Amanda Kolson Hurley, Catullus. Ancients in Action. London: Bristol Classical Press / Duckworth Press, 2004. Pp. 158. ISBN 1-85399-669-6. UK£10.99.
Classics, University of Adelaide, Australia
In the past few years I have become aware of the Duckworth Ancients in Action series, whose purpose is to introduce the life and works of major figures of the ancient world to the modern general reader and impart a sense of their significance for later western civilisation. While I think that this is a good idea I can see that it presents quite a difficult challenge -- to maintain a balance between delivering the material in an accessible way and providing the reader with accurate scholarship on the subject. Hurley's book is the first in this series that I have had the opportunity to examine in detail.
As a book of around 160 pages it is about half the size of a normal scholarly work. I note that for other authors such as Ovid the series wisely divides his oeuvre into two books: one on his love poems and the other on his mythological works. Although the Catullan corpus is far shorter than Ovid's it is still not an easy task to condense his essence into such a confined space, as his output is so diverse, his metrics complex and his influence wide-ranging both on later Roman poets and on European art and literature. Not everything can be included and some difficult decisions have to be made about what to exclude. As Hurley observes on p. 23, everyone has their own Catullus so inevitably I am not going to agree with some of the choices she makes. For instance, personally I think it's a pity that Poem 4 on Catullus' boat was omitted as it is a delightful poem and metrically highly skilful, but I can see why Hurley passed it over for poems of more significance to the major themes of the Catullan corpus. On the other hand, as will become apparent, I think Hurley makes some other decisions about exclusion that are more dubious.
Hurley begins the book in an engaging way, employing a good hook to catch the attention of the general reader by supplying a passage of dialogue from a recent Stoppard play concerning scholarly and poetic attitudes to Catullus. This enables her to introduce a number of important issues to the reader: the apparent spontaneity and directness of Catullus' emotions, the alien Roman background, even the fact that Catullus' work could so easily have been lost and the precarious nature of survival of manuscripts. It also poses a question of the utmost relevance to this book: can one both aspire to the best scholarship and foster poetic feeling or appreciation at the same time?
Before I discuss some of my concerns with the book I would like to make clear that I think that there is quite a lot that is good about it. Hurley's chapters span a wide range of issues and subject matters: the facts and myths about Catullus' life, the opening sequence of his polymetrics and his relationship with Lesbia, his friendships and rivalries with males, the epithalamia and other long poems and the elegies. A lot of the information that she supplies is both detailed and accurate. She has an obvious enthusiasm, even passion, for Catullus which comes through in what she writes. Her discussions about the influence of Catullus on English poetry are excellent although I think it is a pity that she did not also supply the reader with some instances of his influence on art; for example it would have enhanced her discussion of the visual nature of Poem 64 if she had referred the reader to Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne as this painting is largely based on the passage from Catullus. She deals well with the socio-sexual background to the poems and gives the reader a good sense of the differences between attitudes then and now. Her treatment of Catullus' poems though sometimes superficial (necessarily so in the case of the long poems), nevertheless provides the reader with a good survey of the major issues. Her translations, while at times not entirely accurate, are very readable.
Hurley's tone has an assurance that is a little disconcerting to one more used to the hesitancy and qualifications of careful scholarship. Statements such as, 'we should remember that Verona was ten day's journey from Rome by cart' (p. 17) are made with confident assertion and provided with no supporting evidence. While I realize that a popular book of this sort must minimize its number of footnotes to avoid irritating the reader this does become a problem when, as on occasion happens, assertions are delivered which cannot be supported, are confused or inaccurate.
An instance of such a statement is that the elegiac metre 'was originally used for funeral songs' (p. 28). This is what the ancients believed, certainly, but recent scholarship has shown that elegy originated at the symposium and only acquired its funereal associations at a later date.[] However, this remark is only offered in passing and is not a serious error; it doesn't lead the general reader too far off the track. Of more concern is Hurley's statement on p. 18 that among the Alexandrian ideals that Catullus and the neoteroi (or poetae novi) adopted was verbal innovation -- coining new words and using slang or dialect words in place of more literary alternatives. She cites Catullus' word basium as an instance of this sort of 'Alexandrianism'. This is a conflation of two quite different concepts. Yes, the Alexandrian poets employed neologisms but these were literary words designed to challenge the reader and show their learning. The importation of slang words into poetry was something that the neoteroi did themselves and comes from the comic-satiric tradition. This is clearly stated by Quinn, who observes in The Catullan Revolution that 'the gulf that separates the poetae novi from their Alexandrian "models" is perhaps deepest here.'[] What is most disturbing is that this is a book Hurley cites elsewhere, acknowledges on p. 19 as influential and, one would hope, has read in some detail. In a similar fashion Hurley's interpretation of the diminutives in Poems 3 and 61 as detached or belittling (pp. 38, 83) appears to misunderstand the nature of the diminutive in Latin. Unlike English, the Latin diminutive 'expresses a complex range of overtones of emotional involvement (such as affection and compassion) with the person or thing described, not necessarily any objective denotation of size or degree’. This quote is from Quinn's commentary on Catullus which Hurley recommends enthusiastically on p. 153.[]
These are just a few examples of some of the misunderstandings and inaccuracies present in the book; I could give more instances if the scope of this review allowed it and if I dug a little deeper I would probably come up with quite a few others. Of course it could be argued that few of these issues would matter very much to the general reader and that these are the sorts of scholarly quibbles which the Stoppard play suggests may not easily coexist with poetic appreciation. Nevertheless this book is being published by a Classical Press and the thought remains that someone who has taken on the role of a voice of authority on Catullan poetics should have been more careful to get such details right.
As stated above, Hurley has to make some difficult decisions about which poems to exclude from her discussions. Hurley makes the decision as to which of the polymetrics to include by identifying clusters of related poems (p. 39) but she passes over Poem 6 when discussing 5 and 7 (the famous kiss poems to Lesbia). This poem which mocks Flavius and his 'feverish little tart' of a mistress appears to be placed between 5 and 7 to highlight the special nature of the relationship between Catullus and Lesbia (one may recall Catullus 72.3, 'I esteemed you not as an ordinary man [loves] his mistress'). I also think it is a pity that she has left out Poem 65 for not only it is the first in the collection which alludes the death of Catullus' brother but it is the first in elegiacs and may serve as an introduction to Catullus' third book; moreover it is a key poem for understanding the development of Roman elegy from epigram.[] On the other hand, I applaud Hurley's decision to include Poem 61 as I agree with her observation (p. 85) that this poem has been consistently devalued.
The book is eminently readable, frequently engaging and the author's love for Catullus and his English successors shines through. Does it do its job of exciting the interest of the modern general reader? Yes, I think it does; it provides such readers with enough of the authentic flavour of Catullus' poetry to enable them to launch into some of the more complex (and drier) scholarship that is listed at the end. But I would hesitate to include this book on the reading list for undergraduate students of Classics or Latin or, at the very least, I would advise them not to cite from it or use it as a model for their essays, since it is a popular rather than scholarly work. This is a pity, for with a little more care and attention, it might have been both.
[] E.L. Bowie, 'Early Greek Elegy, Symposium and Public Festival', JHS 106 (1986) 13-35.
[] K. Quinn, The Catullan Revolution (Melbourne 1959) 59.
[] K. Quinn, Catullus: The Poems (London and New York 1973) 99.
[] J. B Van Sickle, 'About Form and Feeling in Catullus 65', TAPhA 99 (1968) 508; M. Skinner, Catullus in Verona: A Reading of the Elegiac Libellus, Poems 65- 116 (Columbus 2003) xii.