Poetic Interplay: Catullus and Horace

Poetic Interplay: Catullus and Horace

by Michael C.J. Putnam

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The lives of Catullus and Horace overlap by a dozen years in the first century BC. Yet, though they are the undisputed masters of the lyric voice in Roman poetry, Horace directly mentions his great predecessor, Catullus, only once, and this reference has often been taken as mocking. In fact, Horace's allusion, far from disparaging Catullus, pays him a discreet compliment by suggesting the challenge that his accomplishment presented to his successors, including Horace himself. In Poetic Interplay, the first book-length study of Catullus's influence on Horace, Michael Putnam shows that the earlier poet was probably the single most important source of inspiration for Horace's Odes, the later author's magnum opus.

Except in some half-dozen poems, Catullus is not, technically, writing lyric because his favored meters do not fall into that category. Nonetheless, however disparate their preferred genres and their stylistic usage, Horace found in the poetry of Catullus, whatever its mode of presentation, a constant stimulus for his imagination. And, despite the differences between the two poets, Putnam's close readings reveal that many of Horace's poems echo Catullus verbally, thematically, or both. By illustrating how Horace often found his own voice even as he acknowledged Catullus's genius, Putnam guides us to a deeper appreciation of the earlier poet as well.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400827428
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/11/2009
Series: Martin Classical Lectures , #21
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Michael C. J. Putnam is MacMillan Professor of Classics and Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University. He is the author of ten books, including The Poetry of the Aeneid, and coeditor of The Virgilian Tradition (forthcoming).

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Poetic Interplay

Catullus and Horace
By Michael C. J. Putnam

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12537-6


Horace's only mention of Catullus occurs in the final poem of his first collection, the initial book of Satires, published probably in 35 BCE. We come in on the narrator arguing that, for a great poet, particularly one writing in a genre like satire, whatever brings a smile (ridiculum) can often put across "mighty matters" better than what is bitter or sardonic (acri) (16-19):

illi scripta quibus comoedia prisca viris est hoc stabant, hoc sunt imitandi; quos neque pulcher Hermogenes umquam legit neque simius iste nil praeter Calvum et doctus cantare Catullum.

By this means those who wrote Old Comedy gained success, in this they are worthy of imitation-men whom pretty Hermogenes never reads nor that ape of yours whose skill lies in declaiming nothing except Calvus and Catullus.

What is meant as a rebuke to the simius, who has no imagination and can only imitate others, serves equally as a compliment-as the saying has it, the sincerest form of flattery-to Calvus and Catullus, friends who are on occasion linked by later authors. Both were key figures in the group of neoteric poets, the so-called poetae novi, active in the middle decades of the firstcentury BCE and writing fresh verse in a variety of meters, often after the manner of Callimachus. Their work set a standard for originality that challenged poets to come, whatever genre they embraced. Put another way, to Horace, publishing his first book of poetry some twenty years after Catullus's death, the earlier master has already become a paragon, worthy of emulation but, for the very reason of his excellence, easily showing up the mediocrity of imitators lacking individual talent.

When we survey the four books of odes that form Horace's lyric masterpiece, we find no immediate mention of Catullus, nor in fact of any earlier, non-epic Roman forebear (at C. 4.8.15-20 Horace pays vicarious attention to Ennius for the immortalizing power of his verse). By contrast, on several occasions Horace refers to the poets of archaic Greece as creative ancestors of obvious importance (he names Sappho and Alcaeus at C. 2.13.25-27, and the latter again at C. 4.9.7). This public bow is reinforced in two ways. First, the meters that bear their names are the ones that Horace most favors (thirty-seven poems are written in alcaics, two-thirds that number in sapphics). Second, there are frequent instances where Horace begins an ode with a clear gesture toward a poem of Alcaeus via close rendering of the Greek original. We presume that his contemporary readership would have had the privilege, as well as the enjoyment, of testing Horace's genius against the background of the model poems that we now lack nearly completely.

Perhaps the most surprising is the later poet's failure to mention Catullus in poems like C. 3.30, where "Horace" takes pride in his achievement, in the initial gathering of three books of odes, published in 23 BCE. In the opening poem of Book 1 he had concluded by mention of the Lesbian lyre (Lesboum barbiton, C. 1.1.34) as the instrument that Polyhymnia must tune for him, and of his own hoped-for position as one situated among "lyric bards" (lyricis vatibus, 35). In C. 3.30, the concluding sphragis, or "seal" poem, that stamps the poet's "I" on what had gone before, it is Aeolian song (Aeolium carmen, 13) that is his boast to have led in triumph to Italian beats. In Epi. 1.19, moreover, where he discusses his heritage and accomplishment in more detail, it is to Alcaeus that he specifically turns (Epi. 1.19.32-33):

hunc ego, non alio dictum prius ore, Latinus volgavi fidicen.

He is the one, not sung before by other lips, that I, the Latin lyre-player, have made known.

In the ode, Horace sidesteps the issue by using "chief" (princeps, C. 3.30.13) rather than "first" (primus) to describe his accomplishment, and in Epi. 1.19 he reserves the latter adjective to qualify his performance in the Epodes, not the Carmina. Nevertheless, in neither instance does he take note of Catullus, whether directly or indirectly.

One reason for this lack of public obeisance to Catullus on Horace's part, a reason that may seem superficial to the modern reader but was of importance to the literary world of classical antiquity, is purely technical. It is the question of meter. Because of the prominence of iambic meters among Catullus's so-called polymetric poems, numbers 1-60, Quintilian, the late-first-century CE writer on rhetoric, ranks him among writers of iambic verse. This literary type he distinguishes for its sharpness (acerbitas), an abstraction, also bestowed by him upon the satirist Lucilius, that has about it notions of vitriol and anger combined with acuity of wit. Horace alone among Roman authors, according to Quintilian, deserves to be singled out as a lyricist worthy of mention:

at lyricorum idem Horatius fere solus legi dignus; nam et insurgit aliquando et plenus est iucunditatis et gratiae et varius figuris et verbis felicissime audax.

But of the writers of lyric, this same Horace [who also wrote iambic verse in his Epodes] is nearly alone worthy to be read. For he both reaches the sublime, at times, and is full of delight and charm, variegated in his figuration and most happily daring in his word choice.

It is as lyricist that we have seen Horace single himself out: he is the "Latin lyre-player" (Latinus fidicen) and, according to his later definition at C. 4.3.23, "player on the Roman lyre" (Romanae fidicen lyrae). In C. 1.32, a poem I will be looking at in detail, a speaker, whose self-presentation verges on what we would expect from Horace himself, can call on the Greek barbitos to sing a Latin song (Latinum, barbite, car-men, 3-4).

Therefore, in terms of antiquity's regular complementarity between meter and genre, Horace is justified in proclaiming his primacy as Latin lyricist, and Quintilian is equally correct not only in singling out Horace as unique among Roman writers of lyric verse, but also in labeling Catullus primarily a writer of iambic poetry. If we look again at Catullus's polymetric poems, by a large margin the majority of them are written in iambic verse forms. Chief among these are phalaecean (also known as hendecasyllabics), which he employs in some forty poems, followed numerically by choliambic (which also bears the title scazon), the meter of eight poems. There are also scattered compositions (poems 4, 25, 29, and 52) written in variations of straight iambs. Poems couched in meters technically associated with lyric verse make up only a handful of the corpus: two are written in sapphics (11 and 51), one in the so-called greater (or fifth) asclepiadean (30), and three (17 and 34, plus the long first epithalamium, 61) in varying combinations of pherecratean and glyconic lines, a mixture that the poets of archaic Greece also utilized.

If, however, we allow ourselves a broader, more comprehensive definition of lyric that transcends meter-which is to say, at least in part, if we extend our consideration beyond the particularities of a poem's construction or manner of presentation so as to combine them, to whatever degree, with the matter and content of the poem itself-then the relationship between our two poets takes a different, more universal form. From the start of Greek literature, lyric poetry is indelibly associated with music, as an individual or chorus gives utterance to a combination of words and sounds. Such a generality is useful in seeking a definition that leaves consideration of topics such as meter in a place of ancillary importance and looks to some combination of emotion and song, of personal sensitivity (often, but by no means always, the product of a speaking "I") and what the poet makes it into during performance, with a melodic line that can vary from the highly structured, as in the case of classical lyric, to the far freer arrangements of vers libre. This is the poetic universe that Horace so brilliantly imagines in C. 1.22, his hymn to Lalage, the songstress of la-la, which is to say, to the origins and dynamism of lyric song itself.

Horace himself in the Ars poetica sets out the bounds of lyric not in terms of modes of exposition, but of content (83-85):

musa dedit fidibus divos puerosque deorum et pugilem victorem et equum certamine primum et iuvenum curas et libera vina referre.

The muse granted to the lyre to tell of gods and children of gods, of the victorious boxer and horse, first in his contest, and of the trials of youth and wine's freedom.

If Horace is thinking of his own work and not just of Greek lyric from its beginnings to Pindar, then, unless we extend the range of the final two categories to an inordinate degree, he has unduly, perhaps deliberately, limited the breadth and depth of his own accomplishment.

In itself, a survey of the contents of the two lyric collections, which is to say Carmina 1-3, published in 23 BCE, and Carmina 4, issued most likely in 13, gives Horace's summary the lie, if we apply it to his work. But we can also look at its intellectual expanse by another means germane to our topic, namely the ubiquity of Catullus as a presence in his work. We would expect that the lyric Horace, in the adjective's restricted sense, would be deeply cognizant, and therefore show extensive reflection in his poetry, of the (technically) lyric Catullus. This is indeed the case. Not only the two poems in sapphics (11 and 51) but also the hymn to Diana (34) and the plaint addressed to Alfenus Varus (30) all appear as prominent influences in the Carmina. Poem 51, for instance, makes appearances in three of the following chapters.

Nevertheless, his lyric output forms only one segment of Catullus's poems that Horace allows us to see as among the inspirations for his odes. To put the situation in terms of statistics, in the subsequent pages we will be looking at some thirty-five poems of Catullus and nearly forty-five works of Horace, only a few of which will be outside the lyric corpus. And in spite of what one might be led to conclude from such numbers, it must be emphasized that neither this study, nor any parallel examination of the interaction between poets, can, or could, make any claims to comprehensiveness. Like the imaginations of the authors themselves, the detailing of what one poet absorbs from another, or of what form or forms this acceptance takes, is an inexhaustible topic.

In the light of what was said above about meter, we must look at these statistics in a more expansive way. As far as his larger influence on Horace is concerned, we will find ourselves tracing the presence of Catullus in all four books of Horace's carmina. Though his prominence has a slight edge in Book 1, nevertheless the force of the earlier poet is found exerted as strongly, proportionately, in the fourth book-a point to which I will return in a moment-as it is in any of the three that make up the earlier grouping of odes. Equally important, the types of poem to which Horace makes his references are as varied as the oeuvre itself. We will be watching the appearance of the long, central works of Catullus as well as that of the shorter pieces in diverse meters and of the poems in elegiac couplets that flank them in the larger gathering. Within the polymetric group, though, as we have seen, the poems in strictly lyric meters appropriately made considerable impact on the Carmina. Nevertheless, their sway over Horace's imagination in no way predominates over that of the iambic poetry in its several forms. And even within this group, the range is extensive, embracing long-cherished and imitated poems, such as 5 and 7, the addresses to Lesbia on her kisses; 46, on the coming of spring; or 31, on the speaker's return to his beloved Sirmio; as well as many others that have been less influential on later poetry or less subject to critical evaluation.

In sum, whether we are dealing with matter or manner, with mode of presentation or with content, Horace seems to have set no limits on the aspects of Catullus to which he was drawn. Even if he makes no direct mention of him in his lyric work as he does of the poets of archaic Greece, nevertheless he pays him the enormous compliment of accepting into his own the work of his predecessor in its manifold aspects. Though time and again Horace exerts his magic, especially when turning what he has gleaned from Catullus's iambic and elegiac verse into lyric form, and claims for himself what would have seemed indelibly Catullan, it is to the Republican poet across the spectrum of his work, as much as to the singers of Lesbos, that he turned for inspiration.

Meter and genre will also play their part in the essays that follow, especially the final chapter, which opens with segments devoted to the hymn and to its subdivision, the epithalamium. Mostly, however, I have grouped poems within more spacious categories where they seemed naturally to fall. The first chapter, entitled "Time and Place," begins with a look at a poem of Catullus where one word, angiportum ("alleyway"), which the poet uses to locate Lesbia's vulgarity, leads Horace to a meditation on the future effects of the passage of time upon the life of the courtesan Lydia. Catullus's most gripping précis of human life's passing, vis-à-vis external nature's steadiness, occurs in poem 5 and serves as background for several of Horace's masterly meditations on modes of appreciating time. The poems where Catullus most strikingly combines time and place, for example 46, on the arrival of spring in Bithynia, and its effects, as seen in poems 4 and 31, are absorbed by Horace into several odes that center on the idea of journey, whether literal or figurative, experiential or allegorical.

We also follow Catullus in the later poet's contemplation of Virgil's poetic itinerary, of the hazards that confront a youth embarked on love's treacherous seas, or of the ship of state. Likewise we watch how Catullus permeates C. 1.22, a poem ostensibly addressed to the girl Lalage, but in fact concerned with the lyric poet's creative course, embracing his Greco-Roman past and marking the outlines of his own imagination's enterprise. Finally, we turn to Catullus's moving elegy on his brother's death and examine how Horace's remembrances of it are absorbed into an assurance of poetry's power to immortalize.

The imagination and its varied potential is also a central theme of the second chapter, on "Speech and Silence." We begin with a look at otium ("leisure") and its variants as forceful presences in the work of both poets. C. 1.32 figures prominently here as a catalyst for a Horatian glimpse at his Alcaic past that also encloses strong allusions to several poems of Catullus. Common use of the greater asclepiadean, as well as another direct acknowledgment on Horace's part of Alcaeus, link Catullus 30 with C. 1.18. Their joint but idiosyncratic reflections on Fides form a transition to two poems, Catullus 6 and C. 1.27 respectively, where the need to speak out on one poet's part is answered by the other's witty narrative on the suppression of voice. Finally, we will look closely at a series of interconnected works that deal with wine-bibbing, inspiration, and the particular revelations that come from poems signaling the introductions and conclusions of books.

Chapter 3 concentrates on the figure of Helen, as she takes on various guises in three central odes of Book 1. The Catullan background leads us through a variety of poems, both lyric and invective, extensive and concise, and we return to Horace via a prime example of his own sally into iambic verse, epode 17. The abstraction otium is again a unifying presence, and we end once more on the common themes of poetry-making and of the interdependence of bards.


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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Introduction 1
Chapter One: Time and Place 11
Chapter Two: Speech and Silence 48
Chapter Three: Helen 72
Chapter Four: Virgil 93
Chapter Five: Genres and a Dialogue 116
Conclusion 141
Notes 145
Bibliography 159
Index of Poems Cited 165
General Index 169

What People are Saying About This

Ortwin Knorr

Exceptionally fluent. There is no other book-length study on this subject. Putnam makes a convincing case for the central role Catullus plays in Horace's lyric poetry.
Ortwin Knorr, Willamette University

Ronnie Ancona

This is a book that has long been needed and I can't think of anyone better to have written it than Michael Putnam. For any scholar working on either Horace or Catullus, this book will be essential reading. Putnam's argument about the extent of their 'poetic interplay' is not only convincing, but also quite astonishing.
Ronnie Ancona, Hunter College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York

From the Publisher

"This is a book that has long been needed and I can't think of anyone better to have written it than Michael Putnam. For any scholar working on either Horace or Catullus, this book will be essential reading. Putnam's argument about the extent of their 'poetic interplay' is not only convincing, but also quite astonishing."—Ronnie Ancona, Hunter College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York

"Exceptionally fluent. There is no other book-length study on this subject. Putnam makes a convincing case for the central role Catullus plays in Horace's lyric poetry."—Ortwin Knorr, Willamette University

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