Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.01.04

Michael C.J. Putnam, Poetic Interplay: Catullus & Horace.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2006.  Pp. 184.  ISBN 0-691-12537-6.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Frédéric Nau, Lycée Camille Guérin de Poitiers (
Word count: 2074 words

This volume belongs to the Martin Classical Lectures series and explores the literary relationships between Catullus and Horace. Given Horace's claim that he is the first Roman poet to adapt Aeolian metres into the Latin language, critics have often stated that he denies owing any debt to the Republican poet, but the actual evidence for Catullan influence and interpretation in Horatian poetry has not been thoroughly examined. While acknowledging the existence of a few articles on this topic (including some by himself), Michael Putnam (hereafter P.) devotes this new book to a fuller consideration of the interplay between the two poets. This is not meant to offer a complete treatment of the subject, which would admittedly constitute an impossible task, but rather to open a new field in Catullan as well as Horatian scholarship. P., in particular, concentrates on Horace's Odes, but sometimes also refers to other works by Horace and judges the presence of Catullus in them as far from negligible.

The introduction canvasses the reasons why Catullus is usually not mentioned by Horace. According to P., the metrical diversity of the Catullan libellus is not a sufficient explanation, since Horace often treats subject-matter very close to Catullus'. Therefore P. calls for the necessity of reassessing the much more frequent indirect tributes to the Republican poet in the Augustan poet's corpus. The second half of this introduction reveals the perspective from which P. will interpret these intertextual allusions, concentrating on two thematic leitmotivs (space and time in Chapter 1, speech and silence in Chapter 2), then on two major characters (Helen in Chapter 3, Virgil in Chapter 4), and finally on generic topics (hymn and epithalamium in Chapter 5). One might regret that P. does not propose any substantial methodological statement: he does indeed express his intention to study the relationship between the two poets as a reciprocal interplay, that is to say the influence of Horatian lyrics on our reading of Catullus as well as the influence of the latter on the former, but limits his theoretical discussion to this.

This review will sum up the main points of each chapter, but P.'s arguments are often founded on a refined confrontation of specific passages that cannot be easily abridged, so I shall concentrate on the most striking aspects of his demonstration. I shall return to the achievement this book represents for Catullan and Horatian scholarship at the end.

The first chapter aims at comparing Catullan and Horatian representations of time and space. It starts with the observation that the word angiportus in Catullus' 58 and in Horace's ode 1, 25 are the only occurrences in either corpus. These two poems confront the limitation of human life to continually recurring natural cycles: whereas this discrepancy represents for Catullus an incitement to enjoy life, it deflates the importance of any human presumption for Horace. This difference can be found also in the spring poems of the two poets (Catullus' poems 5 and 46, Horace's ode 4, 7), opposing human and natural temporalities. In a more general way, Horace is used to broadening and generalizing the Catullan scope when treating the same themes. From Catullus' poem 46 and 4 to Horace's ode 3, 29, the journey is elevated to a figurative and symbolic level: while Catullus remains involved in the present situation, it usually prompts Horace to ethical meditation. This holds for the erotic poems: unlike Catullus, who is entirely committed to sensuality and desire, Horace considers love's labours with some distance and irony. Developing the implications by Catullus, which are sometimes scattered in different poems, Horace mocks the affairs of some of his fellows (for example, he reinterprets some hints in Catullus' poems 11 and 61 and gives them an ironic touch in ode 1, 36). By contrast, the light Catullan references to poetic immortality (as in poem 101) are given a more ponderous expression in ode 4, 8.

This first chapter at once displays the elaborateness of P.'s analyses and some more questionable aspects of his approach: P. indeed shows a great knowledge of Catullus and Horace and often hits the point when making apparent a relationship between the two poets. However, in some cases, the opposition between them seems overstated, and the interpretation imposed on certain poems could be challenged. Let me mention but one example: concerning Catullus' poem 4, P. merely mentions in a note the article by Gregson Davis, which fully develops a metapoetical reading of the poem. It is only described as a "different approach"; one wishes P. had stated more clearly whether and why he agrees with it or not, for this reading considerably diminishes the relevance of P.'s assessment that "Catullus stays in the realm of the actual, of actual vows and an actual dedication". Moreover, it might be objected that the ode P. compares this poem with (3, 29), being an invitation to Maecenas, belongs to another field of preoccupations, and so the closeness of the two poets here is relatively meagre.

The second chapter examines the representation of speech and silence in both corpora. Whereas in Catullus' poems 50 and 51 the adjective otiosi depicts the poet's availability for love and poetry, in ode 1, 32 Horace replaces it by uacui, which implies the poet must be freed from erotic entanglements and have poetry as his only love, as some poetic associations suggest. This first analysis paves the way for the confrontation of the role of language in banquets. Both poets equally value friendship, but, while Catullus usually reacts immediately to emotional distress in his relationship with his friends, which entails erotic overtones as well, Horace keeps them at a distance, granting them his advice on the right behaviour at parties. In the same spirit, Catullus would expel water from banquets because it suits only seueriores, but Horace, caring for the preservation of peace, wishes his wine to be mixed with water and reproaches the wine itself as seuerum (1, 27, 9-10). By refusing the signs of luxury and debauchery Catullus often seems to cherish, Horace also elaborates his own conception of poetry. Meanwhile, Horace pays homage to Catullus at the end of his first collection of odes, as well as in epistle 1, 20, by resorting to markedly Catullan words like perenne, pumex, lepidus (a name in Horace).

The third chapter mostly deals with the triptych 1, 15-17 in Horace, which evokes Helen and reworks some Catullan themes. Ode 1, 15 hints at epic but dismisses its violent potentialities; 1, 16 continues this criticism of violence and converts iambi into lyrics; finally, 1, 17 shows the poet as a pastor, who might be reminiscent of the Trojan pastor Paris, since Horace is inviting a woman named Tyndaris, but warlike undertones are subdued to the benefit of the celebration of peace. On the contrary, the Catullan poems that Horace refers to only apparently renounce violence, as is the case in 36 and 42. The consequences of otium are also significantly different for the two poets: the last stanza of Catullus' poem 51 insists upon its destructiveness, whereas Horace, in an intertextual chiasmus, repeats the word in the first stanza of ode 2, 16 but makes otium the condition for composing lyrics.

The fourth chapter is devoted to Virgil, whose name appears in three odes, namely 1, 3, 1, 24 and 4, 12. In the last of these, Horace addresses Virgil as if he were alive and alludes to Catullus' own poem of invitation (13) to Fabullus. The symbolic representation of poetic inspiration is ironically transformed from a small perfume box in Catullus (which he will give to his friend in exchange for his bringing the meal) to abundant jars of wine in Horace, who only asks Virgil to bring perfume. Some other Catullan hints (at poems 68, 46 and 65) show that Horace reinforces the pessimistic aspect of Catullus' lyrics: the spectre of death pervades his invitation to Virgil in different ways. In ode 1, 24, Horace wishes to comfort Virgil after the death of his friend Quintilius Varus: consolation is also one of the main themes in Catullus' poem 68 and is implied in 5, but, unlike Catullus, Horace will not sexuality obliterate death, even temporarily. Any contact between the quick and the dead, which Catullus hopes for (poems 96, 101), is denied by him. Finally, in ode 1, 3, the prompemptikon to Virgil offers the opportunity for a diatribe against such human audacities as navigation: this cannot but remind one of the beginning of Catullus' poem 64. The latter poem is also hinted at in ode 3, 27, in which the long speech by Europe stands for a parody of some themes in Ariadne's lamentations in 64.

The fifth and last chapter discusses the Horatian interpretation of two genres which can be associated with their Catullan treatment, the hymn and the wedding song. The only full hymn in the libellus is poem 34 to Diana. The same goddess appears in Horace's main hymn, the Carmen Saeculare, where he follows the Catullan presentation of the goddess' attributes. In 1, 21, Horace imagines a teacher rehearsing his pupils before a public performance: he insists much more than Catullus upon the efficiency of song to ensure the benignity of the gods. In the triptych 3, 21-23, he also gives his hymnic composition a humorous tone, which is absent in Catullus and which contributes to create a more modest form of hymn. This sense of parody also appears in the new treatment of Catullus' wedding songs: when alluding to them (as in 2, 8 or 3, 26), Horace does not concentrate on the very instant of the union itself, but his scope goes from past to future and displays an awareness of the vicissitudes of the matrimonial bond.

P. ends his study with a firm conclusion, which encapsulates the main features of the poetic interplay between Catullus and Horace: the differences are stylistic as well as psychological. The Republican poet expresses a direct emotionality whereas his Augustan colleague always remains at a distance, so that his perspective is usually broader than Catullus'. The ways Horace alludes to him are manifold: he may use a single significant word as well as redeveloping a whole theme, or from one poem draw several interpretations in different odes as well as engaging several Catullan poems in the texture of a single ode.

P. 's book is impressive in many ways: it shows an exceptional familiarity with both poets, and it provides an original approach to their textual relationship. Seldom does one read a full-length study devoted to comparison, and in this field scholarship still too often limits itself to scattered remarks. Moreover, P. here confronts one most interesting case and greatly enlightens our reading of both poets.

As P. puts it several times, it is nonetheless only the beginning of the exploration of an infinite area. In particular, one wishes that P.'s successors (or himself in the future) will confront some theoretical aspects of such a comparison more clearly than he has. Firstly, some of P.'s arguments rest solely on one similar word in two poems. This poses the recurrent problem of the significance of intertextual allusions. There is no doubt that, even if not intentional, they can still be relevant, but in some cases such a limitation makes the demonstration fragile.

This point is related to a second one: it might be objected to several interpretations by P. that, in spite of the verbal recurrences he notices, the case for the comparison of two poems is made questionable insofar as they belong to distinct genres and are thus taken into very different ranges of poetic meditations, and that, conversely, some similarities are not specific and can easily be accounted for by the fact that two poems belong to the same genre. One might, in particular, regret that P. does not mention Cairns' works on generic composition (except for one article): it would certainly have been most useful for him to explain why he did not find them relevant for his analyses.

Thirdly, in his reading of Catullus' compositions, P. sometimes gives the impression that he ignores some interpretations (metapoetical interpretations, in particular) in order to make the contrast between him and Horace more striking.

In sum, I recommend this book for the novelty of the overall argument and the fineness of many interpretations, but believe the topic needs a stronger theoretical approach, either to legitimate or to amend some hypotheses.

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