BMCR 2004.11.31

Writing Passion. A Catullus Reader. Latin Text, Notes, Vocabulary

, , Writing passion : a Catullus reader. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2004. 1 online resource (263 pages). ISBN 9781435617391 $29.50 (pb).

1 Responses

Ronnie Ancona (‘A.’) has produced an attractive edition of the forty-two Catullan poems that are required reading for the 2004-05 Advanced Placement (‘AP’) Latin Literature syllabus.1 This selection naturally (albeit implicitly) announces one of the objectives in producing Writing Passion, and it should adequately prepare high-school students for this exam. In fact, A. nominates intermediate college students as her intended audience with secondary students as a welcome alternative (p. x), but for a variety of reasons discussed below, I would expect her edition to be less satisfactory in a university context.

The range of help on offer from A. is evident in the overall structure of her book. A brief introduction is divided into three sections. The first covers what is known of Catullus’ life (p. xv). The second treats some historical and social issues, such as (a fleeting glimpse at) some political events of Catullus’ lifetime, Roman attitudes regarding homosexual behaviour, and the possible historical identity or literary allusion behind the name ‘Lesbia’ (pp. xv-xvii). The third section surveys some literary considerations, such as neoteric and Hellenistic aesthetics, the order of the poems as we have them, as well as the breadth of register, theme and genre within the corpus (pp. xvii-xviii). The bibliography, incredibly full for its intended audience, is divided into two main sections. The first part (pp. xix-xxv) covers previous commentaries, translations, listening materials, books and articles treating Catullus as well as the social and literary background to his poetry. The second part (pp. xxvi-xxxix) features a bibliography of articles treating individual poems. The Latin text of the forty-two poems follows, each with an introductory paragraph, line-by-line notes, and vocabulary on the same page (pp. 1-162). After these, material on meter is provided (pp. 163-68) along with a glossary of rhetorical and metrical terms (pp. 169-72). The Latin text is then printed a second time, unaccompanied by any assistance (pp. 173-220); finally, a complete vocabulary of the poems is included (pp. 221-63).

The introductory paragraphs to each poem are one of the distinguishing features and overall strengths of A.’s edition. These are frequently suggestive rather than prescriptive, and the best of them efficiently and un-obtrusively set up for the first-time reader the thematic range of the poem under consideration and often anticipate its content in antithetical pairings of abstract notions. Particularly successful examples of A.’s technique can be found before poems 1, 14a and 70. Occasionally this method results in vagueness, or else appears more in the manner of draft ideas, as at 5 (cf. p. 19 ‘Living/dying, human time/nature’s time, calculating/losing track, knowing/not knowing, light/night, kisses and more kisses.’). Elsewhere, more specific content and context is required, especially at 64.50-253 where, in a comparatively long introduction, only one sentence indicates the actual subject matter of the extract.

A.’s notes contain help that will facilitate the translation of these poems accurately, but they will not necessarily assist her readership in arriving at a nuanced appreciation of what is represented or alluded to in Catullus’ Latin. The vast majority of the individual notes simply present such information as is found in a glossary, or in the vocabulary at the end of the book (although there are exceptions: 1, 35 and 65, for example, have some more detailed notes). A. has also made a policy of offering not the particular meaning of any given word in its context but rather the major, general meanings of each word. So, for instance, the verb ludo is defined as ‘play, amuse oneself, play sexually, write light poetry’; and wherever this word appears throughout the corpus, the same definition is repeated verbatim. Her reasoning for this approach is that the student will thereby see ‘ . . . how Catullus repeats vocabulary from poem to poem with the result that individual words resonate with their multiple meanings in different contexts’ (p. xi) and will increase his or her ‘real vocabulary’ rather than memorise a particular word within a particular context (p. xii). As a pedagogical objective this is unimpeachable, but the cutting and pasting of definitions from one context to the next will create its own set of obstacles to the first-time reader. The noun trabs is a case in point: at 4.3 we are alerted to the fact that by metonymy it can allude to the phallus, as it does at 28.10 — its only other appearance in the Catullan corpus — but this second poem is not on the AP syllabus (and therefore not in A.’s book), and so I wonder about the relevance of this nuance being brought to the attention of students who will not see this other meaning in use. So too, at 5.12 the definition of inuideo is ‘envy, begrudge, refuse’; this gives no indication of the meaning at stake here: ‘to cast an evil eye upon’ (cf. irrumator at 10.12, where rapacity is the key notion). Finally, at 44.19 A.’s standard definition of quin will not result in a satisfactory translation of the speaker’s prayer in this context.

A teacher can obviously correct misapprehensions and mistranslations arising from this policy, but these examples illustrate that Writing Passion is no ‘do-it-yourself’ manual. I think that this book has genuine potential in the hands of an experienced teacher (such as A. herself) and I am also aware that a teacher’s guide is forthcoming, but in the absence of this other material, A. often seems to stop short of actually educating her reader. There is, for example, a general reluctance to be drawn into explaining allusions in the poems, even in cases where the basic meaning of what is written is at issue. To illustrate this tendency, I cite a brief selection of fairly basic questions that go unanswered: (3.1) Why or how are Veneres Cupidinesque plural? (4.6-9) What do all these epithets mean or why might they have been chosen? (4.22) What is a litoralis deus ? (12.10) Why would receiving hendecasyllabi from Catullus be something to avoid? (14a.3) What does Catullus mean when he writes of odium Vatinianum ? (44.15) What does urtica have to do with convalescing? (64.159) What are these saeua praecepta ?

Likewise, in my opinion, readers who require notes that explain very basic words (such as A. glosses) will need more help in translating larger units of meaning, such as the clause and the sentence, and help is especially required with examples of idiomatic usage. As examples, I would cite the following places where I think inadequate assistance has been provided: 4.20f. siue utrumque Iuppiter | simul secundus incidisset in pedem; 10.6f. quid esset | iam Bithynia; 22.13 aut siquid hac re scitius uidebatur; 35.12 illum deperit; 40.5 an ut peruenias in ora uulgi?; 45.5 quantum qui pote plurimum perire; 64.193f. quibus anguino redimita capillo | frons exspirantis praeportat pectoris iras. This reluctance is a conscious choice. A. prefers ‘to give help and then let the student figure things out independently’ (p. xi); but in many cases the notes in Writing Passion are too rudimentary to allow independent understanding of the syntax and idiom used by Catullus. This help cannot have been suppressed because of space restrictions since Garrison covers the entire Catullan corpus with an introduction, text, four maps, notes, a who’s who (lacking in A.), as well as sections on meter, literary terms, poetic usage, and a full vocabulary in thirty-five fewer pages than A.’s selection. For the reasons discussed above (and contrary to the suggestion on p. x), I don’t think Writing Passion will satisfy a college readership; they would be better served by Quinn or Garrison.

Separate material on meter and the glossary of terms are both welcome. For A.’s audience, however, I would like to have seen at least an outline of the rules of quantity — referring the reader to ‘a basic Latin grammar or text’ is not good enough (p. 163). The glossary contains clear and concise exposition on matters of meter, literary terms, rhetorical figures, and figures of speech (although A.’s definition of ‘metaphor’ breaks somewhat from this clarity and concision). Terms that are featured within this section are printed in block capitals throughout the commentary proper, which should further encourage the use of these appendices. On the whole, the copy-editing is of a very high quality with no apparent typos, although frequently the explanatory notes have been dislodged from their rightful line number (e.g., at 1.3, 5.5, 77.3, 86.3, 87.3).

A real factor in making an overall assessment of A.’s book is that its appearance cannot be said to remedy a need in the marketplace. Commentaries on Catullus are in no short supply and even within the sub-category of student editions there is considerable competition.2 Remarkably, even within the more restricted parameters of the AP syllabus, Writing Passion has been anticipated by Bender and Forsyth, who produced a reader in 1996 through A.’s own publisher, and it has been updated in this year by a supplement covering the additional poems in the 2004-05 syllabus.3 This proliferation of material (particularly the last item) might have been a deterrent to the production of yet another edition but, as A. states in her opening sentence, her text was written at the invitation of her publishers (p. ix). Taken in isolation from this competition, this reader should succeed in the high-school classroom provided that it is conscientiously administered and supplemented by an experienced teacher, and the appearance of the accompanying teacher’s guide may well assuage some of the misgivings expressed in this review. As it stands, however, and in light of the many alternatives already available, the content of Writing Passion does not fully justify its publication.

[For a response to this review by Ronnie Ancona, please see BMCR 2004.12.18.]


1. These are 1-5, 7, 8, 10-14a, 22, 30, 31, 35, 36, 40, 43-46, 49-51, 60, 64.50-253, 65, 68.1-40, 69, 70, 72, 76, 77, 84-87, 96, 101, 109, 116.

2. E.g., C. J. Fordyce, Catullus (Oxford 1961); K. Quinn, Catullus: The Poems (London 1970); J. Ferguson, Catullus (Lawrence, KA 1985); D. H. Garrison, The Student’s Catullus (London 1992); J. Godwin, Catullus: Poems 61-68 (Warminster 1995); D. F. S. Thomson, Catullus. Edited with a Textual and Interpretive Commentary (Toronto 1997); J. Godwin Catullus. The Shorter Poems (Warminster 1999); B. Arnold, A. Aronson, and G. Lawall, Love and Betrayal: A Catullus Reader (Upper Saddle River, NJ 2000); cf. also A. J. Woodman’s review of Godwin (1999) BMCR 2000.05.14 and note 3 below.

3. H. Bender and P. Forsyth, Catullus: AP Edition (Wauconda, IL 1996); H. Bender and P. Forsyth, Catullus for the AP: A Supplement (Wauconda, IL 2004).