Catullus, Periods 1 and 2

Gavin McCormick

I stride up the pavement between the station and the school, light dashes of rain spattering my glasses, fusty London air filling my lungs. The road twists and the incline grows as I cross through the traffic. I have spent most of the train journey reading over the Catullus poems we will be tackling in class this morning. All of us passengers have been consumed with something: some with books, most with media on their phones. While I have been staring at Catullus’ lovelorn barbs, others have been catching up on the city news or on celebrity gossip. Today, luckily, no one near me has played some obnoxious video out loud on their phone.

On the train my reading of Catullus has been mute, but soon he will be read and discussed aloud by a bubbly, brilliant Sixth Form class. I like to have his words fresh in my mind in preparation for the lesson to come. I try to spot things that the commentaries do not mention. I have with me that of John Godwin (endorsed by the exam body OCR and devoted to the poems set for this year’s A-Level examinations) but in reserve I carry that of Kenneth Quinn (from the 1970s). In truth, I’m not up-to-date on what the latest commentary is.

Catullus reading to his friends, Stefan Bakałowicz, 1885 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia).

The students arrive. Registration. A few bits and pieces to give back. A couple of updates and points of information. And then we’re off – into the activity (literary analysis of Latin verse) that so captured my own 16- and 17-year-old imagination. More than twenty years later it still feels as authentic, exciting and fresh as it did in the late 90s (yes, I’m getting old). Just a teacher, some students, and some 2,000-odd-year-old literature to read, translate, dissect and discuss. No gimmicks, no fireworks, no hocus pocus: just readers and texts, with any tools we may use (commentaries, dictionaries, internet) subordinate to our main task: trying to enter into the spirit and mood of Catullan verse, before trying to capture something of what this was or may have been with our own words.

Getting into the right spirit and mood isn’t always easy, and it certainly isn’t always pretty. Any reader of Catullus will know that. Our first task today is to look at the very short poem 70. I ask for a volunteer reader. Anna (not real name) reads the four lines of Latin:

Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle

     quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.

dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti

        in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.


My woman says she prefers to marry no one than me,

     Not even if Jupiter himself were to seek her out.

So she says. But what a woman says to her eager lover…

     It’s fitting to write this in the wind and in the running water.

Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io, Pieter Lastman, 1618 (National Gallery, London, UK).

Just four lines but there’s a lot to unpack here: word choice, order, meaning, ambiguity. There’s also the literary influence of Callimachus and Sophocles to consider. And of course the apparent misogyny.

I ask the class to take a minute or two to look again at the Latin and try to put together a translation. The first period of the lesson is spent discussing the mechanics of the Latin and why certain words might be preferable to others; why some things can’t fit or work; why others can. Today I have suggested a translation of my own (usually I do this): can anyone offer corrections or improvements? Can they see why I’ve decided to translate as I have? What are the downsides of my choices? What do I get right? Ultimately the students must feel happy with their own translations; they have final executive say on what these will be. I read them Daisy Dunn’s translation of the poem by way of comparison.

Poem 70 as it appears in the Codex Oxoniensis, the oldest surviving manuscript of Catullus (c.1360s, Oxford, Canon. Class. Lat. 30, f.33r).

With the translation dealt with, we move on to the message of the poem. What is it getting at? Godwin thinks the first phrase of the poem is ambiguous: does the woman mean that she would prefer to marry Catullus than anyone else – or that she would rather remain single than marry him? I’m not so sure – and I ask the class to think about this. We agree that Catullus is hearing enthusiasm from the woman. But maybe a joke has been had at his expense: maybe she has delivered a different sort of message, which he now misconstrues – wittingly, surely – for the enjoyment of his readers. That seems an elaborate explanation. He hears her saying she wants to marry no one – emphatically no one (the first word of the poem) – other than him. Not even Jupiter, king of the gods (an unlikely but surely irresistible suitor).

We talk about the contrast between mea mulier of line 1 and the generalised mulier of line 3. About the repetition of dicit in those same lines: first to state what she says, then to contrast what she says with what can safely be concluded (very little, apparently) on the basis of her having said it. The wind and water are ephemeral; they slip out of reach. So too this statement of Catullus’ woman. We talk about the very possessive, almost overbearing feel of the alliterative mea mulier.

There are more imaginative ruminations on how the word order of lines 3 and 4 after dicit reflects the (from the poet’s point of view) unreliable nature of the woman’s affections: adjectives and nouns swirl through the lines, detached from one another; the connecting relative quod appears not at the beginning of the phrase but mid-flow in the sentence; there are the elisions in line 4, perhaps contributing to a sense of wateriness. The arrangement of words in these lines is at the very least suggestive, we agree.

Catullus and Clodia, Giulio Aristide Sartorio, 1890 (unfinished; priv. coll.).

We are half-way through the lesson. The students have enjoyed the jostle of discussion, the struggle for accuracy and clarity of translation, the picking out of different elements in the poem. They see the first two lines of the poem as an expression of what Catullus wants to be able to believe; the second two lines reflect his cynicism about what he takes to be reality. Is it objectionable that he looks beyond ‘his’ woman’s words to what he takes to be an alternative reality beneath them? Yes and no, the students think. Yes, because you should take your girlfriend at her word; because professions of depth and truth are certainly possible between lovers. No, because people indeed don’t always say what they mean – and maybe this woman has given Catullus good cause to consider her unreliable? We don’t know the context. The clumsy generality doesn’t stand, but the students can see why Catullus might have felt that it did.

Period 2 is about to start, the second half of our double. If only all students could study poems in this way, I find myself reflecting. If only everyone could enter into the thoughts of the ancient poets. It’s your turn, now, reader. What will you make of our Period 2 poem, 107? I’ll start you off with the Latin and a possible translation and then it’s over to you. Criticise the translation, by all means. Please do better. And why not dig out a commentary too? There are some questions below to ponder as you do.

Si cui quid cupidoque optantique obtigit unquam

     insperanti, hoc est gratum animo proprie.

quare hoc est gratum nobis quoque, carius auro,

     quod te restituis, Lesbia, mi cupido:

restituis cupido atque insperanti, ipsa refers te

     nobis. o lucem candidiore nota!

quis me uno vivit felicior, aut magis hac res

     optandas vita dicere quis poterit?


If ever something happens to someone who desires and chooses it and doesn’t expect it, it’s particularly pleasing to the mind.

For this reason this is pleasing to me also, dearer than gold, because you have restored yourself, Lesbia, to me, in my longing.

You are restoring yourself to someone eager and who is not expecting it; you are really bringing yourself back to me. Oh day with a whiter note!

Who lives more happily than I alone, or who will be able to state things that must be wished for more in this life?


Catullus reading his poems at Lesbia’s house, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1870 (priv. coll.).

Some starting questions for readers:

What might the phrase o lucem candidiore nota! (“Oh day with a whiter note!”) mean? And why?

In the last couplet (lines 7-8) there are also problems in the textual tradition. “The words do not make sense, though the general drift is plain,” comments Quinn. Can you see why?

More generally: what sorts of literary and stylistic effects does Catullus generate in the Latin of this poem?

Gavin McCormick had the pleasure of teaching Catullus this year at South Hampstead High School. His previous articles for Antigone have concerned the death of Creusa in Virgil’s Aeneid, the power of Latin in ecclesiastical music, Giorgio Bassani’s Ferrara sequence of novels, and the value of studying Classics.