If Catullus was ever out of fashion, he is back with a foulmouthed vengeance. Ever since Ariane Gordji was left ‘shocked and confused’ after reading ‘pedicabo vos, et irrumabo vos’ in an email from hedge fund manager Mark Lowe – whether she was more appalled by his bad language or by his bad Latin is unclear – Catullus has been reveling in the limelight. An apologia from Mary Beard, typical ‘shockedandappalled’ anti-elitism from the Daily Mail (‘the literary equivalent of glassing in a pub-fight’) and fumbling nostalgic Classicism from the Telegraph: all grist to the poet’s mill.
But what does he mean when he writes ‘I will bugger you and fuck you in the face’, and why do we care? Because, and there is no getting around it, that is what the Latin says. There are three answers to this question, each corresponding to a different Catullus; and the answer the twenty-first century chooses may come to define it as a poetic era.
The first Catullus is a kind of Young British Artist: a poet of the toilet door, master of the obscene, a writer who farts at literary champagne receptions and savours the odour like a brandy connoisseur. This man is just downright rude: he uses vulgarity, as he tells us, ‘to arouse what tickles, and I don’t mean in little boys, but in those hairy men who can scarce stir their hard limbs.’
James Methven, however, would have us take a more sympathetic view. His Catullus – our second Catullus – is a man of tender passions, of mordant wit, and above all of satirical playfulness. He uses obscenity to give his poetry vigour and charm; and Oriel don Methven’s first volume of poetry Precious Asses, winner of the 2009 Purple Moose Prize, breathes with this spirit. The poems in this book play coquettish games with the Latin originals, all roaming hands and fumbling kisses, resulting in something that is not quite translation and not quite original verse. What it is is fun. Lots of fun. Methven picks up Catullus and bounces along with him, until the famous line about sphincters and mouths comes out: ‘As I said. Arse. Then Mouth. Both of you. Enjoy.’
These poems are (mostly) quite readable without a copy of Catullus to hand; so independent is the poet’s soul. Playing with poem 15, where Catullus brings down dire imprecations upon his friend’s head should he fail to look after a pretty boy, we have ‘For Your Eyes Only’, a poem that could have been born in a room over Oriel’s main quad:
‘…should the two of you pop out
To the pool, say, or for some food, or – wince – a club, keep him safe,
Watch out for the lads who strut the High, the Broad, Carfax and the Turl…’
Methven banters away in this vein for a few more lines, then, in a very Catullan sea-change, raves:
Should your cock-crazed sphincter-sick bum-sex-obsessed mentality
Goad you to pull off the greatest crime of all – betrayal –
Here’s my warning fairly given: I’ll stake you in the quad, for all to see
Face-down, arms bound, and legs stretched wide wide wide apart
It’ll be time for your arse-hole to say, ‘Hello!’ to Mr Radish and Mr Mullet-Fin.’
A reader familiar with the Latin will see that Methven’s instinct is to expand and vivify the most striking nuance of the verse, often at the expense of the more poetic and formal registers. It is not that Methven-Catullus becomes monotonous – on the contrary, he shows himself sensitive and tender in adapting Catullus’ adaptation of Sappho in the excellent Obsession – but rather that he does not hit all the spots that the Roman Catullus does. His avatar of the poet sings the blues beautifully – This Year’s Crop of Kisses, inspired by poem 48, belongs in a smoky New Orleans bar – but rarely follows the Latin into its loftier reaches. Methven’s Catullus sounds like nothing quite so much as Nick Cave.
Another obvious aspect of the poetry lost in this translation is its metre. This is more understandable: it is a long, long time since experiments like Tennyson’s ‘Oh you chorus of indolent reviewers’ were fashionable. Yet where Tennyson and a hundred versifiers like him missed the rampant fun of Catullus, Methven misses his ingenuity and refinement. ‘Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo’ is, like so many of Catullus’ shorter poems, written in a tremendously tricky metre called the hendecasyllable, and this is important: the poet is squeezing visceral invective into an intellectually demanding verse form. The raw feeling is broken up and polished, and then reassembled into lines that skim like stones over the surface of water. John Donne – recently voted the nation’s second favourite poet in a BBC poll – describes the process of writing in verse in these words:
‘I thought, if I could draw my pains
Through rhyme’s vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.’ [from The Triple Fool]
This third Catullus is a poet of supreme control, handling thought and emotion with the delicate tools of lyric metre, linguistic registers and literary allusion. And it is this focus, this intensity, this mastery, that could make Catullus relevant and interesting to the twenty-first century, and in turn make our generation relevant and interesting to the future.
Clever verse, if written with strength and vigour, is anything but dry: its feelings and attitudes are tempered, refined, given new degrees of subtlety. James Methven rants and raves and cries and swears and teases as well as Catullus himself, but he is missing Catullus’ hypnotic intelligence: an intelligence that will never go out of style.