She likens this ancient poet to a Hoxton hipster; a man who played down his wealth, partied hard, made witty flirtation into an art – and in the true mould of many a brilliant young man, died young.Leave a Comment
Daisy Dunn – Catullus’ Bedspread
The Roman poet, Catullus, might not appear at first glance to be a prime candidate for a biography – not least because there are only six facts known about him. Add to that, the detail that he lived over 2,000 years ago and died probably aged 29 or 30 and the challenge of stitching together a picture of this notorious poet mounts. Yet, this has not deterred Daisy Dunn – whose academic credentials include a degree from Oxford and a PhD from UCL – from weaving together a lucid version of his life in her debut book, Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet.
Informed largely by Catullus’ own poems (her translations are published in conjunction with the biography), supplemented with descriptions gleaned from studying ancient Latin sources, enhanced by her rich depictions of the political, social and cultural milieu in which Catullus was writing, Dunn’s biography sheds light on this mystery man, breathing life into a poet whose work she believes passionately deserves to be read and lauded by a modern audience.
The chief of a new school of poets (poetae novi) Catullus was at the forefront of an innovative, epigrammatic style. “Goatish and scatological”, witty, concise and irreverent, his poems abandoned the didactic, traditional model of epic accounts of battles between men and gods, in favour of powerful personal matters and outpourings of raw emotion. Dunn fancies that he was a ‘proto-feminist’, in touch with his feelings, in tune with the women around him, of whom the most notable was one ‘Lesbia’, or Clodia Metella, to give her formal name.
She was the wife of a senator, the object of Catullus’ lust, the woman with whom he conducted a heated affair. “Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque vivemus”, he tells her. “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love.”
Others of his poems, in the true spirit of a rebel, can only be described as obscene. So much so that until relatively recently, editions of Catullus’ poetry were censored, a veil drawn over his more vulgar verses for fear of corrupting young minds.
What is known, for sure, about Catullus is that he was alive during the dying days of the Roman Republic. Like other Latin poets of repute – Martial, Horace, Virgil and Ovid – Catullus grew up away from Rome. Home was Verona, then a part of Gaul. In recognition of its famous son, the Verona airport still bears his name. He moved to Rome, travelled awhile to Bithynia and then returned, not to the capital, but to Sirmio (modern-day Sirmione), where the “Grotto of Catullus” stands to this day on what is thought to be the site of his original house. As Sirmio, a place of great beauty situated on a peninsula in Lake Garda inspired Catullus, so too did it captivate Alfred Lord Tennyson and Ezra Pound.
It is Poem 64, a miniature epic, four hundred lines long, in which Catullus tells of the love between Peleus and Thetis (parents of the hero Achilles) that features the bedspread from which Dunn takes her title. Clearly, the author is smitten by the image of the embroidered coverlet, which depicts the marriage of Ariadne and Theseus, before the latter abandons the daughter of Minos on the island of Naxos, a scene depicted in glorious detail by Titian.
There’s no doubting Dunn’s passion for her subject. She likens this ancient poet to a Hoxton hipster; a man who played down his wealth, partied hard, made witty flirtation into an art – and in the true mould of many a brilliant young man, died young. Somewhat wistfully, she reflects: “I haven’t yet met a modern man who measures up to him.”
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