BMCR 2020.10.23

Catullus through his books: dramas of composition

, Catullus through his books: dramas of composition. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 320 p.. ISBN9781108472241 $99.99.


This is a clever book, and if at points it strikes a reader as too clever, it nonetheless makes an original argument about the arrangement of the Catullan corpus. Schafer’s main idea is that the poems, in the traditional order, tell a coherent story: “this entire work has sought to build the case that you can read the sequence of the poems, that you can rely and presume on it” (245–246). In other words, it’s not necessary to pick out and re-order the poems about Lesbia to construct the story of the love affair, as so many readers have done, for example Quinn, who says “the order of the [Lesbia] poems is clearly not chronological (so that we can never do more than guess the circumstances) but it is almost certainly not accidental” (xvi). Rather, Catullus has arranged his poems not only on aesthetic or poetic principles, but on narrative ones as well. And the main narrative here is not so much the story of Lesbia as the drama of the poems’ own composition.

That the arrangement of the Catullan corpus, or of part of it, goes back to Catullus himself, is pretty well accepted; the main questions are whether Catullus arranged and published all of the poems, and, if so, in how many separate books. (Skinner outlines the history of the question and the arguments on all sides in chapter 3 of her Companion, 2007.) The word libellus in poem 1 is a sort of shorthand: does the book that poem 1 refers to contain poems 1–11, 1–14, 1–51, all the poems we have, or some other subset? Schafer’s answer is that the entire arrangement is authorial, and the poems were probably circulated in separate groups. His division begins from the obvious one: the polymetric group, poems 1–51 (called A), with 52–60 as a sort of appendix that Catullus probably didn’t intend to include (Ax); the longer poems 61–64 (B); and an elegiac book, 65–116 (C), divided into two parts, 65–68 (C1), in two pairs addressed to Ortalus and to Mallius, and 69–116 (C2). Schafer observes, with striking diffidence, that other scholars have made similar divisions, saying “This volume, then, does not resolve this laborious philological crux so much as notice that previous learned studies have already loosened the long-tied knot, if not in the same place and at the same time” (2). The new idea is to exclude Ax from the arrangement (5). Schafer takes poems 52–60 as certainly by Catullus, but rougher, sometimes metrically anomalous, and somewhat different in tone and genre. Although it’s impossible to know for sure, Schafer suggests that they might be “the remains of an additional body of short lyric poems” (58) that Catullus took out as he arranged the poems for final circulation.

Schafer contends that, particularly if we bracket Ax, the remaining poems show evidence of careful patterning—so much patterning that we have to assume it’s authorial and meaningful. Other scholars have also noticed patterns, particularly in the first few poems, and there are various poems that seem to be introductions to other poems or groups (such as 14b, 50, 65). Schafer builds on these observations and creates a full reading of the corpus that makes each of the groups A, B, C1, and C2 internally coherent while also fitting together as a larger whole. Moreover, the poems tell a story of the love affair between the Catullus persona and the Lesbia character that unfolds in its proper order.

Patterns among the poems can come from the juxtaposition of two poems that have something in common, often a theme; these poems may be directly adjacent, like the sparrow poems 2 and 3, or separated by one, like the kiss-counting poems 5 and 7. Schafer also observes what he calls “terminal” patterns, poems that mark beginnings or endings, and especially a poem at the end of a group that responds to one at the start of the group, often but not always by using similar language. Finally, he looks at “global” patterns, such as the distribution of poems in meters other than Phalacean hendecasyllables in group A, or the similar line counts and poem counts in some of the sub-sections of his groups. These ideas are not entirely new, as Schafer admits, but he does find and analyze more patterns and more correspondences than any single other scholar has looked at before (or at least the wealth of evidence here makes it seem that way).

For example, he reads poems 50 and 51 as a “closural dyad” (107), not just because they come together at the end of what he calls group A, but because they are closely linked. Schafer proposes that “Catullus’ translation of Sappho 31 is not limited to poem 51, but distributed between it and 50” (110). The two Catullan poems both start with a man enjoying someone’s company, and go on with the speaker separated from someone he loves, suffering symptoms of erotic longing that are described at length, and both end “with a gnomic warning about surprisingly drastic dangers” (107); the main difference is that poem 50 talks about writing poetry, too. Schafer finds detailed linguistic parallels between both of these poems and Sappho 31, and suggests that Sappho’s fourth stanza, not directly translated in Catullus 51, has moved into Catullus 50 (111). When the speaker of 50 says hoc, iucunde, tibi poema feci at line 16, the poem in question is just as much poem 51 as poem 50 itself, and poem 50 dramatizes not only the evening’s poetic play it describes, but also the writing of the next poem.

Schafer also finds correspondences across his groups of poems, though sometimes his proposals go a bit far, as when he proposes that poems 34, 35, and 36 deliberately point to the four poems of the B group (60, 61, 62, 63) and therefore “the poetry of A will have embedded a cryptic prospectus of Catullus’ work in progress” (141). In his final chapter, he proposes a decidedly original reading of the sparrow poems (2, 3), which I don’t find convincing, but perhaps I’m wrong, and I’ve enjoyed the exercise of figuring out why I disagree. Schafer proposes that the sparrow is not merely a bird (though of course it is a bird), and certainly not a metaphor for either Catullus’s or Lesbia’s genitalia (though Martial isn’t entirely wrong to suggest it is), but poetry itself: what Lesbia is doing when she plays with the sparrow is writing erotic poetry (238–247). After all, “writing poetry is sexy in Catullus” (243). And when the sparrow dies in poem 3, this seems to mean that “Lesbia has abandoned and destroyed her composition” (244), perhaps because, for Catullus, “it is flattering to present her as writing learned poetry, and face-saving for it not to work out” (245).

Reading the poems in order, as Schafer does, produces a surprising ending to the Lesbia story. I won’t spoil the plot (how often is that an issue in a review of a scholarly book?), but again it’s an idea that readers may or may not find congenial or convincing.

Schafer emphasizes the care, the craft, the learnedness of Catullus’s poetry, while coming up with more or less plausible solutions to many of the familiar interpretive cruces, like poem 68 (he takes it as two, and takes Allius as a pseudonym for Mallius), 14b (start of a new sub-group), and the problematic run 52–60 (a sort of appendix). He plays fair: he doesn’t claim to have all the answers, and recognizes points at which his arguments may be weak, but often says things like “just such a discontinuity is all I think I need you to agree to” (44), allowing for disagreement with various details. The argument, as a whole, hangs together, and though I wouldn’t categorically agree that the “Catullus Question” is now solved, future researchers will need to reckon with Schafer’s reconstruction.


Quinn, Kenneth. Catullus: The Poems. London: Macmillan, 1973; rpt. Bristol, 1997.
Skinner, Marilyn B., ed. A Companion to Catullus. Malden: Blackwell, 2007.