Vulgarity and Poetic Optimism in Catullus

What follows is an essay in which I express opinions that I believe to have belonged to Catullus (84 – 54 BC) or Roman society, but certainly not myself.  Please read discerningly and appreciate this distinction.  I consider Catullus’ sexual humour to be entirely inappropriate, but it is necessary to address the matter from a scholarly perspective in order to see beyond it and ultimately recognise what is lovely and good about Catullus’ poetry.  There is plenty to object to, but the more difficult task is making something of good report out of it all, which is the very essence of what I mean by ‘poetic optimism’.  The essay follows:

No argument need be made to demonstrate that Catullus’ poetry is, on the whole, extraordinarily sensuous, erotic, and even, at times, pornographic.  The most obvious attestation of this point may be Catullus 16 from the Carmina, the first two lines of which stand among the most salacious and infamous vulgarities in all of extant Latin poetry.  But even in this most obscene poem, this disgrace and abomination to mankind, even here is found something of the poetic optimism that is the essential ideal of every pursuer of beauty; that is, the ability to transcend the mere acceptance of things as they are and conceive of them as they ought to be.  The height of Catullus’ ‘poetic optimism’ may be found, as I will argue in this essay, in Catullus 64, but to understand it, we must contextualize the lofty epyllion with his more earthy works and explore how its commonalities with the latter can function as a kind of metatheatrical rupture, making the quixotically crafted aesthetic more powerful and more real by linking it to the mundane.

Catullus 16 seems particularly relevant to this discussion because it affords us insight into the poet’s understanding of his own use of vulgarity.  Such insight can be gained from his adagial distinction between the poet and his poetry: nam castum esse decet pium poetam / ipsum, versiculos nihil necesse est, / qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem, “For it is becoming of a godly poet to be pure himself, [but] it is in no way necessary with respect to his verses, which then, in short, hold salt and charm” (Catull. 16.5-7).  Catullus says that poetry ought to hold salem ac leporem.  Here used substantively, the adjective, sal carries a sense of ‘freshness’ or ‘wit’ and leporus of ‘pleasantries’ or ‘attractiveness’.  Elsewhere in the poem, he describes his verses as molliculi, a little bit ‘effeminate’ or ‘mild’, and in Catullus 1 he describes them as lepidus, ‘charming’, ‘effeminate’, or ‘pleasant looking’ (Catull. 16.4, Catull. 1.1).  Catullus tends to use all of these terms almost interchangeably to describe his poetry; hence, there is a sense in which, for Catullus, charm, wittiness, a lack of gravity, and effeminate attractiveness are all inseparable qualities and together play an essential role in good poetry.

Perhaps the last of these qualities, effeminate attractiveness, is the ultimate link to the voluptuousness and vulgarity of his poetry.  If such is the case, the frivolous manner in which Catullus makes sexual references can be accounted for not only by the inseparability of this quality from ‘mildness’ and ‘pleasantry’, but also by the way the quality is described: rather than feminine attractiveness, Catullus’ word choices imply effeminate attractiveness, meaning that there is a sense in which the sexuality is to be feigned—it is, metaphorically, to be the product of a man playing the role of a woman.  And this reversal of gender roles was, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, a source of much comedy and amusement (as clearly evidenced by the Greek comedy, Lysistrata).  Thus, the uncensored sexuality in Catullus is meant to be taken lightly; it is to be charming and even bordering on humorous.

On the other hand, Catullus says that the poet ought to be castus and piusCastus may mean ‘virtuous’ or ‘chaste’ and pius may mean ‘dutiful’, by which translations, a connotation simply of morality and temperateness might be achieved, or we might even create the more specific notion of a poet who strives well to fulfil the high calling of art itself—he is both dutiful to and virtuous in the performance of his craft.  But it is also valuable to note that both of these words may hold religious connotations; castus may mean ‘pious’ and pius may mean ‘godly’.  So the Roman ideals of both virtue and godliness are relevant.  But the differences must be appreciated between these ancient Roman ideals and their modern descendants.  Today, in the christianised west, virtue includes chastity, and chastity means abstinence in all contexts outside of marriage (although, arguably, the definitiveness of this matter may be in the process of waning).  But in ancient Rome, even the gods themselves were unfaithful, and extramarital sex was sometimes a part of religious ritual in the form of sacred prostitution.  So the qualities that Catullus demands of a poet do not necessarily exclude the possibility of what we would consider sexual impurity.

Instead, what Catullus demands of a poet is better characterised as restraint and self-control.  Catullus writes, [Aurelius et Furius] me ex versiculis meis putastis, / quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum, “[Aurelius and Furius], on account of my verses, which are a little effeminate, you think me insufficiently shamefaced” (Catull. 16.3-4).  In ancient Rome, men possessed an abundance of sexual freedom.  It was socially acceptable for a man to sleep with whomever he pleased, so long as such affairs remained private; however, the moment they became public, it was considered shameful.  Catullus’ poetry displays such sexuality as was to be kept private, and this is why he is accused of being ‘insufficiently shamefaced’.  So his response is, as we have already elaborated, that a poet, in real life, must possess the restraint society demands, but such demands do not apply to poetry itself.  Art, for Catullus as for much of the western world, is to be the honest expression of humanity, uncensored by societal standards and limitations.  This is one of the principles (and perhaps the most pure of the many possible motivations) behind nudity in art.

Both this perspective of nudity and the light humour of sexuality in Catullus are relevant to Catullus’ description of Ariadne in Catullus 64: magnis curarum fluctuat undis, / … non contecta levi velatum pectus amictu, / non tereti strophio lactentis victa papillas, / … omnia … ipsius … fluctus salis alludebant, “[Ariadne] undulates with and is distressed by great waves of concern, not covered with the light cloak that [formerly] covered her breast, her breasts of milk-white not bound by her smooth breastband, the waves of the sea played with all of these things” (Catull 64.62-67).  Initially, this description seems to be an instance of Catullus’ light and humorous sexuality.  Instead of mare, ‘sea’, he uses the word sal, ‘salt’, which by metonymy means ‘sea’.  But notice the metatheatre: sal is also one of his choice words for ‘wit’.  Hence, poetic wit is alludit, ‘playing’, with Ariadne’s leves, ‘light’, garments.  So in this sense, Catullus is clearly being unserious and, at least to his own mind, humorous.  The sexuality is supposed to be effeminate, charming, and inconsequential, a mere pleasantry.

But the sea also symbolises Ariadne’s curae, her cares, worries, and concerns.  Catullus goes on to write: sed neque tum mitrae neque tum fluitantis amictus / illa vicem curans toto ex te pectore, Theseu, / toto animo, tota pendebat perdita mente, “But she, caring about the situation neither then of the headdress nor then of the floating cloak, with all her heart, all her spirit, all her lost mind, she hung upon you, Theseus” (Catull. 64.68-70).  Here the use of the verbal form of cura makes clear that the aforementioned curarum undis were waves of care for Theseus (metaphorically linked to the waves of the sea).  It also becomes clear, in this further elaboration, that a double meaning is implied by the word pectus, which I previously rendered as ‘breast’; here it makes more sense as ‘heart’.  So the image in the previous quotation (lines 62 through 67) can also be reinterpreted: the wave’s of Ariadne’s love for Theseus are playing with those garments with which she hides her heart, leaving her shamefully exposed.  She has been overcome by love and passion, Venus has externavit (Catull. 64.71), driven her out of her mind, and as a consequence, she has been left as a bare expression of what it means to love and to be human, bound no more by societal demands than by her breastband.

This alternative interpretation reflects more of the poetic gravity that would be expected to accompany the lofty epic style of Catullus 64, but the lighter interpretation is also important.  It’s as if Catullus is mocking his own severity.  Humour, triviality, and stylistic rupture serve as a kind of light cloak to mollify (make mollis) the potency of the bare humanity, making it less shameful, and more socially acceptable.  People may have had difficulty relating to the high ideals of Catullus’ epic style, so he bridges the gap between them and something very mundane and commonplace in Rome: lust.  Catullus’ vulgarity is something vulgaris, ‘ordinary’, to which the vulgus, the ‘common people’, could relate.  But it is the nature of his poetic optimism to not leave it at that.  Instead, in his poetry, Catullus transcends the mere acceptance of things as they are and conceives of them as they ought to be—he transforms mere lust and vulgarity into something better, something human.  Perhaps the fact that this action took place even in ancient Rome, a society in which sexual liberality was praised as an essential part of piety, attests to the existence of a universal moral consciousness in the human mind, a conscientia, or ‘common knowledge’, that transcends all cultural barriers, so that even Catullus knew there to be nothing lovely or of good report about lust and salaciousness, and as an artist, thirsted to create something better.


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