Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Catullus 64 - Riding epyllion with the Gods

Salve! Evoe! Evoe!

I have been quite struck by one of the longer pieces in Catullus’ carmina, that of the mini epic or epyllion of poem 64. I don’t recall this being on the Latin syllabus all those years ago and I would probably have neglected it in favour of the racier or more pithy shorter pieces in the collection – essentially the poems that everyone knows and loves and are the most quoted ‘Vivemus mia Lesbia etc..’. But upon a closer reading this mini epic has a lot to offer, every line seems to bear traces of exquisite and careful craftsmanship and many flashes of brilliance. Catullus brings all of the tricks of the neoteroi out of the box, transforming the Alexandrian model into something altogether brilliant, action packed, passionate and even philosophical.

This is apparent right from the start with the opening lines focussing right in on the pines on the lofty mountain peak. A micro image in the sharpest detail, sweeping the poetic eye from the height of Pelion right into the translucent sea, speeding past us as we speed away to adventure with the Argive lads on a quest for the Golden Fleece! You can practically smell the salt and feel the spray on your face!

‘peliaco quondam prognatae vertice pinus
Dicuntur liquidas Neptuni nasse per undas
Phasidos ad fluctus et fines Aeetos,
Cum lecti iuvenes, Argivae robora pubis,
Auratam optantes Colchis avertere pellem
Ausi sunt vada salsa cita decurre puppi,
Caerula verrentes abniegis aequora palmis;’ L.1-7

Ancient pines, born on the peak of Pelion
Are said to have swum through the limpid
Waters of Neptune as far as the Phasian shore
And the outer limits of Aeetes, when the
Select youths, the young oaks of Argive manhood
Hoping to steal from the Cholchians the Golden Fleece
Dared to speed over the salty deep with swift keels
As they swept the blue expanse with fir-branch oars;

Most if not all of the standard Alexandrine Epyllion poems (or at least those that are considered by convention to meet those criteria – which to be honest are quite broad bordering on the meaningless!) tend to start ‘wide angle’ with an invocation or hymn type section to a god which tends to set the tone of a high epic, grandiloquent phrasing, abstraction and over ornate almost pedantic wordsmithery. With the exception of Callimachus and a few other contemporaries, the fragments we have display a tendency to erudition and allusion as opposed to genuine poetic genius– a regrettable case of the triumph of form over content.

The metre, dactylic hexameter, which is the standard for Greek and Latin epic, in Catullus’ hands frees itself somewhat as he plays with word and line breaks running against the natural rhythm of the meter. Alexandrine works can often run with the metre and create a slightly foot heavy effect.

Of course, in some epic poetry contexts this ponderous spondee heavy style works excellently well - I am thinking of the constant 6th and 5th string Metallica-esque power chord riffing of Lucan’s  De Bello Civile as he relentlessly punches home in the manner of a hobnailed marching rhythm that ‘War is Hell’ and Civil war is well.. even more hell!– But this is not characteristic of Catullus 64 which dances along with real brilliance, no less in term of its sonics than its imagery and word architecture and interplay.

A line sequence I find particularly attractive for its shape and contrasting imagery is 41-3 which describes beautifully the rusting abandoned ploughs of the country folk who flock to the palace and compares with the glittering palace of Peleus which they have left the countryside to see:-

'Non glaebam prono convellit vomere taurus,
Squalida desertis rubigo infertur aratris.
Ipsius at sedes, quaecumque opulenta recessit
Regia, fulgenti splendent auro atque argento.'

Catullus 64 reveals a structure of two parts, the marriage feast of Peleus and Thetis and the story of Ariadne and Theseus – a tale of two marriages if you will. The latter is contained as a clever piece of ecphrasis (itself a Homeric descriptive device – as in the description of Achilles shield) and is a digression from the opening section, where the meeting of Peleus and Thetis is vividly described. The sub-story which in fact is far longer than the framing narrative is cleverly introduced as the moving camera of the description moves through the dazzling gold drenched halls and gilded chambers of Peleus’ palace to rest upon the marriage bed.

‘pulvinar vero divae geniale locatur
Sedibus in mediis, Indo quod dente politum
Tincta tegit roseo conchyli purpura fuco.’ L.47-9

‘But look, the royal marriage bed is set for the goddess
In the heart of the palace,
Smoothly worked in Indian ivory
And covered with purple steeped in the rosy hue
Of the shell’

The ecphrasis continues to describe the ‘other’ marriage or relationship which in stark contrast to the marriage out there in the ‘real world’ (itself an ancient fictional scene of the Homeric past) has gone badly pear shaped. It is here where the flashing movement so characteristic of the rest of the poem changes down gear and I feel that this must be intentional of Catullus (what wouldn’t be in this tightly embroidered work?) and gets very emotional. Here we are confronted with the full emotional turmoil and pain of love betrayed; the desperate loneliness and abandonment of the spurned lover Ariadne. It is also a vehicle where Catullus gets to identify his own feelings of loss and desperation, even of accusation. The two relationships couldn’t be more different. The section takes up Ariadne’s voice and rises to a crescendo of suffering and denial of the horrible reality that Theseus has left her to wander in disarray on the lonely shore. It’s a timeless and powerful expostulation of heartbreak.

It’s a section chock a block with negatives, non, nulla, nil,nec and so mirroring the relentless crash of cruel breakers on the desolate shore on which she finds herself so hopelessly abandoned.

‘sicine me patriis avectam, perfide, ab aris,
Perfide, deserto liquisti in litore, Theseu?
Sicine discedens neglecto numine divum
Immemor a, devote domum periuria portas?
Nullane res potuit crudelis flectere mentis
Consilium? Tibi nulla fuit clementia praesto,
Immite ut nostri vellet miserescere pectus?’L.132-8

‘So, having taken me from my homeland
Far from my father’s home you leave me like this,
Faithless, faithless Theseus, on the lonely shore?
And thus departing, forgetful of the will of the gods,
Ah! are you forgetful of the curse you carry
for these lies to your home? Can nothing deflect the
purpose of your cruel mind? Was there no mercy in you
to bid your hard heart to pity me?’

But all is not lost it seems, who is that we hear crashing through the bushes? Its Bacchus and co…the Dionysian revellers come to whisk Ariadne away to a life of orgiastic intoxication and frenzied sexual abandon!  Obviously the best cure for lovesick heartache and most serious emotional problems. They cut a fine scene as the following extract attests:

‘Harum pars tecta quatiebant cuspide thyrsus
Pars e divulso iactabant membra iuvenco
Pars sese tortis serpentibus incingebant,
Pars obscura cavis celebrant orgia cistis;
Orgia, quae frustra cupiunt audire profane;
Plangebant aliae proceris tympana palmis
Aut tereti tennes tinnitus aere ciebant.’ L.256-262

‘Some of them were waving thyrsi with shrouded tips,
Some were juggling with the disarticulate limbs of a calf,
Yet others ’wrapped themselves in writhing snakes'

Others still worshipped obscure mysteries in hidden caskets,
Mysteries which the profane desire in vain to witness,
Others beat tympani with upraised palms
Or noisily beat rounded bronze cymbals with piercing clashes’

Note the repetition of pars and the onomatopoeia of t sounds in line 262.
The scene telescopes back out to the frame narrative where we have the end of the nuptials attended by divers gods and goddesses and the Fates predict the glorious but eventually doomed future for the son of Peleus. The refrain of their song cycle echoes the physical nature of the coverlet we have been staring at so fixedly in the previous two hundred or so lines – that the past, present and future all flying in and out of psychedelic perspective are linked by the spinning thread of fate – a very neat and multivalent association running through the epillyon like..a golden thread:

‘currite ducentes subtegmina, currite fusi’

‘Run on spindles, run on
drawing out the woof-threads’

The mini epic brings us up to the present day with a moral invective section at the end…an explanation for the why the Gods have abandoned us in these evil times.

‘sed postquam tellus scelerest imbuta nefando
Iustitiamque omnes cupida de mente fugarunt,
Perfudere manus fraterno sanguine fratres,
Destitit extinctos natus lugere parentes,
Optavit genitor primaevi funera nati,
Liber ut innuptae poteretur flore novercae,
Ignaro mater substernens se impia nato
Impia non veritast divos scelerare parentes:
Omnia fanda nefanda malo permixta furore
Iustificam nobis mentem avertere deorum.
Quare nec tales dignantur visere coetus,
Nec se contingi patiuntur lumine claro.’ L.397-408

‘But once the earth had become stained with horrible crime,
And all men banished justice from their avaricious minds
And brothers drenched their hands in brother’s blood,
The son left off mourning his parent’s death,
The father wished for an early funeral for his son
So he undisturbed could enjoy deflowering the virgin bride,
The unnatural mother thrusting herself under her unconscious son,
Unafraid to commit iniquity before the household gods,
Then all right and wrong thoroughly mixed up in an evil madness
Turned us away from the righteous will of the gods,
So that they do not stoop to join with such company
Nor put up with the touch of clear daylight.’

There is so much in this poem that this brief foray has really only served to give you a few glimpses of its sheer delights. What was Catullus doing by juxtaposing the two marriages/relationships? How much or what exactly can we say with regard to Catullus own love affair with Lesbia (aka Clodia), who after all was herself a married woman? Is the moral tone at the end of the poem to be taken seriously or just as a device of invective common to Callimachan poetry which Catullus did so much to imitate and expand upon? For that matter how far can we take any of it as a mirror of the poet’s emotional state of mind at all? Is it just a Homeric flight of fancy? Or could it be an embittered riff on the lies that lovers tell and the moral decay that seems more visible to those spurned or in a heightened and disturbed emotional state? I think it does go deeper than that as a result of the neoteric inventions and highly charged personal tone of the speech sections, in particular Ariadne and Theseus’ father.
It’s worth further investigation and continued study that is for sure.


  1. Hi, funnily enough I'd only just read an alternative translation of 64 before seeing your post. I've been reading translations by Peter Whigham in a Penguin edition originally published in 1966 although it looks as though the translations were done over a period of years throughout the 50s and 60s. On the whole they have a good feel, though I suspected that at times they might have been a bit free, which having looked at another translation with the Latin opposite seems to be the case. As an example the beginning of Ariadne's lament that you quote comes out as:

    Why did you lift me from Cretan bower
    dumping me here on an empty beach,
    shrugging off Heaven, her plans for us,
    heedless of freighting home snapped pledges?
    Nowhere the means to flex steel
    no appeal that could touch you.

    Which seems to leave quite a bit out. Which translation have you been using or is it one of your own?

    As regard the poem itself, it is one of the most striking. It has an interesting circling structure in the sense the with the story of Ariadne and Theseus, you first get Ariadne on Naxos, before the back story of Theseus leaving for Knossos (without mention of his Father's request as to the sail colour) and killing the Minotaur, then Ariadne's lament, then the back story of Theseus' fathers speech and request, then Theseus' forgetting his promise and its consequences. You could imagine a version that had a much simpler narrative, but what we have has a really satisfying shape to it. I hadn't thought of identifying Catullus with Ariadne, but certainly some of the poems suggest he suffered greatly from rejection in love. In 68 (another lovely complex poem) he does suggest (not necessarily because of love) that he suffers:

    ... we two squat in the same coracle,
    we are both swamped by the same stormy waters,
    I have not the gifts of a happy man...

    So perhaps Ariadne's expression of grief and rage is a vehicle to voice his own, and his sense of a fall from the golden age that he makes explicit at the end.

    And as you say, why juxtapose these two particular stories? Its not a very cheerful Epithalamium that looks forwards to Achilles' death, the sacrifice of Polyxena and the destruction of Troy. What connects it all? I almost feel that it lacks part of its frame. The poem starts literally midway on the waves without any theme-setting prologue, but then it ends with an epilogue depicting the end of the golden age. Not for the first I feel acutely conscious of lacking the range of references a classically educated Roman would have brought to their reading.

    Lots to discuss on Sunday!!


    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Sorry I tried to edit a couple of spelling mistakes and ended up having to delete the comment and start again! Anyway what I said was yes, the translation is my own, a bit more literal than literary. The other one which you have been reading seems quite free...reading patriis as Cretan Bower as oppposed to homeland gives and indication of this. I saw Catullus in this mini epic very strongly - it seems to me that he had an ideal vehicle through which to really let himself go in exploring the anguish and turmoil of betrayal and abandonment with Ariadne's impassioned and plangent speeches on the shore. As you said it must have been quite an astounding performance to hear for an educated Roman who could catch the allusions and really drink them in. For the skilled fellow poet and aesthete, it may have well caused them to faint with its corruscating scintillation and extremely wrought emotive force. That is why it is such a crazy shock for Bacchus and the gang to come crashing through the undergrowth to the 'rescue'! What on earth was he saying about marriage and relationships with the two contrasted love couples? Not only about the institution itself in terms of the morals of the homeric or golden age down to the evil times he considered to be living in and an emotional victim of - but of his own relationship with a married woman who possessed many other suitors and lovers? Did he walk into it as blind as we might think? Is it all in his head and not his heart? As you said lots to talk about!

    3. I like your translations, they seem clear and direct. In general I've enjoyed the Whigham translation, but why any one would use Cretan bower for homeland I've no idea, sounds like bad Tennyson. It comes back to the question we often discuss about what translation is trying to achieve, faithful communication of the text, or more of an attempt to recreate an atmosphere in English. The bottom line is that I need to get to grips with Latin!
      See you tomorrow.

    4. Thanks. The transalations I tend to do for the blog at least will be more literal than literary. I recall that during our earlier stages of Latin learning we were heavily penalised for any sign of poetic license when translating unseens, but later on during A Level and post-A stages, we were encouraged to do the complete opposite in order to try to bring oursleves to a closer appreciation of how rich the language could be and its interpretations throughout the ages. I am a bit of purist in the sense that I always feel disappointed when the actual texts are sidelined or looked at and interpreted selectively. I have a kind of pet peeve with Catullus being pigeonholed as a sort of erotic or romance poet when he was about a lot more than that with his very inventive style as we can see with the longer pieces 64 and 67 etc. It's clear from this that each age views classical texts through their own peculiar and morally as wel as politically charged lenses - and therefore are somtimes guilty of skewing thehistorical record by focussing on 'selected works' editions. I often look up the texts on the library catalogue... and the results of such searches serve underline all this in the case of Catullus..the only latin texts (Loeb or acdemic studies) of the author available were buried in the subterranean store at Lewes and had to be ordered for collection taking a week to arrive; for the casually interested reader they would never have been located on any shelves...meanwhile we have no less than 7 available copies of the modern fictionalised treatment of Catullus. kind of says it all really!