Catullus’s opening poem. It seems a bit frivolous, and the compliments to the dedicatee, Cornelius, on his three-volume tome on the history of the ancient world feel a bit back-handed. Then Catullus takes us off-balance at the end by bringing in his Muse, and asking for her help in arranging for his “little book” to last down the ages – something that was hard to guarantee in a literary world with no printing, where survival would have been determined by fashion, luck and the tastes of a much smaller audience than today’s.
Pumice, referred to in the first line, was used to smooth the ends of the papyrus scrolls that books were written on. The metre, hendecasyllables, is taken from Greek lyric, bounces along and adds to the feeling that we are not in very serious poetic territory: in his excellent “The Student’s Catullus”, Professor Daniel H Garrison writes that it has “a colloquial, vernacular quality that evokes the comic stage and the rhythms of street language”. Nevertheless, as he gets into his stride, Catullus will use it often and to powerful and varied effect, in contexts ranging from foul-mouthed abuse via social comedy to his most affecting love poetry.
See the illustrated blog post here.
To listen, press play:
To scroll both versions of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.
Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas
iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis,
doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis.
quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli,
qualecumque, quod, o patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo!
Who shall I dedicate my nice, new little book to,
just smoothed off with dry pumice? You, Cornelius,
because you used to think there was something to
my trifles, even back when you were the only
Italian who dared to write the whole of history in
three volumes, and very learned and thorough
they were too, by Jupiter! So, take this little bit
of my little book, for what it’s worth;
and, O Muse my patroness, may it last
and endure for more than this one age!