with pap.

They are right to say that it is not about homosexuality, but that is all, and it is disappointing as Catullus has done his best to make things clear.

1) We traded dirty little verses yesterday over wine.
2) Here's a dirty little verse to tell you how much I enjoyed it.
3) Let's do it again sometimes.

It really is that simple.

This is a poem as much about Catullus' wit and charms as it is about Calvus'. Our poet's use of sexually charged terms that admit often of double meanings is dictated by the brief description of the previous day's activities.

Writing versiculi over wine points to one thing, and that is the erotic epigram. Recall carmen 16. It is precisely for a misinterpretation of his versiculi that Catullus threatens his critics with sexual humiliation. The power of the piece is centered in his declaration that the poet and his work are not one, and that 'it becomes a poet to be chaste,' but not his versiculi. As professor Gaisser noted the kind of poems he is referring are probably not the Lesbia, but poems such as carmen 48, which is a perfect erotic epigram on desire of a youth.

Accepting the versiculi to be what they are elsewhere in Catullus, dirty little verse or erotic epigrams, we can accept the sexual imagery suggested throughout. Ludo is often sex play of any kind, forms of convenio can stand in for coitus (cf. e.g. συνουσία), delicatus refers to illicit sex, jocus to dirty talk, labor first to the work of prostitutes then to sex in general, and membrum means genitals whether singular or plural.

The genius of the piece is in writing about the composition of a certain kind of poetry in its own terms. This is the charm of the piece, and it pretends to nothing more. The passion for a friend is no more expressed than the passion for a lover. The poet is simply having fun.

As scholars writing recently tend to parrot Scott, they overlook a 1979 piece by Maria Carilli which explores elements of Greek epigram in several of Catullus' poems. On poem 50 Carilli points to an epigram by the Alexandrian Hedylos (Carilli points to Gow-Page, but in my haste I couldn't locate it, though the text is taken from Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 11.45.19).

ἐξ ἠοῦς εἰς νύκτα καὶ ἐκ νυκτὸς πάλι Σωκλῆς
εἰς ἠοῦν πίνει τετραχόοισι κάδοις,
εἶτ’ ἐξαίφνης που τυχὸν οἴχεται. ἀλλὰ παρ’ οἶνον
Σικελίδου παίζει πουλὺ μελιχρότερον,
ἐστὶ δὲ δή, πολὺ <δὴ> στιβαρώτερος. ὡς δ’ ἐπιλάμπει
ἡ χάρις, ὥστε φίλει καὶ γράφε καὶ μέθυε.

Odd grammar aside (ὥστε + imperative?), the piece shows the some key themes of the writing session described by Catullus already in place among Alexandrian epigrammatists.

Oddly enough, this poem reads as a Callimachean program.

From dawn into the night and from night back into dawn, Socles, you drink from three-gallon vessels. Then suddenly, somehow, by chance it’s gone! But by the Sicilian’s wine you play much more sweetly, and it is in fact quite a bit stronger. How grace shines forth! So go ahead and love, and write, and get drunk!

The Sicilian, as Carilli reminds us, is Asclepiades, the purported founder of the Alexandrian erotic epigram. Here the poet Socles is encouraged to 'love, write, and get drunk' on the wine of Asclepiades, which is sweeter than his old stock, which has dried up anyway. This is reminscent of Callimachus' claim in the Aetia prologue that poetry is sweeter his way. 'Let others let fly their arrows far against the Mede.'

Asclepiades, however, is known to have praised the Lyde, so his apparent connection with a Callimachean recusatio is bot puzzling and potentially fruitful.

Carilli points out too that Nemesis is a stock figure at the ends of erotic epigrams, and that semimortua is a translation of Philodemus' ἡμιθανές, a reference to his half-limp penis (AP 11.30).

In addition, no one has paid much attention to the verb versarer which stands at the start of line 12, and which conjures the writing of verse as it describes the poets 'limbs' rolling around restless on his bed. This is an explicit clue from the poet that the poetry is meant by the image of the lover's body.

One last note before I go. The phrase 'illinc abii ... incensus' has led most people to assume that Catullus was returned from a party at Calvus' house, and this has even prompted one old editor to wonder whether the text should be emended to read 'in tueis tabellis.'

There is no reason for this. Illing need not be treated as a concrete term, 'from that place,' but can instead be treated metaphorically (it is even used to refer to people). I suggest 'and from that (experience) I have come away (into a state of being) inflamed by your wit.' Abii often means 'to come away' into a certain state, rather than to physically depart from a physical place. 'In meis tabellis' implies that the party took place at Catullus' house, and that our poets prayers in line 18 involve an invitation by Calvus.

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