We are poor passing facts
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
Robert Lowell, ‘Epilogue,’ Day by Day
Catullus’s 116 mainly short poems abound in names. Often enough there’s a name in the first line, or the first sentence, or as the first word. At school we were taught about a part of speech called Proper Nouns: names of persons, names of places, names of seas, names of winds. Although Catullus’s poems may be cooled by the odd Zephyr and chilled by Boreas and travel to far flung places, it’s the names of persons that stand out. Many of his poems are addressesd to a particular named person, usually, we assume, a friend, and often referring to one or more named (or unnamed) person known to both. It’s a good ruse to generate both a casual speaking voice and shared experience, and seems effortlessly to establish a tone that can be jokey, bitchy, mocking, acerbic, mock-acerbic, affectionate, tender, even loving. Hard as it is in another language, especially a dead language, to hear a speaking voice – and Robert Frost asserts the impossibility of doing so – Catullus seems instantly identifiable by his tone, or rather by his mercurial range of tones.
It’s not only Catullus’s voice, though, that we hear in his poems. Other voices interrupt, arraign or arrest him – a phenomenon we might associate more with drama or epic than with the lyric, especially the short lyric. A typical example is 10 where Varus’s mistress, presumes to take him at his word and asks to borrow the sedan-chair bearers he lyingly boasted were his. Curiously, it was having to parse this poem in a Latin class at thirteen, that I had my first inkling of what a poem is, till then a topic which had never prompted in me the remotest interest. However removed the situation and the language, I heard a voice I recognised, I saw the whole scene in my head. The poet – I had no ideas then that he could have just been making the whole thing up – was reliving an acute social embarrassment, and was getting his belated revenge.
The first poem in Catullus’s book, written, it’s likely, in the last year of his brief life, is a witty ten-line dedicatory poem addressed to his friend, the historian Cornelius Nepos, presenting him with this ‘new elegant little book’, his ‘lepidum novum libellum’, a poem which in passing also swears by Jupiter and invokes an unnamed ‘virgin’ who may be either Minerva or one of the Muses, The vocative mode of this opening poem is maintained in the next that is addressed not to a person but to Lesbia’s sparrow, although in this case the person is only referred to as ‘my girl’, ‘meae puellae’. The small scale – from the little book to the sparrow – is already asserted in neoteric fashion, perhaps in deference to the saying attributed to Callimachus ‘mega biblion, mega kakon’ – big book, big evil. Cornelius Nepos, however, is acknowledged in the poem as the author of an ambitious three-volume historical work, so the libellum, buffed with dry pumice, is offered in arch contrast.
How do names function within a poem? On one level they’re words like any other. They can be metrically scanned or subsumed in the rhythm of the line, and in Latin, obviously, they decline like every other noun. (Jupiter has a particularly irregular and eccentric set of cases.) Although they can be avoided by pronoun, epithet or periphrasis, names stand unambiguously for one thing, one person, unsubstitutable by another. But a name is already a substitution for the presence of an actual (or imagined) person. A friend who has a stutter explained to me that he had the most difficulty with names and numbers, for which there was no evasive manouvre possible. In other cases, his large vocabulary and speed of mind could often seize on another word, but names remained obdurately non-interchangeable. More on numbers later, but names cast a solid, unambiguous shadow. L’ombra di un nome, the poet Giovanni Pascoli wrote, turning a name into a gravestone. They say everything and nothing, being arbitrary, fated and immutable. Even a nickname shares with poetry an element of invention and characterisation. Could names then be thought of as antithetical to a poem’s freedom to play with sound and image, to use suggestion rather than statement? A stumbling-block, an obstacle, an obstruction to a poem’s flow?
For Catullus it seems not. His use of names is excessive by any standard. Not name-dropping so much as name-sowing and name-planting, a field and a forest of names. Instead of weighing down the verse, as it easily might, his use of names is sociable and frivolous, and helps just as the everyday situations he describes do, to make these terse poems conversational, so the tight metres he employs constantly play against the idiomatic, gossipy, often obscene language. Surely there’s no better example of what Frost calls ‘sentence sounds’.
The fons et origo of poetic name-calling, at least for the Western tradition, is the catalogue of ships and men in Homer’s The Iliad (ll.584-989), a portion of which, in Robert Fagles’s translation reads:
Then Schedius and Epistrophus led the men of Phocis –
two sons of Ephitus, that great heart, Naobolus’ son –
the men who held Cyparissus and Pytho’s high crags.
the hallowed earth of Crisa, Daulis and Panopeus,
men who dwelled round Anemoria, round Hyampolis,
men who lived along the Cephisus’ glinting waters,
men who held Lilaea close to the river’s wellsprings.
Laden with all their ranks came forty long black ships
and Phocian captains ranged them column by column,
manning stations along the Boeotians’ left flank.
Sixteen place-names and men’s names in ten lines; five hundred and five lines which maintain this resounding, heroic roll-call. Each ‘strophe’ packed, and organised by the anaphora ‘men who…’ and ending with the number (and type) of ships they brought. Beside this martial catalogue, Catullus’s naming is decidedly informal and unheroic.
Many of Milton’s sonnets, to take one, more local example, begin with the name of the addressee as the subject of the poem – Vane, Fairfax, Cromwell, Cyriak Skinner, H. Lawes etc. It’s a habit he may have picked up from the Roman poets, most likely Horace, another great namer of names, and gives further weight to the cumbersome mighty movement of the verse. But in his case, the names for the most part are already in the public zone, already presences occupying the historical stage on which Milton was at home:
Vane, young in yeares, but in sage counsell old,
Then whome a better Senatour nere held
The helme of Rome, when gownes not armes repelld
The feirce Epeirot & the African bold
and the poems are squarely centred on the figure addressed. By contrast Catullus’s names proliferate and are only sometimes those of known public figures – one resounding exception being 93, his curt dismissal of Caesar – and tend to find street encounters with, say, the the ill-mannered mistress of the bankrupt Formian merchant more engaging than public affairs. In fact, a fair number of public figures do crop up in his poems – Pompey, Cicero, and so on – and many others would have been known to his contemporaries. It’s rather that Catullus, despite being very much of the senatorial class, is insistently informal and irreverent, and any heirarchy has to do with personal affection rather than social status.
But it is surely George Gordon Byron, who is our closest poet to Catullus, in his speed of reflex, swift passage of mood and his delight in naming. The ‘dedication’ to Southey of Don Juan begins, as many a Catullus poem, with the name about to be flayed:
Bob Southey! You’re a poet – Poet-laureate,
And representative of all the race.
Although ‘tis true that you turned a Tory at
Last – yours has lately been a common case…
before turning his tender attentions to Coleridge and Wordsworth. No doubt the multitude of poets’ names in Pope’s Dunciad – ‘Dennis and dissonance, brangling and Brewall…’ – gave Byron licence, but the cornucopia of names that follow in stanzas 2 and 3 of the poem proper, as he pretends to flounder about in search of an appropriate hero for his poem, are very much in the spirit of Catullus:
Vernon, the butcher Cumberland, Wolfe , Hawke,
Prince Ferdinand, Granby, Burgoyne, Keppel, Howe…
followed in the next stanza, as if this wasn’t enough, by:
Barnave, Brissot, Condorcet, Mirabeau,
Petion, Clootz, Danton, Marat, La Fayette
were French, and famous people as we know;
And there were others, not forgotten yet,
Joubert Hoche, Marceau, Lannes, Desaix, Moreu,
With many of the military set,
Exceedingly remarkable at times,
But not at all adapted to my rhymes.
Here it’s as though he’s determined to out-Catullus Catullus, and his knowing, worldly tone owes much to the Latin forebear, whose sexual candour and obscenity he would also likely have found appealing.
As for numbers, that other stumbling block, which like names are unique and unsubstitutable, Catullus is also prolifically numerate1. Not only do we know his poems by their number, but like our ‘numbers’, in Latin ‘numerus’ refers to metre, so 50 has the poet amusing himself with Licinius : ‘ludebat numero modo hoc modo illuc’ – (each of us) played at writing in this or that metre. At times, metre and number combine as in the threat to expose Asinius Marrucinius, who has stolen his napkin, with ‘hendecasyllabos trecentos’. Numbers occur often enough with relation to sums of money, and can be very specific, as in 26 where the debt incurred by his farm, worse than anything the climate can throw at him, is fifteen thousand two hundred (‘milia quindecem et ducentos’). But mostly they occur as extravangance and exaggeration, as in 5 where he asks of Lesbia : ‘da mi basia mille, deinde centum / dein mille altera, dein secunda centum’ – and so on up to three thousand three hundred kisses, and then more to confuse the initially precise reckoning. Also 48 counts kisses to his friend Juventius (300,000) and ends with the inadequacy of the number, even if it were fuller than a harvest of ripe ears of corn. These multiplications are at once worldly and lyrical.
It’s a singular and poignant feature of the three poems Catullus wrote about his brother’s death (65, 68, and 101) that nowhere in them is his brother named. He is addressed only as ‘frater’. We know – and learn – nothing of his life. All we can suppose, because he tells us so, is that Catullus visited his grave in the Troad in Bythinia, modern day Anatolia, by land and sea, almost exactly a thousand miles from Rome, no mean journey. The poems supply no details about him other than his death. This name avoidance is reminiscent of the taboo still practiced by some indigenous Australian cultures, but sufficiently widespread in Africa, South America and Southern India to suggest some instinctive and universal dread of naming the dead, of calling them by name and so calling them up. Here at the very least, in the context of such a plethora of names, the omission of his brother’s creates a dark invisible border exiling him from the vivid social world of so much of Catullus’s work.
65 is addressed to Hortalus, 68 to Manius, but 101 the last and most renouned of these elegiac poems speaks directly to his brother:
multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras frater ad inferias
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi
nunc tamen interea haec prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale
For which a rough (and unready) translation of mine might serve:
Crossing many lands and many seas,
I have come, brother, for these wretched funeral rites
to present you with the last tribute of death
and to speak in vain to voiceless ash,
since Fortune has cut you off from me,
alas, poor brother, and cruelly bereft me of your very self,
so now meanwhile, according to ancestral custom,
in sad observance of the funeral rites, receive
these things, drenched with fraternal tears:
now and forever, brother, hail and farewell.
Words echo each other throughout this brief ten-line poem, from the first line’s pairing of ‘multas’ and ‘multa’ and the penultimate line’s ‘multum’ (with ‘mutam’ between); with ‘miseras’ and ‘miser’; with the doubling of ‘inferias’, ‘munere’ and of ‘atque’ and the final almost anagrammatic ‘ave’ and ‘vale’. But the echo that we hear most resoundingly in the hollowed acoustics of the poem is ‘frater, ‘frater’, ‘fraterno’. Even the emphatic personal pronoun ‘tete’ is a repetition built on an absence. Dead centre of the poem is the single mournful exclamation ‘heu’. That’s a great many repetitions for a short poem, and the vocabulary is predictable and conventional – funeral rites, ashes, sadness, tears. It reprises almost verbatim the phrasing of 68B:
sed totum hoc studium luctu fraterna mihi mors
abstulit. o misero frater adempte mihi.
(But all this interest [in poetry] has been wrested from me by
my brother’s death. O woe is me, with you, brother, taken from me.)
However predictable the language of 101 sounds, the wonder is that it somehow embodies the numbness of grief and the depth of love. Arguably, its very namelessness gives it such force, as does the flat tone and conventional vocabulary, set against the sociable multitude of names and the dazzling play and tonal variety in so many of his other poems.
Anne Carson’s Nox makes an uncanny use of this famous poem, and appropriately turns it into a lament for her own brother’s death. In this case, however, we do encounter the name of her brother, Michael, and in the slow and meandering course of Nox we receive fragmentary information about his life. The work is arranged in a concertina of attached pages, not as a book but rather as a gathering of scattered leaves, which when opened like a book, mainly uses the verso for a word-by-word parsing of Catullus’s poem and the recto for a miscellany of texts and images. The verso columns mimic a Latin-English dictionary entry for every one of the poem’s 63 words with repetitions referred back to the first instance. Most of the entries – even those of adverbs and pronouns – ingeniously contrive some reference to ‘nox’ so that the hidden theme is a perpetuum of night – ‘nox est perpetua’ (the phrase occurs first in Catullus 5, a poem on the death of Lesbia’s sparrow). This is both a grim scholastic joke and a searing confrontation with the ineluctable fact of her brother’s death and the incomplete knowledge she has gathered to piece together his life. (For readers whose Latin is wretched as mine, it also provides a helpful gloss to the poem and a crash course in vocabulary and grammar.)
Roughly midway through the work, the poet gives her own ‘translation’ of Catullus 101, which does little to accord with the ramifying meanings listed in the word-by-word verso entries, or rather it marks a minus sign, a shortfall, in deference to the complex unity of the original poem. By being more or less ‘word-for-word’, the translation deliberately does violence to the usual English word order, but still includes the odd striking condensation such as the interrogative ‘Why?’ to register the adverb ‘nequiquam’ (in vain, to no purpose).
Every sheet, verso and recto, is a collage, whether text, drawing, letter, or photograph, so the work is like a memorial album but, though reproduced in this grey box, the edges of each glued-in section still retain a jagged and puckered appearance, as well as faint signs of staplings, and so match the serrated edges of the Fifties photographs included, but also suggest the torn-off, fragmentary nature of the life and the poet’s meditation on loss. For even the information about his life, sparse as it is, is interrupted by reflections on history, Herodotus ‘the father of history’, Plutarch and others. Most heartbreaking are details of their mother’s thwarted love for her son and his widow’s account which alludes to episodes from his life and funeral. It’s a work of extraordinary restraint and, as often in Carson’s writings, her narrative skill is witnessed by what she leaves out as much as by what she includes, though here what is omitted is poignantly due to a lack of knowledge and a lack of contact with the brother whose vagrant and disturbed life and loves are fragments that can only ever be incompletely fitted together.
Of all the names that occur in his poems Catullus shows an inordinate fondness for his own – as anyone might if they were called Catullus; if they were Catullus. ‘Catullus’ occurs in every singular case of the first declension noun that he is (so in English translation it’s as though his name is shorn of all the variant endings): in self-communing (46), as a reminder to friends (38 begins in ironically mournful style ‘Your Catullus, Cornificius, is unwell…’), as a person spoken to within his own poem: in 10, ‘mi Catulle’, he is addressed, as we’ve seen, by Varus’s mistress.
We see ‘Catullus’ surrounded by an extended, convivial and promiscuous social circle in Rome, his poems addressing his lover Lesbia, his friends Cornelius, Flavius, Veranius:
Verani, omnibus e meis amicis
antistans mihi milibus trecentis…
(Veranius, my favourite among the three
hundred thousand of my friends…)
Here name and number combine. Then we have Fabullus, inseparably paired with Veranius, Varus, Furius, Aurelius, and Calvus, and that only covers the first fifteen poems, without listing the various named enemies. The so frequent presence of his own name amid this circle gives us the delightful illusion of knowing the ‘actual’ living Catullus, though of course this is an illusion that is artfully constructed by the poems. It reminds me of the poet Antonio Machado who created among his various apocryphals a figure called Antonio Machado who seems to have shared a great many biographical features with his namesake, only he died in Teruel several years earlier than his author.
1 In relation to my earlier claim that numbers are resistant to poetic inclusion, Clarence Brown in his discussion of Osip Mandelstam’s great early poem ‘Hagia Sophia’, writes that the poet ‘insists upon the precision of the numerals – 107, 40, 4 [respectively, the marble columns, the windows and the archangels] – of all grammatical categories the most ‘unpoetic’…’ Although the context of his argument is far removed from that of Catullus, the essential idea is similar, and the fact that the word ‘unpoetic’ is in inverted commas suggests his own contrary intuition. Clarence Brown, Mandelstam, Cambridge, 1973, p.187