All roads lead in random nonsensical directions all over Rome.
From the very start of the Aeneid, Virgil makes it clear that his epic is to find its focus in two essential subjects: arma virumque, “arms and a man” (Virg. A. I.1). These two major themes each carry larger significance that is developed throughout the epic: arma refers not only to arms, but also, by metonymy, to public wars, the deeds of arms, and virum refers to the private experiences and developments of a man as an individual. So from the outset, Virgil offers his readership a poem that considers the human experience in both a public and a private context. He reconciles these two perspectives in the character of Aeneas, who is both a public hero, as the founder of Rome, and a private individual, as a lover of Dido and victim of fortune. This reconciliation is among the most clearly manifest poetic innovations that, several centuries later, would cause Dante Alighieri to say of Virgil, tu se’ solo colui da cu’ io tolsi / lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore, “you alone are he from whom I took the beautiful style that has done me honor” (Dante Inferno I.86-7). However, Dante views the foundation of Rome not as a political conquest, but as a spiritual mission, and so accordingly, in the literary character of Dante, his own parallel of Virgil’s Aeneas, we find the reconciliation of a private drama with a public one that is not political, but spiritual—a divine comedy.
In the Aeneid, Aeneas is introduced as both a public leader and a private individual. When he and his men find themselves in an unknown land, having lost thirteen ships, he encourages his men with a speech, after which Virgil’s narration affords us additional insight into his character: Talia voce refert curisque ingentibus aeger / spem vultu simulat, premit altum corde dolorem, “He relates such things with his voice, and sick with great worries, he imitates hope with his face, repressing pain deep in his heart” (Virg. A. I.208-9). Here Virgil paints the image of a public leader, who puts forth a front of spei, ‘hope’, but as a private individual, carries great curas, ‘worries’, within—the nearly golden line (209) creates a powerful juxtaposition of these two facets of Aeneas’ Character. At the same time, Venus expresses a similar two-fold interpretation of Aeneas when she raises her entreatment to Jupiter. She says, Certe hinc Romanos olim volventibus annis, / hinc fore ductores, revocato a sanguine Teucri … pollicitus … / hoc equidem occasum Troiae tristesque ruinas / solabar fatis contraria fata rependens, “Surely, you have promised that the Romans, the rulers, shall be from these men, recalled from Trojan blood. In this, indeed, have I found solace for the fall of Troy, holding fate against fate” (Virg. A. I.234-7). Here she first expresses a public concern, the founding of Rome, but her reaction is private. We are presented, in this single speech, with the images of both a patron goddess, longing for her promised and fated city, and a mother, grieving the misfortunes of her son.
However, for Dante, the significance of Rome’s destiny is not political, but spiritual: Per quest’andanta onde li dai tu vanto, / intese cose che furon cagione / di sua vittoria e del papale ammanto, “through this journey, from where you give him [Aeneas] praise, he understood things that were occasions of his victory and the papal mantle” (Dante Inferno II.25-7). Here Dante acknowledges that Aeneas’ learnings are a personal victory, but the public founding of Rome, as it functions in the establishment of the Church, is not merely a political victory, but a spiritual one. In this way, Virgil’s pagan force of fate is reinterpreted as a Christian force of providence, and the focus is shifted from the destiny of an empire to the will of the gods (or of God). In both cases, a private drama is held against a public one, but for Dante, the public drama is only public in the sense that it is universal: just as the political issue of the founding of Rome made Aeneas’ private history relevant to the entirety of Virgil’s Roman audience—thus transforming it into a public history—so, for Dante, does the spiritual issue of God’s will make the private histories of both him and Aeneas relevant to his whole Christian audience, all of whom are to be subjects of quello imperador, ‘that emperor’ (God), and citizens of sua città, ‘his city’ (Dante Inferno I.124-6). Thus, issues of politics are equated to those of salvation.
But with this Christianisation in place, Dante’s and Virgil’s tasks are really quite similar: they both endeavour to transform private stories of love and misfortune into public ones. Dante expresses the need for such a transformation in the fortieth chapter of his Vita Nuova, where he tells the story of two pilgrims who seem ignorant of his local, private griefs, chè forse pensano de li loro amici lontani, li quali noi non conoscemo, “for perhaps they are thinking of their far away friends, whom we do not know.” Here Dante expresses a frustration with the disconnect between his personal drama and theirs. He acknowledges that each party has its own story, his being the drama of Beatrice and theirs being, perhaps, some drama involving distant friends. But he then resolves to write parole le quali farebbero piangere chiunque le intendesse, “words that would make anyone who listens weep” (Dante Vita Nuova XL). This universal appeal, which will exploit the commonalities of all private dramas, is to be the great accomplishment of the dolce stil novo, and is one of the major innovations for which Dante is in debt to Virgil.
The universal appeal of Dante’s dolce stil novo is accomplished through the transformation of his romance with Beatrice into a divine love, relevant to his entire audience. This transformation plays itself out in two ways worth mentioning, both of which parallel phenomena in Virgil: (1) the equating of Beatrice’s love for the literary figure of Dante with that of God for man, and (2) the portrayal of love as an active, cathartic, and redemptive force, rather than a mere enslaving passion. Virgil’s parallel for the first of these has already been mentioned: the love of Venus, who is both a mother and a goddess, for Aeneas. Dante likewise transforms Beatrice’s love—which, while not the love of a mother, is still a private love—into a divine love. He does so in the second canto of the Inferno, when the literary character of Dante has just expressed concern that his journey through hell, unlike Aeneas’, is not divinely willed, and is therefore unwise; whereupon Virgil corrects him, telling him that he was sent by Beatrice, who, moved by love, expressed the divine will that Dante complete his journey (Dante Inferno II.49-114). Beatrice’s love is made divine, clearly, by the fact that she is a blessed soul from heaven, but also by its close association with the Virgin Mary. Just shortly after Beatrice says, amor mi mosse, “love moved me” (Dante Inferno II.7), she explains that Mary, weeping before God, sent Beatrice (via the message of Lucia) to prod Dante onward (which she does via the message of Virgil) (Dante Inferno II.94-114); hence, Beatrice was moved, in one sense, by her own personal love, but in another sense, by the divine love represented by the Virgin Mary. The weeping of Mary—who is a symbol of love—before God, sì che duro giudicio là sù frange, “so that the firm judgment on high breaks” (Dante Inferno II.96), closely parallels the weeping of Venus, the goddess of love, before Jupiter, the god of justice—both of which public dramas portray the universal theme of justice and love.
The second way in which Dante’s private romance is universalised comes directly from a reference to the dolce stil novo. The title of dolce stil novo is first given to Dante’s poetry (and the works of his small poetic circle) in the Purgatorio, where Bonagiunta makes it clear that Dante’s canzone, Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore, typifies this new style (Dante Purgatorio XXIV.49-57). In the canzone Bonagiunta mentions, Dante expresses, with his praises, the cathartic and redemptive power of his love for Beatrice: e qual soffrisse di starla a vedere / diverria nobil cosa, o si morria, “and whoever endures to stand there [near Beatrice] and to look on her either becomes something noble, or dies” (Dante Vita Nuova XIX). Hence, Dante’s private love has been transformed into a redemptive force, something that purifies and promotes the salvation of souls.
It should also be noted that this new style is an active style, a style of praising. Dante writes of the innovation that this new canzone presents: lo fine del mio amore fue già lo saluto di questa donna, … chè era fine di tutti li miei desiderii. Ma poi che le piacque di negarlo a me, lo mio segnore Amore … ha posto tutta la mia beatitudine … in quello parole che lodano la donna mia, “the end of my love used to be the greeting of this lady, [Beatrice,] which was the end of all my desires. But now that it pleases her to deny me that, my lord, Love, has put all my beatitude in those words which praise my lady” (Dante Vita Nuova XVIII). This novissimo, most new, active desire of Dante’s stands in vivid opposition to his earlier passive one. Instead of wishing for something to happen to him (namely, that he be greeted), he now wishes to do something (praise Beatrice). This is the essential difference between the dolce stil novo and the older style; the latter of which is manifest in the first poem of the Vita Nuova, in which Dante addresses ciascun’alma presa, “every engrossed, or captive, soul” (Dante Vita Nuova III). At this earlier point, he is love’s prisoner, only waiting for something to happen to him, but in the dolce stil novo, his narrative has a new-found authority, by which he is able to act all on his own.
In his De Vulgari Eloquentia, Dante points out the importance of this active voice in poetry. He says that the word cantio, when used to describe the creation, rather than the performance, of poetry, has an active sense, et secundum istum modum Virgilius, primo Eneidorum, dicit Arma virumque cano, “and according to this usage of the word does Virgil say, at the beginning of the Aeneid, I sing of arms and of a man” (Dante De Vulgari Eloquentia II.viii.4). So Virgil’s active declamation is important to Dante. It contrasts Homer’s deferral of the duty to sing or speak to a muse—e.g. μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ, “Sing of the rage, O goddess” (Hom. Il. I.1) and ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, “Tell me of the man, O muse” (Hom. Od. I.1)—which makes Homer’s oeuvre an act of performance rather than of creation, and for Dante, it is therefore cantio only in a passive sense.
With his new, active style, Dante transforms his understanding of love from something that happens to him into something that he seeks. For the sake of love, the purifying force, he journeys through hell and purgatory to salvation, which is his analogue of Aeneas’ trial-filled journey to Italy (because salvation is the destination of Dante’s spiritual journey, while Italy is the destination of Aeneas’ political one). So the transformation of love into something of which one actively seeks to become worthy makes it a divine force—rather than a private affaire—that propels Dante to salvation. In the same way, Virgil transforms love from a mere private affair between Dido and Aeneas into a fateful force that motivates Aeneas’ active quest for Italy, for Aeneas himself says, hic amor, haec patria est, “this [Italy] is my love, this is my fatherland” (Virg. A. IV.347). In the cases of both poets, the transformation of love from a passion that is experienced into a calling that is sought after—which coincides with a poetic narrative that seeks to do something, whether lodare or canere, rather than express what is done—makes it public, and affords it universal appeal.
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 pius. Castus 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.