The other day while marking some year 12 essays I had a revelation. It struck me that Catullus’ poetry is a lot like the TV show Seinfeld, while Horace’s is more like Sex and the City. Let me explain.
Seinfeld was a show which claimed to be about nothing, but in fact was about lots of stuff- based around the everyday lives and relationships of four friends. Sex and the City on the over hand claimed to be revolutionary television, but when you stripped away the rhetoric it too was about the everyday lives and relationships of four friends.
Catullus claims in his introductory poem that his poetry is also about nothing when he calls his poems mere trifles (‘nugas’). What I think he means is that his poetry doesn’t deal with any of the subjects which were considered in his time to be serious and important; subjects like mythology, gods, heroes, wars, history and even philosophy. Rather his poems are (generally) about his everyday life and relationships. Catullus was not the first to write this kind of poetry, he was heavily influenced by the Alexandrian poets of 200 or so years before (especially Callimachus)
On the other hand, Horace (in Ode III.30, a kind of epilogue, reflecting on his own poetic achievements) claims to have completed in his poetry a monument more lasting than bronze (‘aere perennius’) which will ensure his immortality as long as Rome exists. His boast rests on the assertion that he was the first (‘princeps’) to bring Greek poetry to Rome – though this is not strictly accurate. Catullus and the other poetae novi (whose work is for the most part sadly lost) also experimented with Greek themes, forms, meters and conventions in the same way that Horace did.
So, like Seinfeld, Catullus claims that his poems are nothing, when really they are something, and Horace, like Sex and the City, claims that his poems are revolutionary, when really they are heavily indebted to what has gone before.
[Disclaimer: I have never actually watched an episode of Sex and the City - this is just the impression I get of the show]