BMCR 2001.12.17

Catullus in English

, Catullus in English. London: Penguin Books, 2001. xlix + 320. L 12.99.

One of the more surprising facts that emerges from Julia Haig Gaisser’s elegant and entertaining volume is that no complete translation of Catullus into English was made until the very end of the eighteenth century; it is also clear that, until the twentieth century, poets in English have had far less interest in Catullus than in—to pick only the most obvious comparison—Horace. Certain famous poems, indeed, were well known and imitated; but they were very few.

In the present volume, G. has gathered a substantial collection of translations and imitations of Catullus, arranged in chronological order of the English poets’ dates of birth. She includes all the earliest versions and a great many single versions done by later poets as well as a substantial selection from the complete translations. The goal is two-fold: to provide at least one version of every poem of Catullus, and to present the changing image of Catullus over time through the voices of his translators and adapters. In an appendix, she also collects a set of poems that would not have existed without Catullus, ranging from Raleigh and Herrick down to Yeats, Dorothy Parker and beyond. She also provides a superb introduction to the fate and fortune of Catullus in Europe, from Catullus-as-Martial in the Renaissance (drawing on her own excellent Catullus and his Renaissance Readers [Oxford, 1993]) down to present-day interest in the more obscene poems from which earlier interpreters had delicately averted their eyes. A brief introduction is also supplied for each of the translators represented.

Although every poem of Catullus is represented here, they are obviously not represented equally. There are seven poems that appear in five or more versions. The most frequent, not surprisingly, are 3, 5, and 51; the spring poem on leaving Bithynia (46) and the visit to Catullus’ brother’s grave (101) are also well represented, and Quintin Hogg’s adaptation of the latter is both elegant and moving. The two others in this group are more surprising, Ipsithilla (32) and the girl with the large nose (43). Ipsithilla appears first in a version from 1821 by George Lamb; as Gaisser notes, “He almost turns Catullus’ obscene invitation…into an invitation to tea.” The other four versions given here are all from the twentieth century and are less demure; but of these, Jane Wilson Joyce’s “Nine Continuous Fornifuckations” is the only one even to attempt to find an equivalent for Catullus’ mock-learned fututiones. In general, while recent translators are often more precise and less reticent about obscenity, earlier translators more frequently manage, through meter or language, to find some equivalent for the wit and learning that—at least in the polymetrics—generally accompanies it.

There are, as was to be expected, some wonderful poems in this book; many of them, as also to be expected, are adaptations rather than translations. Ben Jonson’s two Songs to Celia are here; but it is also good to have the precedent in Thomas Campion for Jonson’s substititution of British geography for Catullus’ Libyan sands. And Jonson’s own adaptation of part of c. 62 is the precedent for John Gay’s “Virgins are like the fair Flower in its Lustre” from The Beggar’s Opera —which I have long known but had never recognized as a parody of Catullus. Nahum Tate’s version of c. 3 is much better than his version of King Lear; but although G.’s description of its “brittle wit” is accurate, her description of Catullus’ poem as “all sentiment and charm” leaves something to be desired: c.3 is itself a parody of an epicedion. Among modern adapters, Anne Carson’s poetry is always admirable, although at times the relationship to Catullus is tenuous in the extreme, while Hugh Tolhurst’s Australian blue tit (“a bird in the hand is worth Sydney or the Bush”) is a startling change from the usual British birds.

As G. rightly points out, the range of styles and tones in Catullus’ poetry is extraordinarily wide, from the elaborate stylization and learning of poem 64 to the crude obscenities of some of the epigrams to the urbane wit of the polymetrics; and such a range has neither appealed to writers at all periods nor, all too often, has it found equal versatility in the voice of any single translator. And, perhaps even more than is the case with versions of Horace’s Odes, a great many of the Catullan versions seem dated, or at best uninspired. While the clever versions of the early twentieth century by Mary Stewart and Franklin P. Adams still (at least to this reviewer) seem clever, the more formal versions of the same period by James Elroy Flecker pall very rapidly. The Zukovskys’ homophonic translations (of which I could have wished for more here) are strange, but still remarkable. Horace Gregory’s versions are still very readable, but the 1960s translation by Peter Whigham, except for his admirable version of c. 66, seems very forced, as does the slightly earlier translation by Frank Copley. Of the complete translations excerpted here, the only modern one that seems consistently (at least in these excerpts) excellent as English poetry and as translation is that of James Michie, and possibly also that of Guy Lee.

There is a great deal to enjoy in this volume, but its goal—beyond the simple pleasure of discovery—is not altogether clear. G.’s anthology seems torn between the desire to represent all of Catullus and the desire to present a collection of good translations. Many of the poems that are not popular (mostly epigrams) are not well served, and probably never have been. C. 64 suffers by being represented partially in different versions: anyone who actually wants to read in in English will have to use at least two sets of selections, and there are portions of four more—including the curiously baroque 1933 version of Basil Bunting, who breaks off after line 28 with the comment “and why Catullus bothered to write pages and pages of this drivel mystifies me”—but in only a few places are there three versions to compare, and not very many with even two. I would also have welcomed clearer distinctions between “translations” and “adaptations”—although admittedly the line is not always clear—since I suspect that readers, particularly those without Latin, will not always recognize the difference. It would also have been helpful, for those who want to pursue these versions further, to know whether G.’s volume includes all the Catullan versions of a given author (as she does for early translators), or merely a sample. Usually that is clear, but not always. The one version by Franklin P. Adams, for instance, is not his only one: there are two more (of c. 7 and c. 85) in Tobogganing on Parnassus (Garden City, 1912). And for c. 64, I could wish that the fine version by Linda Clader and Keith Harrison (Minneapolis, 1981) had been excerpted here. There is also an unavoidable tension between the variations on specific poems and the long history of translating Catullus as a whole: chronological order makes sense with a collection of translations of Horace’s Odes, as the whole collection has a certain homogeneity, but that is not the case with Catullus. Hence, there are abrupt leaps from epigram to polymetric and back, and extensive use of the (excellent) index is necessary to follow the history of any one poem, not to mention of any particular group of linked poems. And one would have welcomed more bibliography: under the rubric “further reading” (xlix), one finds only 13 titles, of which only six concern the fortuna of Catullus, only three (Fitzgerald, Quinn, Wiseman) are about Catullus himself, one is the Loeb of Catullus, one is on Martial (relevant to G.’s introduction), one on meter, and only one on the theory of translation. Surely reference to some commentary, even Quinn’s, would be as useful as the Loeb for those who want to follow the Latin and the English together; and surely there are other books for those who want to learn more about Catullus. The ones cited are fine; but even for the Latinless reader such works as Wheeler and Havelock might deserve a place, and the inclusion of Holoka’s bibliography would give a starting point for those who want to learn more. There is also a huge literature on translation itself, of which Venuti (included here) is only one representative. For Catullus in particular, one misses the detailed comparison of translations of c. 64 by André Lefevere, Translating Poetry: seven strategies and a blueprint (Assen, 1975: Approaches to Translation Studies v.3).

But these are minor points. G.’s volume is enjoyable, intelligent, and instructive, and I have already had a student use it to good purpose for a paper. A little more guidance for readers on where to go next would have made it even better.