Catullus 16

Constructive criticism welcome

Take that! even in an un-prudish age, the language has the power to shock. Once we are over it, what is going on?

On the face of it, Catullus is insulting two men for saying, on the evidence of his erotic poetry, that he leads an immoral life. Stripped of insults, Catullus’s reply is that a distinction must be drawn in interpreting works written in the first person between imagination and autobiography, statement and belief. (The same points necessarily apply to this poem too.) Other issues in modern literary criticism about reliable and unreliable narrators are not far away.

Some possible explanations are less highbrow: invective poems have a strong pedigree as a genre in the ancient world, and Catullus may simply have decided to write one. Whether the people he says are involved, and the reason he gives, are real, or whether he made them all up, we have no way of telling. I imagine a lot of ink has been spilt over these issues, but not by Professor C J Fordyce of the University of Glasgow, who as recently as 1961 omitted the poem from his definitive commentary on Catullus as one of “a few poems which with good reason are rarely read” – along with 31 others.

Real or imaginary, Aurelius and Furius are both referred to by Catullus with varying degrees of disrespect in other poems: both feature as his rivals for the love of young men, and Furius is represented as an impoverished hanger-on with pretensions to social acceptability.

As well as an invective poem, this is a comic one. It is impossible to keep the joke detector quiet when Catullus replies to the accusation of being parum pudicus in terms which are so very far from being pudicus themselves, when we know very well that his accusers are not at all pudicus either, and when we see how he describes the target audience for his erotic poetry.

See the (chastely) illustrated blog post here.

It is hard to know what tone to adopt for delivering this poem – Noel Coward? The Incredible Hulk? Piers Morgan? To hear one possibility among many, press play:

To scroll both versions of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.

Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,
Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi,
qui me ex versiculis meis putastis,
quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum.
nam castum esse decet pium poetam
ipsum, versiculos nihil necesse est;
qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem,
si sunt molliculi ac parum pudici,
et quod pruriat incitare possunt,
non dico pueris, sed his pilosis
qui duros nequeunt movere lumbos.
vos, quod milia multa basiorum
legistis, male me marem putatis?
pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.

Bugger you, and you can suck my cock,
Aurelius rent-an-arse and Furius the slag,
who, because they’re spicy, concluded from
my verses that I was some sort of wastrel!
Of course upstanding poets must themselves stay
decent, but for their little versicles there is
no need: that gives the verses wit, sophistication;
and what if they are sexy and a bit immodest,
the sort that stirs an itch that needs a scratch?
I don’t compose for kids, but for the old ‘uns,
become too old and stiff to wag their shaggy arses!
Because you read of many thousand kisses,
you take me for a sissy, do you?
Bugger you, and you can suck my cock!