A Roman love scene, 1st century CE. From the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Cheeky blinder

Isobel Williams’s treatment of selected poems is literary charcuterie, as neat as it is naughty


This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It is a pretty poem, Mr Pope,” said Richard Bentley, after reading the poet’s version of the Iliad, “but you must not call it Homer”. Translation and travesty, parody and piety intertwine endlessly in rescriptions of fundamental texts. Why not? Mona Lisa is none the worse for an odd moustache. A century ago, Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius both bent the knee and, so Robert Graves insisted, twisted the ear of the great Roman lyricist. On the other hand, my late friend, the classical scholar John Sullivan, saluted Pound’s alleged howlers (he rendered the Latin “minas”, meaning “threats”, as “Welsh mines”) as enlivening renovation. Ole Ez wrote to John, in memorable green ink, to thank him for his endorsement.

Catullus: Shibari Carmina by Isobel Williams Carcanet, £12.99

Usually quicker to derision than to collegial applause, Roman poets of his day were all but unanimous in saluting Gaius Valerius Catullus as an original who, at the same time, pillaged and promoted Greek poets, from Archilochus and Sappho (with allusive piety, he called his classy mistress Lesbia) to Callimachus and other cleverly clogged Alexandrians.

In contrast with vain, hexametrical Cicero, Catullus and his friends, Rome’s neoteroi, the new wave, crammed their work with challenging obscurities and transposed Greek scansion. Sedentary emigrants, they shunned local politics in favour of exotic conceits. Horace (genius and social climber who hated the common crowd) came to salute Catullus as “doctus”; Tennyson called him tender; Harold Nicolson couldn’t think why; Byron translated him, in verse and in life.

Flyting — competition and composition rolled into one — was a common game among ancient poets: A wrote one line, B the next. Catullus’ poem 50 celebrates a day of capping with his friend Calvus, a wit as short as Alexander Pope and no less peppery. Luck, never justice, had it that a packet of Catullus’s poems have survived; nothing but snippets of his brilliant friend’s. Versifying as sweet, and sweaty, as making love, their double act left Catullus prostrate with over-excitement.

Shameless and knowing Isobel Williams joins the savvy riot. She begins as she means to go on by cheeking the gowned beaks of the old school, who had us construe “Gallia omnis divisa est in partes tres”. Her Catullus mocks Julius Caesar’s famous boast, although her insolent “quotation” is unlikely to have been published in the poet’s lifetime. Cornelius, to whom Catullus dedicated his pumice-polished slim volume, is blanked by Ms Williams, leaving space for her readers to sign themselves into her party. Collage and college in one slim course, her little book teaches and teases.

The title Shibari Carmina ties the Latin poet in Nipponese knots. Shibari, we are advised, is a form of bondage, of Japanese origin, in which the Master (male or female) ropes The Other, literally, in a more or less cruel cradle. The game proceeds by the elevation of the subject into a dangle of living helplessness, victim and jailer hooked in the same game, each craving the other’s role when it comes to exquisite callousness (dripping wax an optional refinement).

Ms Williams pays challenging tribute to Gordon, a 1966 novel by Edith Templeton, banned for indecency, that I happen to have scripted for an aborted movie. In it the dumped sadist, no longer a menace, thus no longer a lure, contrives his own agony and kills himself. No one knows how or when Catullus died.

Although such games have a worldwide playing field, English nineteenth-century art paraded no images as shameless as Charles-François Jeandel’s Deux Femmes nues attachées, allongées sur le côté. Ms Williams warns readers against indulging in what it amuses the French to call le vice anglais without tutored initiation. W.B. Yeats could never make her one of the dusty pedants who would not know how to respond “did their Catullus walk that way”. Her treatment of selected poems is literary charcuterie as neat as it is naughty. Criticism ceases to be inky assessment and becomes a rally, tease and treat.

Catullus is apt for tweaking: he took no prisoners among rival poets save those he enjoyed twisting into novel forms. A century ago, Louis Zukovsky went perhaps too far in jazzing the poet by leaving his sense behind. Ms Williams has more sly, allusive fun in her per/versification of the Latin.

 Criticism ceases to be inky assessment and becomes a rally, tease and treat

There are greens and bunkers along her course. When she says that Catullus’s father had a “villa” (on Lake Como), she ignores, unless she knows very well, that that summery-sounding property was a peninsular share in Rome’s conquest, by Marius, of what had been Cisalpine Gaul. Catullus père was less a “citizen of Verona” than profiteer and poacher.

His fortunes were fattened by supplying Julius Caesar; his wide estates composed mostly of allotments granted to victorious Marian veterans, who had been easily bought out. Catullus’s insolent attitude to Caesar’s condescension had Oedipal ingredients. Family friend Julius refused to take offence at Catullus’s lampoonery, which must have been galling.

The poet was more wannabe toff than landed gent. He is credited here with a “villa” near Tivoli, though no known text supplies it, and with a “private income”. In fact, what cash he had came from hand-outs from his merchant father. Knowing enough to accuse the poet of having a “book-keeper’s eye”, Ms Williams does her own accountancy in assessing that 20.35 per cent of the surviving poems “include numbers or counting”; a parody of scholars’ pernickety pointlessness.

Adverse verses supplied both a pastime in ancient Rome and a way of drawing smart, perhaps dangerous, attention to oneself. Catullus lampooned his father’s friend Caesar (and his then buddy Pompey) with republican scorn; such insolence would have shortened his life under the empire, as Lucan’s did his under Nero. Caesar, whose verses were lousy, however exemplary his prose, was confident enough to patronise his caricaturist.

We are told that C.H. Sisson, a poet to whom I spoke, in fruitless consolation, as he lay dying, thought himself Catullus’ friend across the centuries. Was Sisson’s In The Trojan Ditch an allusion to C.’s brother, who ended in one?

Part of having a good time with Ms Williams has to include catching her out, or thinking one has. I remember Professor Anderson’s wavering pen as he scored my Latin verses and asked where phrases “came from”. Where does Ms Williams find the witless “crushing tortures of the soul” in poem 2, a jealous tribute to Lesbia’s pet sparrow? Her 2b, on the other hand, rescues an all-but unintelligible annex and makes perky play with its fragmentation.

Poem 3 works less well. Beginning “Break, break, break”, as if with a girlish cry of “Tennyson, anyone?”, it lands us in no salty anachronism, unless “sheer love” is taken to be less trite than an allusion to silk stockings. Then again, If Ms Williams had started by parodying today’s poet laureate, instead of one of Queen Victoria’s, who would have known? Can anyone but Mr Armitage himself recite a single one of his lines?

How much fun comes of calling Lesbia’s dead sparrow an “objet d’art”? Its owner’s eyes are said to be “Red-raw, tumescent, overflown”. Isn’t “overflown” what airports are when planes fail to land?

Poem 5, “Song of Snogs” (later comes “engorgement party”) is nicely snagged in typographical conceits. Quibbling being part of the fun, I gave it tick-query-tick because I don’t see how the flower in the piece could be elusive when it was slashed by the wanton scythe. Madam’s “Combine harvester” is a conceit too far; but Mr Blond for “Aurelius” is sweet as a nut. Just as “Captain Scarlet” is for Rufus, Catullus’ best friend and — no big surprise — Lesbia’s lover.

In poem 21, might the banal “it chokes you to death” better be “jokes you…”? 24, addressed, bitterly, to Catullus’ occasional lover Juventius, is impeccably modernised. As you have gathered, and will find, I hope, this selection of cutely mounted amuse-gueules (amuse girls, some might say) challenges the reader even as it flatters him.

She may revel in taking Catullus for a ram trapped in any number of thickets, but Ms Williams allows most of his poems to stand unspiced

I winced only when poem 51 is laced with obscenities when the original is a true and delicate love song. That’s the point? Not sharp enough. Fancy games are here to be played, clues to be spotted. You have to be on your toes to mark where the title Glue Bit finds its punning source in the original Latin. Glubit means, primarily, “to strip the bark” and so furnishes the poet with a going down image of the once starry Lesbia as a sexual come-one-come-all attraction.

However erotic, this slim, deliciously illustrated, volume is never of the kind that Rousseau described as designed for reading with one hand. She may revel in taking Catullus for a ram trapped in any number of thickets, but Ms Williams allows most of his poems to stand, unspiced and unspliced.

The romantic urgency of the naif and sentimental lover is not mocked, although she does take scholarly note of the suggestion, advanced straight-facedly by the excellent, if heterodox, Peter Wiseman, that Lesbia was a wishful fiction. The intertwining of history, literature, fancy and fantasy, fact, fiction, high and low, can scarcely find a better locus than in what we know, do not know, guess or fantasise, about Gaius Valerius and his circle.

Shibari Carmina embellishes the literature by looping the poet in a crib spun from and around his own confections. If you fail to enjoy this sado-masochistic gem as much as I have, you can always flog it.

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