BMCR 2020.07.12

I, the poet: first-person form in Horace, Catullus, and Propertius

, I, the poet: first-person form in Horace, Catullus, and Propertius. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2019. viii, 244 p.. ISBN 9781501739552 $52.95.

This book confounds expectations. From the title, I guessed that Kathleen McCarthy’s new monograph would be a contribution to persona theory. However, the very choice of authors intrigued. Would McCarthy show how Propertius and Horace in their own chosen genres were each influenced by Catullus? If so, why does Horace come first in the title? Early on in the Introduction, McCarthy states that her argument, unlike those that apply terms like “persona” and “fiction,” is not aimed at “disentangling the real (i.e. socially active) communication from literary communication, or subordinating one to the other” (p. 4). Later she acknowledges that her readers might find that such a study that excludes Ovid, Tibullus, Sulpicia, Statius, Martial, and Virgil’s Eclogues “borders on the perverse” (p. 35). McCarthy is first and foremost interested in how Latin first-person poetry exploits the tension between the world of the characters within a poem and the world of discourse between the poet and the reader. Catullus (primarily the polymetrics and c. 65), Horace’s first three books of Odes and the first book of Epistles, and Propertius’ first two books are then used as test cases for the validity of analyzing first-person Latin poetry in this way (a brief epilogue on Ovid’s Tristia serves as an example for further investigation). In the analysis of how these poems work, standard critical terms such as allusion, intertext, genre, and influence are virtually absent. This approach, while unsettling at first, is refreshing and rewards multiple readings.

Borrowing from narrative theory, McCarthy refers to the dimension of a poem that focuses on the characters as the “storyworld” and the dimension that consists of the words communicated to the reader as “discourse” (p. 3). Instead of just leaving this as an abstract model, McCarthy applies it with an excellent observation: “Roman poets themselves were in almost the same situation in relation to earlier Greek poetry that we twenty-first-century readers are in relation to their poetry: readers who perceive the poems as both ‘not-for-us’ (written for their own social world and perhaps even for the specific people named) and ‘for-us’ (powerfully expressive as well as aesthetically successful across great distance)” (p. 4). She then asserts that the Roman poets, building on their reading of Greek poetry, continued to experiment with providing their own and future readers with not-for-us and for-us dimensions. As opposed to other scholars, who often emphasize one dimension over the other, McCarthy argues that the tension between the two is what makes Latin poetry so vibrant (pp. 5-32). She ends the Introduction with a thesis on how Catullus, Horace, and Propertius differ in their treatment of the first-person form: Catullus and Horace both emphasize the connection between the speaker and the agency of the poet, Catullus, by drawing the historical poet into the storyworld, and Horace, by drawing the speaker outwards towards the historical poet; Propertius, on the other hand, splits the agency of the speaker from that of the poet in his first book and then in the second book uses the storyworld as a source of exempla to align the positions of the speaker and poet (pp. 36-37). Part of the surprise of this study is that Propertius emerges as the most experimental of the three.

Chapter One, “Poetry As Conversation,” begins with a brief analysis of Odes I. 37 and 38 to demonstrate the difference between conversational and performative first-person poetry. For McCarthy, “conversational” does not mean informal, but literally speech that implies a private conversation in the storyworld, such as the master giving orders to his slave in I. 38. Whereas the speaker in I. 38 “seems unconscious of the momentousness of his word” (p. 39), the speaker of nunc est bibendum (I. 37.1) performs a song conscious of the public and historical context. McCarthy then shifts to Propertius I, the major focus of this chapter. Her contention is that Propertius, the poet, uses the conversational mode to have the reader differentiate between this Propertius of the storyworld and the Propertius who communicates with the reader at the level of discourse. McCarthy uses the conventional “Ego” to refer to Propertius the character (p. 48 n. 17), but she defines it in her own distinct way: the first-person voice is not the spokesperson for Propertius the poet, but is in fact decentered to be “just one element of the book’s attempt to explore what it means to communicate with readers through poetry” (p. 54). The Ego in I. 7-8 speaks of the justification for elegy and its subject matter in a different way from how Propertius presents it through his book as a whole (pp. 49-55). In I. 3 Propertius puts the Ego’s first-person narration in the past tense and gives the closing speech to the puella in order to convey to the reader that the real voice of the poem is that of elegy itself (pp. 55-62). McCarthy goes on to show that Propertius highlights this elegiac voice at the level of discourse throughout the first book, focusing on I. 5, 16, 18, 21, and 22 (pp. 62-76).  The chapter ends with a brief look at Catullus, who, McCarthy argues, operates more in the performative mode than the conversational, previewing her argument in the next chapter (pp. 76-80).

“Poetry As Performance” investigates how Horace and Catullus manipulate the performative aspects of their first-person poetry. Both poets evoke ritual performance, but Horace does so to stress that the main communication resides at the level of discourse, whereas Catullus’ stronger emphasis on social impulses and effects draws the poet and the reader into the storyworld (pp. 88-89). In his hymnic and dedicatory Odes I. 2 and 21 and III. 13, 18, and 22 (pp. 90-113), Horace uses disruption and discontinuity “to lay claim unapologetically to the ritually effective power of language and the communal authority associated with poetry performed in designated occasions, while asserting that such powers reside not in the context but in the poetry itself” (p. 99). On the other hand, Catullus 12, 25, 28, 37, 42, and 57, broadly defined by McCarthy as invective (pp. 113-133), demonstrate Catullus’ “apparently seamless combination of his own social life with a transcendent realm of art” (p. 118). I ended this chapter of insightful readings nevertheless questioning whether this selection of poems was representative enough to define how Horace and Catullus use the storyworld level in contrast to Propertius overall, as McCarthy suggests (p. 89). Particularly, I wondered how McCarthy would view the similarities in erotic addresses between Horace and Propertius and the similar storyworld aspects of Propertius I. 3 and Catullus 10, both of which feature a past-tense narrative of a dramatic scene and the struggle to retain the authority of the first-person voice in relation to a woman.[1]

In the third chapter McCarthy impressively validates her approach to the first-person voice in Horace, Catullus, and Propertius by looking at poems where the poets seem to make direct or indirect pronouncements about their poetry (“Poetry That Says ‘Ego’” (pp. 134-84)). She begins by contending that the separate voices of the Ego and the poet in Propertius I become more aligned in Book II. In a sense, Propertius’ treatment of the Ego, Cynthia, and other characters in Book II can be seen as a meditation on his experiments with voice in Book I. Through a comparison of I. 1 and II. 1 and readings of II. 7 and 20 McCarthy demonstrates how Propertius’ sparing use of the conversational technique, replaced often with third-person syntax and mythological exempla (pp. 147-50), as well as the explicit discussion of poetry production and historical events within the “love plot” of the storyworld (p. 144), allows the reader to further appreciate Propertius’ achievement at the level of discourse in both books. McCarthy then turns to four programmatic poems of Catullus (1, 14, 16, and 22) that strongly support her thesis of how and why Catullus brings the level of discourse into the storyworld (pp. 151-63). Instead of looking at Horace’s own programmatic statements, such as Odes II. 20 or III. 30, McCarthy analyzes the strategy of self-presentation within Horace’s sympotic poems (Odes I. 20 and 27, II. 7, and III. 8 and 19). As in the hymnic and dedicatory Odes, the storyworld material, which is here the biographical details of Horace himself, is subordinated to a discursive agenda (p. 165). Horace uses his biography “as part of his poetic palette but… he also shapes his poems to mark the inclusion of that material as an act of aesthetic choice” (p. 183).

The final chapter, “Poetry As Writing” turns from poems that represent spoken speech to those that represent written communication.  McCarthy focuses on Catullus 35, 50, and 65 (pp. 188-201) and Epistles I. 3, 5, 8, 9, 13, and 20 (pp. 201-17). The discussion becomes particularly illuminating when McCarthy compares Epistles I. 8 with Catullus 35: “Catullus’ choice of the paper itself as messenger maintains his general practice of situating the speaker in the storyworld, while Horace’s choice of the Muse for this role maintains his general practice of calling attention to the poet’s control of discourse” (p. 211). McCarthy continues to surprise, even in the Epilogue. I would have expected, with the mention of Ovid, that she would look at how the voice of the Amores differs from that of Horace, Catullus, and Propertius. Instead, she extends her discussion of epistolary poetry with a brief discussion of the Tristia, suggesting how her approach to first-person poetry might be applied to Ovid (pp. 218-228).

This monograph consistently took me in directions I was not expecting. It is not a book to be mined only for footnotes to one’s own work nor can it be skimmed for quick answers, and that is a good thing. It demands being read in full for its own unique perspective and it will certainly become required reading for scholars of Latin poetry.


[1] Cf. McCarthy’s “Secrets and Lies: Horace Carm. 1.27 and Catullus 10, MD 71 (2013) 45-74