BMCR 2008.02.52

A Little Book of Latin Love Poetry. A Transitional Reader for Catullus, Horace, and Ovid

, , , , , A little book of Latin love poetry : a transitional reader for Catullus, Horace, and Ovid. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2006. xii, 138 pages : illustrations, map ; 28 cm. ISBN 9780865166011. $21.00 (pb).

Breuker and Weinfield’s A Little Book of Latin Love Poetry. A Transitional Reader for Catullus, Horace, and Ovid (or, as it is referred to throughout the book and this review, the Libellus) is intended to take the late high school or early college student from reading modified Latin originals to translating and interpreting real texts of canonical authors. It is a pleasantly designed book, provided with well-balanced descriptions of the three authors Catullus, Horace and Ovid and alternating passages of text with sections of grammatical review.

The selection of poems may seem overly traditional at first glance. There is Lesbia and her sparrow, and Lydia and Corinna, just as we are used to seeing them in other anthologies — but then, the aim of this volume is not to provide an all-round introduction to either of these authors. The amount of text discussed must, in order not to overwhelm the student using this book, be drastically limited to include highlights only, and the introductory descriptions of the three authors give a brief overview of other works, indicating the many different types of poetry they wrote.

Several poems are first presented in a modified form, and later as unmodified texts, allowing us to thematize the transition from adjusted materials to authentic Latin, a distinction too often blurred in teaching materials aimed at beginners. The Latin text is based throughout on the Loeb editions of Catullus, Horace and Ovid — a choice easily motivated by the accessibility and wide spread of the Loeb series, and in keeping with the editors’ notes on accessibility of grammar handbooks (p. x). While the lack of textual apparatus limits the use of some of the Loeb volumes for more advanced students, the unmodified passages in the Libellus nevertheless raise awareness of issues of textual criticism in a way suited to the book’s intended readership. The introduction to the first unmodified poem in the book, Cat. 51, clearly states some of the problems met by editors and readers alike both when establishing and reading Latin texts, and indeed the combination of modified and unmodified texts could be used to illuminate such problems further in a class-room situation.

Throughout the first half of the book, each section of a poem is supported by reading vocabulary, and hints for translation. Study questions both on linguistic comprehension and literary interpretation (‘points to ponder’) are provided for modified as well as unmodified poems. While the division between the two final items is not always clear-cut, the interpretational questions generally help the student delve further into the texts, and they would be an excellent tool for prompting further class-room discussion.

In terms of compliance with current research on Latin love poetry, it is heartening to note that even at this level, there is frequent mention of the use of various poetic personae and that the narrator of the poem is not automatically to be equated with the real-life author (so for example on Hor. Carm. 3,9, p. 43). There could, however, have been room for further discussion of what this might mean for the tone and interpretation of the texts, particularly in the ‘points to ponder’. Still, the combination of authors and texts selected can easily be used as a spring-board for wider discussion of traditions and topoi of Latin love poetry. For instance, the inclusion of Hor. Carm. 3.26 and Ov. Am. 1.9 and the ‘points to ponder’ provided for these poems draw the reader’s attention to the notion of the lover’s warfare, and prompt the reader/student to consider the efficacy and implications of this metaphor.

The study questions are also most helpful in training the student to recognize and analyze rhetorical and poetical devices such as metaphors, metonymies, alliterations, etc, thus creating a solid foundation for more in-depth interpretations. Such terms are handily listed and explained in a reference appendix at the back of the book. Another appendix deals with meter and scansion, and the reading vocabularies continually include information on quantity. In the unmodified poems, tricky passages have been provided with marks to help explain the metrical pattern, which is bound to ease the transition to reading authentic material further.

As this book is explicitly intended as a teaching work, it is worth pointing out that the text passages have been printed in large type, leaving plenty of room for making notes around and between the lines. The grammar review and exercises also come with ample scribble room, sometimes even slightly excessively so — pages 6, 14, 22, and 40 are entirely blank. The exercises inventively recycle vocabulary and phrases from previous texts so that the student gradually can familiarize her/ himself with language typical of the genre. The Latin-English vocabulary at the back of the book should also be eminently helpful.

In fact, my main quibble with this book has little to do with its stated aim of easing the transition to reading actual Latin poetry, which, in my opinion it does very well. Instead, it concerns the use of illustrations: throughout the book, the text is interspersed with various illustrations. There are photographs of well-known ancient sculptures like Cupid and Psyche (p. 17) and busts of Julius Caesar and Octavian, but also a vast number of reproductions of Victorian paintings and drawings by or in the style of Alma-Tadema. The odd subtitle to these illustrations points out that one can not be entirely sure that it is indeed Catullus who is depicted reciting to a rapt audience (p. 3), but for the most part, there is little to indicate that these are, in fact, not snapshots from ancient Rome. In a book intended for a readership with a still limited knowledge of the ancient world, this strikes me as unnecessarily confusing, something that could have been easily remedied with more generous subtitling.

That said, this is a quite enjoyable ‘little book’ with a combination of attractive design (the front cover features a colour reproduction of a Roman wall painting) and easy-to-use texts and exercises. With the bibliographical references provided, it would work very well as a basis for independent study, and it would come in most useful in the classroom.