The Student's Catullus
Daniel H. GARRISON, The Student’s Catullus. Second Edition. London 1996. ISBN 0-415-15341-7. Pp. xii + 228.
Review by Brian Arkins
Designed for ‘students who are studying Catullus for the first time’, Garrison’s book provides much basic information that will be useful to such students. The bulk of the book is occupied by the Latin text of all of Catullus’ poems and by concise notes on these. In addition, there is a Brief Introduction; six maps; Appendices on ‘People’, ‘Metres’, ‘Glossary of Terms’, and ‘Poetic Usage’; and a Latin-English lexicon. This ancillary material is very helpful, and one merit of the lexicon is that it translates the sexually explicit Latin terms (such as futuo).
The guide-book aspect of Garrison’s book allows him to assert that he does not ‘promote specific judgements of literary value’. Such restraint may be acceptable, but is here interpreted in such a way that essential literary information is withheld. This is already clear in regard to Poems 1 and 2. Garrison fails to point out that Poem 1 espouses a Callimachean literary programme of brevity, originality, learning, and hard work; he also fails to point out that Poem 2 parodies the form of a hymn to a god by treating the pet bird as though it were a divinity.
So too Garrison makes no mention of the fact that in Poem 7 the references to Cyrene and to Battus suggest Callimachus (the kisses are for those who appreciate the Greek poet). And while Garrison asks in regard to Poem 11 ‘what does the elaborate catalog of places have to do with the message for Lesbia?’ he fails to point out that, whatever the answer, we are dealing with a priamel (foil and climax). Compare R. Mayer, Classical Review 43 (1993), 426: ‘G. introduces the wedding hymn, 61, with a Delphic reference to “Greek literary techniques” ’.
By far the greatest fault of this book is Garrison’s arbitrary imposition of English titles upon each poem of Catullus. Titles in literature are crucial - as in Heissen - Buttel’s dictum that ‘Booktitles are magic’. So in fiction we have Lawrence’s Women in Love, Mann’s Death in Venice, Joyce’s Ulysses. So in poetry we have Milton’s Paradise Lost, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, Yeats’s The Tower and The Winding Stair. Equally well, the title of individual poems is important: Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Desmond Egan’s ‘Thucydides and Lough Owel’.
But individual short poems in Greek and in Latin - like those of Catullus and of Horace - were not given titles by their authors. Hence to impose titles on these poems is a gross impertinence, and one that seeks to influence the way we read the poems.
Garrison’s titles may omit the essential aspect of a poem, impose something that is inappropriate, or simply get it wrong. To give Poem 5 the title ‘TO LESBIA, ABOUT KISSES’ is to omit the central fact that Catullus is here demanding kisses in a highly exuberant way. The fact that the abrasive epigram Poem 59 contains two graphic sexual images does not justify the title ‘LINES FOR A TOILET WALL’; how many toilets (even in Pompeii) contain 5-line poems in iambic scazon metre? To give Poem 51 the title ‘FROM SAPPHO’ suggests that Catullus’ poem is a straight translation, but Garrison’s own Commentary points out that Catullus ‘adds a stanza not in the original poem of Sappho’. Finally, to give Poem 2 the title ‘TO HER SPARROW’ ignores the fact that the bird was a blue rock-thrush (as the Commentary indicates).