Joan Booth, Catullus to Ovid. Reading Latin Love Elegy: A Literary Commentary with Latin Text. London: Bristol Classical Press 1999. Pp. xlv + 164. ISBN 1-85399-606-8. UKú9.95.
Carol U. Merriam,
Department of Classics, Brock University
The Latin love elegy has always been an easy target for theorists. A product of one place and one era, with similar experiences and attitudes expressed, and authors of very similar backgrounds and tastes, the elegy has always appealed to scholars looking for a monolith of a genre. It is very easy to say 'The Latin love elegy is like this', and then quote poems supporting that point. Joan Booth does just this in her Catullus to Ovid: Reading Latin Love Elegy. Booth has a theory about what the Latin elegy is like, namely that 'the bedrock of post- Catullan personal Latin love elegy is a single stock situation: an "eternal triangle" involving the lover, his beloved and a rival of some kind' (p. xii), and builds her entire book around this particular, rather limiting premise. While Booth does acknowledge some potential variation in the character and situation of the dreaded rival, she is firmly convinced that 'Many of the more notable stock situations of Augustan personal Latin love elegy are versions of the basic triangular set-up' (p. xiii). This is Booth's theme, and provides the framework for her book. She provides warnings against any tempting, differing viewpoints (p. xii), and presents selected poems which support her point. The agenda and warnings are presented at the beginning of the introduction to the book as a whole, which then goes on, in a rather strangely organized fashion, to really introduce the reader to the genre of Latin love elegy.
Once the reader is aware of Booth's agenda, and has come to terms with the odd organization of the book, she or he can go ahead and enjoy, and benefit from, Catullus to Ovid. For she really does provide a good and thorough introduction to the topic, which will be of great use to newcomers to the Latin love elegy. For example, Booth helps the novice reader of elegy avoid some of the natural confusion and uncertainty about the contexts and situations portrayed in the elegy, by including in her introduction a discussion of the context (pp. xxviii- xxxiii): the lives and situations of the men and women whose erotic adventures are featured in the elegy. Unfortunately, the rather haphazard organization of the introduction deeply buries this valuable section.
Following upon a general overview of the genre (it is here that she presents her theories about themes and her warnings about other people's theories), Booth gives a good introduction to the metrics of elegy, demonstrating and illustrating the possible variations of the elegiac couplet. This is followed by a history of the various elements of the genre, giving the usual proofs that the ancient Greek poets used the metre and the genre first, before the Roman elegists. Booth takes the history back to the use of the metre by such early Greek poets as Mimnermus, Asclepiades and Meleager, and finally works her way up to Callimachus. Booth gives rather more of Callimachus than is strictly necessary, including long quotations from the Aetia preface (p. xxi) to present the Callimachean stylistic principles, generally considered important to the development of the Latin elegy.
All of this is important in Booth's plan to demonstrate that all of Latin love elegy is, at the very least, heavily influenced by various Greek genres and authors (p. xxii). Again, none of this is new, but it is important background that the novice should be aware of. What is new and interesting in Booth's introduction is her reference to four papyrus fragments from Oxyrhynchus, containing remains of Greek erotic elegy (pp. xxiii-xxiv), to demonstrate the mythological interests of the Alexandrian erotic poets.
Booth's introduction to the Latin love elegy also gives a history of personal love poetry in Latin, beginning with Catullus, as an acknowledged forerunner of the elegists. She also takes advantage of relatively recent discoveries (such as the Qasr Ibrim papyrus, first published in 1979)[] to provide an up-to-date summary of the contributions made to the genre by Gaius Cornelius Gallus, 'the shadowy figure the Romans themselves seem to have counted as the first elegist' (p. xxvii). One of the things which makes Booth's book such a handy introduction to elegy is the section (pp. xxxiii- xliv) on the lives and work of the poets who practised the genre, a section which Booth aptly likens to the dust-jacket notes of a modern book, introducing the author to his audience. Booth's lengthy introduction to the book concludes with a very elegant 'challenge' to the reader (pp. xliv- xlv), to read and interpret the text for him- or herself, on his or her own terms. It is only here that Booth really acknowledges the various critical theories which have been applied to the genre in the late twentieth century; she herself admits to a 'philological and humanist' approach (p. xlv). Some may consider this an old-fashioned approach, but it is clear, comprehensible, and gives the reader a good overview of the genre.
And so the first forty-five pages of Catullus to Ovid introduce the text, the poets and the author of the book itself. The remainder of the book contains Latin text of selected poems, translations into English (some by Booth herself, some by G. Lee), and commentary on the poems, to help the beginning reader of the genre understand them. In this section, too, the organization of the book may be questioned. For the Latin texts (of three Catullan poems, six Propertian elegies, three Tibullan and five of Ovid's; Sulpicia's very brief corpus is omitted) are given first (pp. 1-21), and then the translations and commentary follow in a separate section (pp. 22-157). It might have been more helpful to the novice reader to position the translation and commentary about each poem alongside the text itself. There is something to be said for Booth's arrangement, as it allows the reader who has Latin to read and enjoy the poems unencumbered. Such readers, however, would not likely be getting their elegy from Catullus to Ovid.
The texts selected for discussion in Booth's book are good representative samples of the work of Catullus and the three Latin elegists, giving the reader a very good idea of what Booth has already described as the 'typical' Latin elegies, and the typical situations which they present.
Booth and Lee's translations are masterful indeed, walking the very fine line between literal translation and liberal interpretation. In these translations we can see the original authors' intentions, without cringing at the stilted English which so often results from attempts at exact translation. The translations alone would make the book worthwhile!
The last part of Catullus to Ovid is a bibliography of books and articles on elegy, giving, again, a representative sample of material from the second half of the twentieth century. As often happens with British and European books, items which are not British or European are scarce in this bibliography, and so some valuable material has been missed. Still, it is a good bibliography, and will lead the reader to some useful material.
Catullus to Ovid is a good little book. It will provide the reader who has little experience with the Latin elegy with a complete introduction, and will whet the reader's appetite to pursue both the poetry and the scholarship further. This book should be recommended especially to undergraduates, whom it will lead gently into the world of elegy and of criticism of elegy.
[] R. D. Anderson, P. J. Parsons, and R. G. M. Nisbet, 'Elegiacs by Gallus from Qasr Ibrim', JRS 69 (1979) 125-55.