Catullus and the Bad Poets Society

Aleksandra Klęczar

Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84–54 BC) loved poetry and the company of poets. Even a cursory reading of his surviving works would prove that statement true: he enjoyed the company of his colleagues and spending time composing poetry together; he loved exchanging poetic gifts (and hated when they turn out to be something he did not expect, Poem 14); he praised lavishly the verses of his friends (Poem 95); and he proved his admiration for past masters by both translating and evoking their works in his own oeuvre (see especially Poems 51 and 66).

At the same time, however, Catullus hated bad poetry – hated it with a passion he otherwise reserved for his rivals in love and the politicians he despised.

When I say “Catullus” here, I mean not the poet born in Gallic Verona around 84 BC; of his life apart from poetry, we know little enough. My Catullus is the character of his poems, who obviously shares a lot with the author, but exactly how great this overlap is we cannot really tell. Was the real Catullus suffering because his beloved Juventius scorned his kisses? Did he truly feel like forgiving Juno, when the woman he adored kept betraying him with scores of others? And could he really not forgive the poetasters of his time, even if they were privately “fair spoken, witty and urbane,” as he himself characterizes one of his unfortunate victims in Poem 22? We will never know. What we do know for sure, however, is how Catullus the character felt. And this figure knew no mercy for bad poets and bad poetry.

Catullus reading his poetry, Stefan Bakałowicz, 1885 (Tretjakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia).

Reading through the surviving works of Catullus in their current order (but whether it is in the author’s original order is a different question), we first encounter the question of bad poetry in Poem 14, in a rather surprising and amusing context. Catullus addresses this poem to his dear friend Licinius Calvus, a well-known orator and poet whose works he admired and respected. Calvus, whose witty sense of humour is praised by Catullus elsewhere (53.5), this time decided to make a practical joke at the expense of his friend: as a gift for the Saturnalia, he sent Catullus a book of poems. This would have been a welcome offering if the verses had been written by Calvus himself. However, he decided to be mean and send his friend a collection of very bad poems. These were written and given to Calvus, as Catullus suspects, by Sulla litterator, the poetaster Sulla (14.9), a client of Calvus. Poor Catullus! He mentions in the poem that he almost died of boredom on “the Saturnalia, choicest of days” (14.14–15). Such a joke cannot go unpunished: Catullus announces that he will go to the booksellers’ stalls and get the selection of the worst of the worst: the Caesii, the Aquinii and the works of Suffenus himself. Now Calvus will be forced to taste his own medicine.

What is so bad in their poetry? Unfortunately, Catullus does not discuss their bad poetry in detail. We must extrapolate from his scarce, ironic comments and short remarks. In Poem 14 his opinion suggests some metrical inadequacies: at 14.21–22 we read abite / illuc unde malum pedem attulistis, “be gone from here, where an ill foot brought you,” with word play on the word pes, meaning both “foot” as body part and “foot” as part of the poem’s metre. We know more about the importance of bad poetry for Catullus: with comic exaggeration he calls the poetasters saecli incommoda, “pests of the period” (14.23). Interestingly, he calls their poetry omnia venena, “all poisonous rubbish”(14.19). This connects Poem 14 with another poem, 44, where the comically amplified motif of bad literature (although, in this case, not poetry but oratory) bringing disease on the reader is also elaborated:

…I expelled a bad cough from my chest,
which my stomach gave to me, not undeserving,
while I seek a lavish dinner:
for, while I wish to be a Sestian guest,
I read the speech “Against the Candidate
Antius”, full of poison and pestilence.
At this point, a chilling illness and persistent cough
shook me continually…[1]

Favourite poet, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, UK).

It would be great, I think, to have the fragments of such bad poets – whatever we think of the relationship between Catullus the author and Catullus the character, we know for sure that he tended to mention real-life characters in his poems. Of the litteratores named here we know something about Aquinius, from a short mention in Cicero at Tusc. 5.22: “I never as yet knew any poet (and I was very intimate with Aquinius), who did not appear to himself to be very admirable.”[2] Both he and Aquinius are mentioned in the plural, possibly to create a derogatory effect (“Aquinius and his ilk”), while Suffenus is named in the singular. Why? Possibly because Catullus had already devoted to him an entire poem.

We meet Suffenus again in Poem 22 and he seems, from a point of view of Catullian aesthetics, a rather surprising character. He is described, in the first verses of the poem, as homo… venustus et dicax et urbanus (22.2), all of which – charm, ability to speak well, polished urbanity – top Catullus’ list of highly-regarded qualities. However, Suffenus only exhibits these features when he is not writing poetry. As a poet, he fails miserably. Instead of an elegant city man he resembles a rustic whose profession is milking goats or digging ditches – a horrible fate, in the eyes of Catullus, the quintessential city boy. 

A glimpse of Catullus? Fresco of late 1st cent. BC (Museum of the “Grotte di Catullo”, Sirmione, Italy).

In Poem 22 Catullus shares a little more information about the reasons for his scathing review of Suffenus’ poems. First, Suffenus writes a lot: thousands and thousands of verses he writes down, spending a lot of money on brand-new, high-quality writing material. Suffenus is also presented in a scene that seems emblematic for scribblers everywhere: he immensely enjoys the act of writing, loves to compose poems, and is completely uncritical when his poetry is concerned. Catullus adds, rather self-critically, that there is something of Suffenus in each and every one of us, and alludes to the popular Aesopic fable, known e. g. from Phaedrus 4.10, about the two bags we all carry: we never see the one we carry on our back, filled with our own vices.

But there is one more reason for Catullus to criticize Suffenus, which is directly related to the contrast of urbanity and rusticity mentioned previously. What is the meaning of the fact that Suffenus the man is charming and witty, while Suffenus the poet becomes a rustic bore, infaceto… infacetior rure, as soon as he touches poetry? The traditional explanation, placing Suffenus among poetic traditionalists still imitating the old-fashioned conventions of Ennius (c. 239–169 BC), seems convincing: both Catullus’ own statements about poetry and his older contemporary Cicero’s rather sarcastic comments on the “all-too-modern poets, neōteroi” (Ad Atticum 7.2.1) and “imitators of Euphorion,” an over-sophisticated Seleucid court poet of the 3rd cent. BC (Tusc. 3.45) would suggest some kind of artistic conflict over the values of traditional poetry versus the ways of applying Alexandrian, Callimachean poetics. This points to new modes rather than new influences, because one must remember that the influence of Callimachus can be easily detected also in the writings of Ennius. Thus, Suffenus would seem a traditionalist – a poet composing long, grandiose epic poems in a conventional style inspired by Ennius and his Roman imitators. All this could not find favour in the eyes of Catullus.

The first poem in the oldest manuscript of Catullus (c. 1360s, Oxford, Canon. Class. Lat. 30, f.1r).

Another poet whose traditionalist ways gained Catullus’ blistering criticism is Volusius. When laughing at Suffenus, Catullus shows some kindness, stressing his positive personal qualities and suggesting that some of his unappealing qualities are secretly shared by many poets. He has no such mercy for Volusius, whose works he describes in the opening line of Poem 36 as cacata charta, “a shitty sheet,” if one may be excused such a crude pun.

I assume that Volusius was a poet: the title of the work mentioned, Annales, does suggest a prose historian or annalist to some scholars discussing the poem, but I am more convinced by those who see Volusius’ Annales as a long poem in the style of the other, more famous Annales of Ennius. The fact that the Annales are called pleni ruris et inficetiarum, “crammed with boorish speech and vapid,” (36.20) connects it with the verses of Suffenus, who is criticised for similar qualities.

If the Annales of Volusius were long, crude and rustic, Catullus’ poem criticising him is nothing of the kind. Short, brilliant and of a complicated structure, Poem 36 treats the personified work of Volusius as an addressee. Its presence is demanded by Catullus, who needs it as a part of a vow (votum) for his girlfriend. Lesbia (for it is she) must fulfil a promise: since her beloved Catullus has been returned to her, she shall burn, as an offering to Venus, electissima pessimi poetae / scripta, “the choiciest writings of the worst poet” (36.6–7). The dubious honour of being the worst falls to the cacata charta of Volusius.

William Topaz McGonagall (1825–1902) gets ready to read; his poem The Tay Bridge Disaster is commonly celebrated as the worst poem ever written in English.

Catullus’ attacks on bad poets match his criticism of the politicians he disliked, but what if a hated politician decided to become a poet? Such, apparently, is the case of Mamurra, Caesar’s praefectus fabrum, who, in addition to becoming extremely rich due, at least partly, to the patronage of Julius Caesar, at some stage decided to become a poet. Mamurra is criticized by Catullus many times, under the not-so-flattering name of Mentula (i.e. “Mr Penis,” or should we say, “Dick”). Within Catullus’ oeuvre he is associated mainly with a lack of self-restraint, greed, lust and profligacy, as well as an insatiable appetite for money and sex, together with corruption – both sexual and political. Poem 105, a two-verse masterpiece of criticism, suggests that there could have been another side to the millionaire and politician.

To be completely honest, we do not really have any certain proof of Mamurra’s literary ambitions: no fragments of his have been preserved. However, the fact that in Poem 57 Catullus calls both Caesar and Mamurra erudituli, which I would translate as not quite well educated, along with the context of Poem 105, suggests an attempt at writing poetry on Mamurra’s part. Scholars have agreed for centuries that the poem alludes to writing bad poetry rather than, as previously believed, a failed sexual encounter of Mentula and some female lover. The crucial point here is the climbing of the “Pimpleian mountain” (i.e. Olympus):

Mentula conatur Pipleium scandere montem;
    Musae furcillis praecipitem eiciunt.

Dick tries to climb the Pipleian mountain;
    The Muses hurl him headlong with their pitchforks.

The motif of an inept poet who was an enemy of the Muses and therefore rejected by them, seems to refer to the bad poets’ associations with the Telchines, “enemies of the Muses” in Callimachus’ Aetia (1-2). It also gestures to the huge importance of Callimachean poetry for Catullus and his poems. It seems worthwhile also to recall the second of Callimachus’ most important programmatic texts, namely the last lines of the Hymn to Apollo, in which Apollo rejected Envy (105 ff.). The personified Envy tries to convince the god of the poets to accept some poetic principles incompatible with the Alexandrian poetic ideas. This meets with a violent physical rejection of Apollo (“Apollo spurned Envy with his foot”). The fate of Envy is rather comparable with that of Mentula at the hands – or rather, pitchforks – of the Muses.

Mytikas, the summit of Mount Olympus, Northern Greece.

Catullus places his quasi-polemic with Mamurra’s alleged literary achievements within a broader poetic context, associating it with one of the most significant literary polemics of the ancient world – that of Callimachus and his critics. However, the motif of the Muses seems to have more than one meaning here. There is, I believe, also a mythical, erudite prototype for the adventure of Mamurra being thrown down by the Muses from their mountain.

The scene of Mentula being thrown from the Pimpleian peak by pitchfork-wielding Muses is undoubtedly coarse and comic in nature, especially when we consider the type of connotation that the words furca or furcilla have in Latin (it is associated with violence, but understood in a more comic way, cf. Cicero Ad Atticum 16.2.4). On the other hand, the scene of throwing a usurper off the gods’ mountain, of repelling someone who tries to enter without the consent of the gods and with malicious intent, may bring to an educated reader’s mind a specific mythical motif. This is the assault of the Aloads (Aloadae), Otus and Ephialtes, who want to rape and win as consorts the Olympic goddesses, Hera and Artemis.

Otus and Ephialtes, James Gleeson, 1968 (private collection).

The association with the Aloads is strengthened by two further factors. The first of them is the association of the Aloads with lust, which is their main motivation. It is comparable with Mamurra’s desire to possess, seduce or rape the Muses, whether literally or metaphorically. Second, there is a curious association of the Aloads with the Muses: they themselves are credited with introducing the cult of the Muses (Paus. 9.29.1). The mention of the Muses might, therefore, remind the educated reader, among other possible allusions, of this also; we would then be dealing with another motif introduced by Catullus in a typically Alexandrian, allusive manner.

Moreover, associations with throwing down the impudent from above apply not only to the Aloads, but also to other mythical theomachoi, the ones who fight against gods, which strengthens the impression that Catullus wants to make. Mamurra is presented as something more than just a bad poet who unsuccessfully tries to climb the mountain of the Muses: his ambitions in poetry are an attack on the order of the world and the divinities themselves. The comic exaggeration that this association carries additionally ridicules the would-be poet in the eyes of the reader.

Catullus, apparently, loved talking about bad poetry at least as much as he liked discussing his own poetic ideas. The topic of poetasters and their ambitions keeps recurring in his poetry. One can only wish we had more of these bad poets’ works preserved so that we could compare Catullus’ tastes with our own.

Aleksandra Klęczar is Associate Professor of Classics at Jagiellonian University, Cracow. She is interested in the legend of Alexander the Great and in the reception of Classics in popular culture. Her Polish translation of Catullus’ poems (2013) was nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize.


1 The Latin text of this poem, and all others cited in this article, can most conveniently be read here.
2 adhuc neminem cognoui poetam (et mihi fuit cum Aquinio amicitia), qui sibi non optumus uideretur.