Catullus 22

Suffenus the …. poet?

A poem about a bad poet(says Catullus) who thinks he is a good poet. When Catullus is critical of you, you had usually better duck, but here he sees a need to make allowances, and recognise that a capacity for self-deception is part of human nature. One likes him all the better for it.

There is all sorts of interesting stuff here about Roman books if that is your interest. The reference at the end to carrying baggage is to one of Aesop’s fables, about a man who has two bags: one at the front, in which he keeps his neighbour’s shortcomings where he can see them, and one kept out of sight on his back, containing his own.

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Suffenus iste, Vare, quem probe nosti,
homo est venustus et dicax et urbanus,
idemque longe plurimos facit versus.
puto esse ego illi milia aut decem aut plura
perscripta, nec sic ut fit in palimpsesto
relata: cartae regiae, novi libri,
novi umbilici, lora rubra, membranae,
derecta plumbo et pumice omnia aequata.
haec cum legas tu, bellus ille et urbanus
Suffenus unus caprimulgus aut fossor
rursus videtur: tantum abhorret ac mutat.
hoc quid putemus esse? qui modo scurra
aut si quid hac re scitius videbatur,
idem infaceto est infacetior rure,
simul poemata attigit, neque idem umquam
aeque est beatus ac poema cum scribit:
tam gaudet in se tamque se ipse miratur.
nimirum idem omnes fallimur, neque est quisquam
quem non in aliqua re videre Suffenum
possis. suus cuique attributus est error;
sed non videmus manticae quod in tergo est.

That Suffenus, whom you know well, Varus,
is elegant, well-spoken and well-mannered; but
he writes more verse by far than anybody else.
I think he’s got ten or more thousand written out,
in fair copy, not, as one does, re-using papyrus,
but king-sized pages, brand-new books, new rollers,
fine red ties, dust-wrappers, and all
ruled with lead and levelled-off with pumice.
If you read them, though, that elegant,
urbane Suffenus sounds just like a goatherd
or a navvy. What a change, how unlike him!
What should we make of it? The same man who
just now seemed a wit, or something even choicer,
becomes more rustic than rusticity itself,
when he turns his hand to poetry. Nor is he ever
happier than when he’s writing poems: enjoying
himself so much, so full of wonder at himself.
We all make the same mistake, I shouldn’t wonder;
there’s no-one in whom you can’t see a Suffenus, one way
or another: we all have delusions, but then again,
we can’t see baggage if it’s carried on our backs.