A.K. HURLEY, Catullus. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2004. Pp. 158. ISBN 1-85399-669-6. STG £10.99 (Pb).
Review by Brian Arkins
Amanda Hurley?s short book on Catullus provides an excellent, clear introduction to the poet. The book offers succinct summaries of the facts of Catullus? life, his relationship to Callimachus, and differing takes on his poetry, but Hurley concentrates on analysis of individual poems. Particularly good here are the accounts of the Furius and Aurelius poems, and of some of the ?long? poems (61, 63, 64, 68b).
Catullus is a very personal poet; as Horace said of his predecessor Lucilius, ?he used entrust his secrets to his books/ as though to his trusted friends? (Satires 2.1. 30-31). So Hurley is right to say that ?Catullus? readers will always feel the loss of his life-story, because his poems are so intimately bound up with the loves, friendships and feuds of one small sliver of Republican Roman society?.
A central feature of Catullus is his obsession with sexuality, including his sexual love for Lesbia. Hurley makes interesting use of Tom Stoppard?s play about Housman The Invention of Love, but does not quote the assertion in that play that ?Catullus invented the love poem?. Meaning a sequence of poems about the love of a man (or, in the case of Sulpicia, a woman) for the domina that refers to the past, present, and future of the relationship. This invention by Catullus of a particular form of discourse about love establishes him as an important figure in the history of ideas.
One much-analysed love poem of Catullus to Lesbia is the version of Sappho 31, Poem 51, especially the final stanza about otium. Like many others, Hurley takes this noun to mean ?leisure?, but it may mean ?sloth?, referring to Catullus? failure to do anything about his love for Lesbia (R.J. Baker, Rheinisches Museum 124 (1987), 31-24).
Much attention has been paid in recent decades to the question whether Catullus arranged his own poems. Hurley professes agnosticism: ?I myself see no absolutely compelling evidence either for or against Catullus? editorship?. But in a seminal article Helena Dettmer has advanced a very strong case for believing that the whole Catullan collection is organised in ?nine consecutive cycles of thematically related poems? (Classical World 81(1988), 371-81).
The existence of cycles in Catullus means that, as in the case of Yeats, a particular poem should be read in the light of its neighbours. Indeed Hurley notes ?how difficult it can be to read a Catullus poem without mining the rest of the corpus for explanatory details?. Consequently, the famous odi et amo (Poem 85) must be read in the light of Poems 75 and 76, where Catullus asserts that Lesbia?s perceived infidelity had led him to simultaneously dislike and desire her. So odi et amo does not mean ?I hate and I love? (as Hurley and so many others, even Ezra Pound, have translated it), but ?I loathe her, I lust for her?.
Hurley provides a valuable account of Catullus? first epithalamium, Poem 61, drawing useful parallels with later writers, especially Spenser. But her notion that the diminutives used of Junia, the woman who is to be married, ?ironically infantilise the bride? is problematic; for Junia is compared to the goddess of love, Venus, to that goddess? special plant, myrtle, and to various attractive flowers. Diminutives in Poem 61 seem, rather, to express tenderness and appreciation, as in the famous Torquatus .. parvulus: ?I want a tiny Torquatus/ to stretch his soft hands/ from his mother?s breast/ and smile sweetly at his father,/ his little mouth half open?. This passage (though not other parts of Catullus) justifies Tennyson?s reference to him as ?Tenderest of Roman poets nineteen hundred years ago? (Hurley deals with Tennyson?s visit to Sirmione, site of Catullus? villa, where he wrote the poem).
Hurley rightly identifies the binary oppositions in Poem 63 (Attis): male/female, civilisation/barbarism, reason/madness, power/subservience. She also points out the clear contrast between Poems 61 and 63: ?The bride?s new role is one primarily of fecundity; Attis?, of sterility, in his perverse ?marriage? to Cybele?. It is that latter theme that links Poem 63 to the overall preoccupation of Catullus? ?long? poems, marriage.
Finally, Hurley offers a useful summary of the main features of Catullus? masterpiece, Poem 64. She stresses the political theme in the poem?s moralising epilogue that contrasts the Heroic Age with present-day decadence: brother kills brother in civil war. But what the epilogue stresses is the corruption of family ties: a father desires the death of his young son in order to have sexual intercourse with a second wife without hindrance, and a mother commits incest with her unwitting son (D. Konstan, Catullus? Indictment of Rome: The Meaning of Catullus 64 (Amsterdam 1977)).