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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by John William Mackail (1859–1945)

By Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 B.C.)

THE LAST thirty years of the Roman Republic are, alike in thought and action, one of the high-water marks of the world’s history. This is the age of Cicero and of Julius Cæsar. This brief period includes the conquest of Gaul, the invasion of Britain, the annexation of the Asiatic monarchies founded by Alexander’s marshals; the final collapse of the Roman oligarchy which had subdued the whole known world; the development of the stateliest and most splendid prose that the world has ever seen or is ever likely to see; and lastly, a social life among the Roman upper classes so brilliant, so humane, so intimately known to us from contemporary historians, poets, orators, letter-writers, that we can live in it with as little stretch of imagination as we can live in the England of Queen Anne. Among the foremost figures of this wonderful period is Valerius Catullus, the first of Latin lyric poets, and perhaps the third, alongside of Sappho and Shelley, in the supreme rank of the lyric poets of the world.

He represents in his life and his genius the fine flower of his age and country. He was born at Verona of a wealthy and distinguished family, while Italy was convulsed by the civil wars of Marius and Sulla; he died at the age of thirty, while Cæsar was completing the conquest of Gaul, and the Republic, though within a few days of its extinction, still seemed full of the pride of life. The rush and excitement of those thrilling years is mirrored fully in the life and poetry of Catullus. Fashion, travel, politics, criticism, all the thousandfold and ever-changing events and interests of the age, come before us in their most vivid form and at their highest pressure, in this brief volume of lyrics. But all come involved with and overshadowed by a story wholly personal to himself and immortal in its fascination: the story of an immense and ill-fated love that “fed its life’s flame with self-substantial fuel,” and mounted in the morning glories of sunrise only to go down in thunder and tempest before noon.

There are perhaps no love poems in the world like these. Of Sappho, seemingly the greatest poet of her sex, we can only dally with surmise from mutilated fragments. No one else in the ancient world comes into the account. The Middle Ages involved love inextricably with mysticism. When Europe shook the Middle Ages off, it had begun to think. Exquisite reflections on love, innocent pastorals, adorable imagery,—these it could produce; in the France of the Pleiade for instance, or in the England of Greene and Campion: but thought and passion keep ill company. Once only, a century ago, a genius as fierce and flame-like as that of Catullus rose to the height of this argument. An intractable language, sterilizing surroundings, bad models, imperfect education, left Burns hopelessly distanced; yet the quintessential flame that he shares with Catullus has served to make him the idol of a nation, and a household word among many millions of his race.

Clodia, the “Lady of the Sonnets” in Catullus, whom he calls Lesbia by a transparent fiction, has no ambiguous or veiled personality. She was one of the most famous and most scandalous women of her time. By birth and marriage she belonged to the innermost circle of that more than royal Roman aristocracy which had accumulated the wealth of the world into its hands, and sent out its younger sons carelessly to misgovern and pillage empires. When Catullus made her acquaintance, she was a married woman some six or seven years older than himself. “Through a little arc of heaven” the poems show his love running its sorrowful and splendid course. Rapture of tenderness, infatuation, revolt, relapse, re-entanglement, agonized stupor, the stinging pain of reviving life, fierce love passing into as fierce a hatred, all sweep before us in dazzling language molded out of pure air and fire.

So far, Burns alone, and Burns only at his rarer heights, can give a modern reader some idea of Catullus. But Burns had little education and less taste; and so when he leaves the ground of direct personal emotion,—that is to say, in nineteen-twentieths of his poetry,—he is constantly on the edge, and often over it, of tawdriness, vulgarity, commonplace. Catullus was master of all the technical skill then known to poetry. Without anything approaching the immense learning of Virgil or Milton, he had, like Shelley among English poets, the instincts and training of a scholar. It is this fine scholarship—the eye and hand of the trained artist in language—combined with his lucid and imperious simplicity, like that of some gifted and terrible child, that makes him unique among poets. When he leaves the golden fields of poetry and dashes into political lampoons, or insolent and unquotable attacks on people (men or women) who had the misfortune to displease him, he becomes like Burns again, Burns the satirist; yet even here nimbler witted, lighter of touch, with the keenness of the rapier rather than of the Northern axe-edge.

His scholarliness—like that of most scholars—was not without its drawbacks. His immediate literary masters, the Greeks of the Alexandrian school, were a coterie of pedants; it would be idle to claim that he remained unaffected by their pedantry. In the last years of his life he seems to have lost himself somewhat in technical intricacies and elaborate metrical experiments; in translations from that prince in preciosity, the Alexandrian Callimachus; and idyllic pieces of overloaded ornament studied from the school of Theocritus. The longest and most ambitious poem of these years, the epic idyl on ‘The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis,’ is full of exquisite beauties of detail, but taken in its whole effect is languid, cloying, and monotonous. He makes a more brilliant success in his other long poem, the famous ‘Atys,’ the single example in Latin of the large-scale lyric so familiar to Greece and England.

But indeed in every form of lyric poetry attempted by him, his touch is infallible. The lovely poems of travel which he wrote during and after a voyage to Asia are as unequaled in their sunny beauty as the love-lyrics are in fire and passion. Alongside of these there are little funny verses to his friends, and other verses to his enemies which they probably did not think funny in the least; verses of occasion and verses of compliment; and verses of sympathy, with a deep human throb in them that shows how little his own unhappy love had embittered him or shut him up in selfish broodings. Two of these pieces are pre-eminent beyond all the rest. The one is a marriage song written by him for the wedding of two of his friends, Mallius Torquatus and Vinia Aurunculeia. In its straightforward unassuming grace, in its musical clearness, in the picture it draws, with so gentle and yet so refined and distinguished a touch, of common household happiness, it is worthy of its closing place in the golden volume of his lyrics.

The other is a brief poem, only ten lines long, written at his brother’s grave near Troy. It is one of the best known of Latin poems; and before its sorrow, its simplicity, its piteous tenderness, the astonishing cadence of its rhythms, praise itself seems almost profanation.

“Tenderest of Roman poets nineteen hundred years ago—” so Tennyson in one of his own beautiful lyrics addresses Catullus; and it is this unsurpassed tenderness that more than all his other admirable qualities, than his consummate technical skill, than his white heat of passion, than his “clearness as of the terrible crystal,” brings him and keeps him near our hearts.

That wonderful Ciceronian age has left its mark as few ages have, deep upon human history. The conquests and legislation of Julius Cæsar determined the future of Europe and laid the foundation of the modern world. The prose invented by Cicero became and still remains the common language of civilized mankind. Among the poems of Catullus are verses addressed to both of these men; but his own young ivy-crowned brows shine out of the darkness and the distance, with no less pure a radiance and no less imperishable a fame.

NOTE.—In Mr. Mackail’s closing phrase the lover of Ovid will note an echo from that poet’s famous elegy suggested by the premature death of still another Roman singer, Tibullus. Among the kindred spirits—says Ovid—who will welcome the new-comer to the Elysian fields,—

  • “Thou, O learnèd Catullus, thy young brows ivy-encircled,
  • Bringing thy Calvus with thee, wilt to receive him appear.”
  • ED.