These five poems are all directed against Lucius Gellius Poplicola, who, according to Valerius Maximus, was accused of incest with his mother and plotting his father’s murder (evidence that there is such a thing as the Oedipus Complex, in some people at least!). He was, at any rate, renowned for debauchery and promiscuity. It will not therefore surprise us that he earned Catullus’ extreme animosity as yet another of Lesbia’s sexual partners. He was later to become consul in 36 BC and command the left wing of Antony’s doomed fleet at the Battle of Actium in 32 BC.
We who love Catullus love him as much for his viciousness as for the tenderness Tennyson ascribes to him!
– Ranald Barnicot
Since the 116 extant poems of Catullus were recovered in the 14th century, his short poems (60 polymetra and 48 epigrams) have struck readers as distinctly modern. The poet grounds these works in contemporary life rather than in the mythic past. His erotic verse is as moving as his invectives are mean-spirited. His emotional range is great, perhaps shown most effectively in the portrayal of his love affair with Lesbia, a sophisticated noblewoman (likely based on the historical Clodia Metelli).
In translating, I emphasized that Catullus is an iambic poet. Dating from the seventh century BCE, the iambic genre owes its name to Iambe, a minor goddess of satire who, in the Homeric Hymns, rescues Demeter from sadness by means of bawdy jests. Invective is characteristic of iambus; accordingly, Catullus, learned poet that he was, refers to his attacks as “iambics.”
To better capture in English his manner–a blend of coxcomb and brute–I abandoned his hendecasyllables and elegiac couplets for free verse, enabling me to approximate his rhythms without sacrificing subtleties of sense.
In spite of the modern feel of these poems, written more than two thousand years ago, they differ from a good deal of lyric poetry written today in one important respect: Catullus prefers a personal mode of address to the meditative style that has prevailed since Mallarmé. Whether praising or blaming or some combination thereof, the Roman poet’s addresses to others read as genuine. T. S. Eliot believed that, for the ancients, the You of lyric was merely a formality. But with Catullus, there is no question that it is intended literally, and issues from the heart.
– Michael G. Donkin
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