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Obscenity in Catullus

  • Donald Lateiner (a1)

For the artist, obscenity is an aesthetic, not a legal, problem. I wish to analyze the uses to which Catullus puts obscenity and comment on the nature of obscenity in poetry. Catullus comments on his obscene subject matter in three poems. These furnish a starting point for an anatomy of the obscenity of Catullus. Poem 50 describes an afternoon of light verse composition (versiculi) with a friend. ‘We played around a lot, each toying in verse’ (lusimus, ludebat) suggests competition, also banter and ridicule (cf. Cic. de Orat. 1.12.50). Lepor in speech is wit more than charm or pleasantness (Cic. Brut. 38. 143; also, iocum and facetiae). No doubt, then as today, a fine insult or obscenity was more immediately appreciated than a magnificent simile or compliment. No mention is made of versifying obscenity in 50, but we learn of Catullus' attitude towards writing light, and probably passionate, poetry. It is fun (lusimus), it is metrically exciting (numero modo hoc modo illoc, ‘now in this metre, now in that’), it is competitive (tuo lepore/incensus, ‘aroused by your charm’), it encourages audacity (audax), and it can leave one physically aroused.

In poem 104, Catullus claims to have been unable to insult (maledicere) his love. To ensure that no one might think him unable to write nasty, obscene poems, the fourth line insults the unknown addressee: Sed tu cum Tappone omnia monstra facis (‘But you perform every monstrosity with Bozo’).

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1. Calvus, Catullus’ witty (50.6–8), passionate (96; cf. Aulus Gellius 19.9) friend, also wrote lively, probably obscene verse; see Kinsey, T. E., ‘Catullus 16’, Latomus 25 1966), 106. Catullus’ language concerning Calvus is hardly different from that for Lesbia — cf. Havelock, E. A., The Lyric Genius of Catullus (Oxford 1939), 114–115; and see 14.1 and 104.2; 14.2 and 109.1; 53.3 and 5.1; 50.6 and 109.2; 50.8–9 and 76.19, 51.5, 72.5; 50.11 and 76.25; 50.11–13 and 107; 50.15 and 76.18; 85.2; 50.18 and 76.17–20.

2. Kinsey (above, note 1) 106 on 50.7–13 and 16.8–11. Kinsey points out the many words in both poems which suggest sexual considerations. The poem comments on genres and styles as well as on subject matter.

3. 73.1–4, 76, 8.1: Miser Catulle desinas ineptire (‘Poor Catullus, cease your foolery’).

4. Cf. Ovid Tr. 2.354; Martial 1.4.8. There is no reason to think this is but a topos, at least in Catullus. How does a serious statement become a commonplace and when?

5. Ad loc.; contra, Whatmough, J., Poetic, Scientific and Other Forms of Discourse (Berkeley 1956), 52.

6. Vos quod milia multa basiorum / Legistis, male me marem putatis? (‘You, because you have read “thousands of kisses”, / Do you think me not much of a man?’).

7. I cannot explain Et quod pruriat mcitare possum (‘And they can excite that which lusts’), since the extant corpus of Catullus, however obscene it is, is not prurient, not pornographic — as Kinsey (above, n. 1) admits. Perhaps in his anger Catullus generalizes his defence of poetry. If he writes for pilosis / Qui duros nequeunt movere lumbos (‘old, hairy men / who are not able to move their creaking crotches’), he claims prurience, but the extant Catullus writes for adults interested in poetry, not children or old men looking for sexual thrills. But if Calvus’ versiculi (‘little poems’) aroused Catullus (50.7–15), perhaps Catullus’ nugae (‘tidbits’) had the same effect on others. The imagery of the lover in 50, however, is used for a special effect: as women affect most men, so Calvus’ poetry affects Catullus.

8. Calvus and Catullus had agreed to act like voluptuaries or decadents (delicati, 50.3); they are not actually such.

9. See 6.2; 8.1; 10.4; 12.4–5; 14; 16; 22.2, 10, 14; 36.19–20; 39; 43.8; 84. For a recent study of Greek comic obscenity, see Henderson, Jeffrey, The Maculate Muse (New Haven and London, 1975). The first chapter, despite some tired Freudianism, makes some valuable distinctions between pornography and obscenity (p. 7), and between Greek and Roman attitudes.

10. The first two verses ‘artlessly’ employ geminatio (cf. Cic. De orat. 3.54.206), variatio, and chiasmus to achieve their effect. On the translation of glubit as an act of masturbating another, see most recently Penella, R. J., ‘A note on (de) glubere’, Hermes 104 (1976), 118–20, in support of Lenz, F., ‘Catulliana’, RCCM 5 (1963), 62ff.

11. Cf. Nachträge to Kroll ad loc. and CIL IV. 4185, 1427, 2175, 2193, 2246, 2273, and infra, n. 43. For the sexual overtones of tundo (‘pierce’), cf. 32.11, Lucilius fr. 1035 (Loeb) and battuo (‘pound’).

12. A punishment also employed in 16, 21, 37, 56, 74.

13. Kroll is wrong to call this an adynaton; cf. W. B. Pomeroy in Sexual Behaviour 1.9 (1971), 12.

14. Cf. Lucr. 2.23ff.; the ancient world, less haunted by cries for social justice, saw more humour in disease and poverty than we do; cf. Juv. 3.147–153: nil habet infelix paupertas durius in se / quam quod ridiculos homines facit (‘Wretched poverty has nothing worse in it / than that it makes men preposterous’). Thinkers elevated poverty into a positive good; cf. Cic. Par. Stoic. 49, etc.; Seneca Thyestes 446ff.

15. T. S. Eliot paraphrased Paul Valéry on poetry thus: ‘Poetry: Prose :: Dancing: Walking (or Running).’

16. Catullus 15.18–19, in which Aurelius is threatened with raphanidosis (‘radish up the anus’), avoids this pitfall, but the poem seems antiquarian; cf. Aristoph. Clouds 1083.

17. Subject: 16, 21, 37.8; object: 10.12–13, 28.9–10. The playful element is also prominent in 56, 59 (already discussed) and in 74 where Gellius assures his safety from his uncle’s censure by seducing his aunt. This is wit enough, but playfulness demands the gratuitous insult upon injury: quamvis irrumet ipsum / Nunc patruum, verbum non faciet patruus (‘although he might make suck cock / now his uncle himself, his uncle will not leak a word’). Need we note that speech for the uncle is physically as well as morally impossible? His mouth is full. (Cicero, ad fam. 9.22.4, vouches for the obscene associations of depsit which is compounded here: perdepsuit, ‘worked over’.) Housman, A. E.Praefanda’, Hermes 66 (1931), 408, n. 1, points out the philological and rhetorical inadequacy of Kroll’s view.

18. Commager, S., ‘Notes on Some Poems of Catullus’, HSCP 70 (1965), 93, points out the same effect in 85. La Penna, A., ‘Problemi di Stile Catulliano’, Maia n.s. 8 (1956), 146, reminds us that alliteration is part of the Roman poetic tradition as well as part of the linguistic vehicle for proverbs; cf. Cat. 115.8 and Ennius 621 V.

19. Cf. Alciphron 1.37.2; 3.62.2.

20. Cf. W. B. Yeats, ‘A Last Confession’, 5–12, and ‘Leda and the Swan’. Fututiones is a learned polysyllabic like basiationes (‘kissifications’, 7.1; cf. Quinn’s commentary ad loc). Neither word appears elsewhere except in Martial.

21. CIL IV. 5213, 4196.

22. Are supinus and satur puns on penis and satyrus}

23. Esp. lines 1–2; cf. Curran, Leo, ‘Catullus 80’, Arion 5 (1966), 24ff., for an excellent analysis of this poem. Cliches mislead us in 56, 58, and 115 also.

24. Especially 36; also 11, 23, 26, 49, etc.

25. Irony, see 16, 56, 57, 69, 80, 112; cf. Curran (above n. 23).

26. The former comparison is to a sewage disposal system, if Whatmough’s derivation of ploxenwn is right (above, n. 5, 48–49).

27. Cf. 12.4; 22.17; 39.8; 43.4; 86.3.

28. Cf. Curran (above, n. 23), 24fT.; Quintilian 6.3.17; and Cat. 36.19; 22.14.

29. Also noted by Weinreich, O., Die Distichen des Catull (Tubingen 1926), 29. Note the rhyme in the second half of the pentameter here and in 94. The second half of the pentameter conveys a sound like that of something bouncing down a steep hillside.

30. Kroll’s philological explanation of lines 4–5 (accepted by A. E. Housman, above, n. 17, 402) is more convincing than that offered by the commentaries of Ellis and Quinn.

31. As Bickel, E., ‘Salaputium, mentula salaxRhM 96 (1953), 9495, argues.

32. In an obscene sense, cf. 115.8: mentula magna, and Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary s.v. multus, I. A ad finem.

33. Esp. 5 and 7. Catullus’ skill at suiting common talk to poetic expresison appears in 67.20–22. The ‘door’ says of the young wife’s husband: Languidior tenera cui pendens sicula beta Numquam se mediam sustulit ad tunicam. Whose little curved dick hanging down, more droopy than a flaccid beet, Never yet raised itself to the horizontal. The expression sounds colloquial, but it fits this odd lament.

34. Many of Catullus’ love lyrics possess hostile undertones: to say Quaeris quot mihi basiationes / Tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque (‘You ask how many of your kisses for me, / Lesbia, are enough and more’) is to show frustration and annoyance, and the answer, however beautiful, is a way of rejecting the question. The hostility is clear in the poems where Catullus feels rejected (70, 72, 75, 76).

35. Cf. Fabullus the nose, 13.14; Mentula the mentula, 115.8.

36. Cf. Lucilius’ praetor, frr. 501–502 (Loeb).

37. Structure: salutation, descriptive statement (four times), close of salutation, question (twice), exclamation.

38. Cuniculosae (1. 18) is a word for rabbit, to be sure, but Catullus the punster (cf. lines 1, 2: taberna / contubernales, pileatis / pila) would be aware that the word could recall both cunnus and culm (‘cunt’ and ‘arsehole’). See also supinum in its obscene context, 28.9–10.

39. Cf. CIL IV. 4185, 1427, etc.

40. Hor. Sat. 1.2.28–36; Aero ad he; cf. Plautus Cure. 37–38.

41. In a letter to L. Papirius Paetus, ad fam. 9.22, he explains which phrases one should avoid. All are innocent — as Cicero is at pains to show — but can be maliciously misunderstood; e.g., cum (adv.) nos or cum nobis (‘when we’ or ‘with us’) suggests cunnos or cunnis (‘cunts’); bini (‘two’) suggests Gk. binei (‘fuck’), inter-capedo (‘respite’) suggests Gk. perdomai (‘fart’), etc. ‘I preserve and will preserve … the diffidence of Plato. And so I have written all this to you in covert language, things which the Stoics say as openly as possible.’

42. Cf. pro Caelio 32; Appendix IV of R. G. M. Nesbit, ’s edition of in Pisonem (Oxford 1961), ‘The in Pisonem as an Invective’.

43. E.g., hie ego puellas multas futui (‘here I fucked many girls’, CIL IV. 2175); Murtis bene fellas (‘Myrtis, you suck well’, ibid., 2273).

44. CIL IV. 4957; cf. Cat. 80.1. Catullus’ lines sometimes evoke memories of the graffiti, but this vocabulary sets the ‘crude’ emotional tone which contrasts to the elegant poetic development of the thought. Cf. A. La Penna (above, n. 18) 151–153.

45. Style and Tradition in Catullus (Cambridge, Mass. 1969), 171.

46. Ross (above, n. 45), 155.

47. Ross (above, n. 45), 147.

48. Elder, J., ‘Notes on Some Conscious and Subconscious Elements in Catullus’ Poetry’, HSCP 60 (1951), 111–112.

49. Commager (above, n. 18), 93.

50. Ross (above, n. 45), 171. La Penna (above, n. 18), 148, decries ‘superstizione delle forme’.

51. Wheeler, A. L., Catullus and the Traditions of Ancient Poetry (Berkeley, 1934), 218–241.

52. Ross (above, n. 45), 174.

53. The Catullan Revolution 2 (Cambridge, 1969), 33–34.

54. To paraphrase Ross (above, n. 45), 160–161. There is the additional istorical problem of judging Catullus’ conversational poetry by the classicism of metre, diction, and genre we find in Vergil and Horace. Horace’s obscene epodes, 8 and 12, are the unsuccessful efforts of a poet attempting an alien genre. Their obscenity is flaccid.

55. Life of Dryden quoted by T. S. Eliot, ‘Johnson as Critic and Poet’ (first publ. 1944), in On Poetry and Poets (New York, 1961).

56. Cf. Charles Baudelaire’s prefaces to Les fleurs du mal: ‘La France traverse une phase de vulgarité. … On m’a attribué tous les crimes que je racontais. …’

57. Havelock (above, n. 1), 114. I thank John Herington and Gregson Davis for reading this paper and improving it.

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