Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.04.10


Daniel H. Garrison, The Student's Catullus. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. Pp. xv, 229. ISBN 0415064058. $12.95.


Reviewed by Elizabeth Block, Philadelphia, Pa.

Garrison intends this book "for students who are studying Catullus for the first time." In addition to introduction, text and notes, he provides titles for the poems, a metrical appendix, appendices of names, technical terms, and "poetic usages" (alternate forms), maps of the ancient world, (including, for example, the putative route of Catullus' yacht), and vocabulary. Presumably G. intends this edition to supply some of the deficiencies, in both knowledge and attitude, of earlier editions, and to make additional information easily accessible. In these aims he has only partially succeeded. In the first place, G. gives his audience little help with the problem of fictionality in Catullus' poetry. While he explains in the introduction that "no one reading [Catullus'] poems today can tell where self-revelation gives way to invention," the actual effect of the notes is to convey a sense that all the poems are autobiographical. In the introduction to c. 30, for example, G. offers interpretation as fact: "A poem of personal depression, accusing his friend Alfenus of some betrayal. Like his sexual love, Catullus' personal affection was intense ... and no doubt demanding beyond the capacities of those he loved." Similarly, the introduction to c. 15 begins: "Catullus entrusts his young boyfriend to Aurelius... The boy is probably Juventius... Like the Greeks, the Romans saw nothing wrong with recreational sex of either type." The assumption of an autobiographical component here is less offensive than the generalization about Greek and Roman attitudes toward homosexuality. Such generalization is no less simplistic in its assumptions than the prudishness of earlier editors. Furthermore, in the notes to c. 16, G. says that "the idea is that males who submit to sexual dominance by other males are contemptible." It might be difficult for a student to see how these two statements work together. Quinn conveys the complexity of contemporary morality more judiciously: "... such poems are intended to shock ... by the open, light-hearted discussion of things customarily treated with embarrassed innuendo... "

The implicit attempt to find modern attitudes in Catullus' poetry is reflected also in the introduction to c. 16: "The foul language has a point: there is a difference between the poet and the poetry he or she writes." Here the nod to feminism is downright misleading, since Catullus can have had little or no thought of female poets.

It seems inevitable that a teacher of Catullus should have to temper the cultural prejudices of the commentator; this edition also requires a certain amount of correction and explanation. G. claims in the metrical appendix, for example, that "the ancients were incapable of silent reading." Such a judgment, whether it is true or not, raises more questions than it answers. Again, the introduction to c. 45 states that the boy is "appropriately named Septimius," but does not explain what this might mean. The first note calls Acman a "Greek accusative"; many students know this as a grammatical term. The note to c. 45.5 uses the terms ellipsis and archaism; although the former is included in the glossary of terms, the latter is not (nor are, for example, deictic at c. 3.7; epullion in the introduction to c. 64). Generalizing notes, too, may require more explanation than they provide, as in this conclusion to the introduction of c. 64: "As a builder of elegant lines, Catullus' ideal is the five-word line; the last word in elegance is the so-called 'golden line'... While this does not necessarily fit our taste in language, it fulfills the Classical expectation that poetry should in every way be a separate thing from everyday language." Others supply translation without explication: "lentos ... remos his stiff oars, bent with the effort to escape" (c. 64. 183). This is perhaps not the best rendering of lentos. The editorial decision not to use quotation marks frequently makes it difficult to distinguish between translation and explanation. Some notes assume knowledge that the student probably will not have, such as this one on c. 64.193-94: "The Eumenides, here invoked as the 'kindly spirits' who will vindicate her wrong, are also known as Furies or Erinyes." Again, at c. 11, G. assumes that the student knows that a reference to Milanion or Hippomenes involves two different versions, not a relationship between the two characters.

G. gives English titles to each poem, thus predisposing the novice reader to a specific interpretation. Such readers benefit, I believe, from learning to use a dictionary, instead of relying on a vocabulary such as G. provides. While the maps are useful, they unnecessarily mingle Latin with English names (Roma is always Rome, surrounded by Latium, Etruria, Umbria, and so on. The metrical appendix is convenient and thorough, but confusing on some basic points: G. omits an explanation of why two consonants make a preceding vowel long, and seems to imply that the term caesura refers to the break only when it occurs in a particular foot.

The lapses of the commentary would be less intrusive in an edition that aspired to less control over its audience. The Classical World survey of texts available in 1990 includes both Quinn and Merrill at comparable prices. All teachers of Catullus should be grateful for another choice; many will find the additional information included here useful. I would still choose Merrill, and try to explain irrumabo by myself.