Of the poems attributed to Catullus, 116 have been preserved; 3 are now judged to have been written by someone else. It was only by chance that any of his work survived through the Middle Ages. One poem, number 62, was included in a ninth century anthology of Latin works. In the fourteenth century, a single manuscript containing the 116 poems was discovered in the poet’s native Verona. That manuscript disappeared in the following century, but two copies had been made, and one of these survives to the present day, housed at Oxford University in England.
The entire collection constituted a slender but potent volume. The Greek Callimachus is credited with the saying mega biblion mega kakon (“big book, big evil”), and his admirer Catullus seems to have taken this to heart. None of the Roman poet’s surviving works exceeds 408 lines; most are between 10 and 30 lines long. As Callimachus’s poetry showed great learning and polish, so did the work of Catullus, whose followers called him doctus poeta (learned craftsman). However, while Callimachus’s style was criticized as labored and artificial, Catullus’s poems earned praise for their easy grace and polish, belying the effort that produced this technical excellence.
Although Alexandrian thought and style directly influenced Catullus, much of that tradition had already been assimilated by his Roman predecessors or contemporaries, including the epic poet Quintus Ennius and the philosophical poet Titus Lucretius Carus. However, Catullus’s uses and expressions of the literary conventions are distinctly his own. His skilled use of Roman vocabulary and rhythms of speech are set against the classical Greek meters to produce a markedly original, Roman literature.
A few of his poems are based not only on Greek meter but on actual Greek poems; for example, Poem 66, about the lock of Berenice, is a translation from Callimachus, and his Poem 51 is thought to be an adaptation of a lost poem by Sappho. Catullus, like Sappho and Callimachus, avoided the traditional epic treatment of war and military conquest, heroes and gods. Instead, his poems are about personal matters: love’s rapture and lovers’ quarrels, his grief at losing a brother, his love of the family estate in the provinces. Indeed, Catullus was among the first Roman poets to adapt Roman poetic subjects to Greek meters.
In the short poems especially, Catullus’s original use of the Alexandrian conventions—meter, learned allusions, and rhetorical figures—contribute to his reputation for directness, simplicity, and emotional sincerity. For example, Catullus’s Poem 3—the famous lament for his female friend’s dead sparrow—is written in a familiar Alexandrian meter, the Phalaecian hendecasyllabic. In Catullus’s hands, however, it becomes an instrument for the simple, poignant expression of sympathy, such as one might hear anywhere in Rome. His poems contain slang, made-up words, and occasional vulgarity not encountered in his Alexandrian models.
Despite the brevity of his life and the slenderness of his surviving output, Catullus had a strong influence on his immediate Roman successors. The most prominent among them adopted different aspects of Catullus’s model. Quintus Horatius Flaccus showed the Catullan influence in his lyric poems, while Publius Vergilius Maro manifested it in his use of the elegiac meters. In the following century, Marcus Valerius Martialis, a master of the poetic epigram, acknowledged his debt to Catullus’s achievement in that genre.
The discovery of his surviving poems in the fourteenth century marked the beginning of his popularity in modern times. By the mid-1300’s, the Italian poet Petrarch had read Catullus and begun to imitate his work. Catullus’s influence can be seen during the Renaissance and beyond through the work of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Lord Byron. Translators of Catullus have included the poets Thomas Campion, William Wordsworth, and Louis Zukofsky.
Catullus’s proficiency in expressing emotion has led scholars to debate whether his poems reflect the author’s state of mind or simply the artistic skill that he brought to composition. Given the array of feeling his poems express, either he felt a wide range of intense emotions, or he had a broad range of skill in artistic evocation, or both. However, the question also implies a moral evaluation of the writer’s intent, which probably cannot be resolved concerning an author as far removed in time as Catullus. What can be said with certainty is that much of the value in his poems lies in the authenticity with which they portray emotions. Both the effect of his poems on the reader and his influence on the exceptional poets who came after him are testimony to that artistic authenticity.
Poem 5 (“Let Us Live, My Lesbia”)
Written: First century b.c.e. (collected in The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition, 2005)
Type of work: Poem
This poem, which begins, “Let us live and love, my Lesbia,” is among Catullus’s best known and most...
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