Tuesday, June 10, 2008

another essay

I've written another essay, for the benefit of my year 12 class. Here it is:


With reference to Catullus’ Carmen I and Horace’s Odes III.30, compare each author’s attitude to their own poetry.



Catullus and Horace, though both poets in the lyric tradition, differ substantially in many ways. While they share concern for expressing personal feelings and experiment with a range of meters in their poetry, Catullus’ poems often display a sense of humour and irony absent from Horace’s grander and more serious poems. This can be clearly seen in the two poems under discussion, Carmen 1 and Odes III.30.

Both poems share a similar purpose; to convey their authors’ reflections on their work. Carmen 1 serves as an introduction to a newly completed (modo expolitum) volume of Catullus’ work (possibly all the extant poems, possibly only a portion thereof, poems 1-51 for example). Ode III.30 likewise is a reflection on Horace’s poetic achievements (exegi monumentum), though it comes at the end of Book III (Books I-III were originally published together, Book IV sometime later) of his Odes and serves as an epilogue rather than an introduction. Though they share this common purpose, the style and tone of each poem is significantly different, revealing the differing attitudes of each poet to their work.

The self-deprecatory tone of Catullus’ poem immediately suggests that he does not place a very high value on his own poetry. He refers to his publication as merely a ‘libellum’ (little book), and later on refers to his poems as ‘nugas’ (trifles). His use of indefinite pronouns reinforces this idea; he humbly thanks Cornelius (to whom the poem is dedicated) for thinking that his poems were at least worth something (‘aliquid’), and urges him to consider them his own, whatever they are worth (‘quidquid… qualecumque’). Indeed Catullus seems to value Cornelius’ writing much more highly than his own. He describes his three volumes (‘tribus… cartis’) of history as ‘doctis’ (learned) and ‘laboriosis’ (full of hard-work, or possibly, if we detect an undercurrent of sarcasm, ‘hard to read’). Finally, Catullus is modest in his hopes for his own poetry. There was a tradition in Greek poetry to appeal to the gods to ensure the immortality of one’s poetry, but Catullus dare not ask for such a lofty thing for his nugae; instead he humbly asks that his poetry will be allowed to endure for ‘more than one generation’ (‘plus uno… saeclo’), though the addition of ‘perenne’ (eternally) gives us reason to ask whether Catullus’ self-deprecation throughout the poem is entirely genuine.

In fact there is good reason to think that Catullus is being somewhat disingenuous in this poem. There are several indications that he does in fact value his poetry, but the things which he values are not traditionally esteemed. Catullus’ comparison of his poetry with that of Cornelius is instructive; there is no reason to assume that Catullus is being unfriendly towards Cornelius, but the things he identifies in his writing are not necessarily the things which are important to him. As we have seen Catullus’ mentions the length of Cornelius’ work (three volumes- tribus cartis) and describes them as laboriosis (with its double meaning- see above). Catullus introduces his work on the other hand as short (implicit in the words libellum and nugas), polished (expolitum- used both of the scroll in a literal sense, and the poems in a metaphorical sense) and charming (lepidum). Catullus is indicating the newness (novum) of the type of poetry he is writing (though he is heavily influenced by Greek poets such as Callimachus and Sappho) – to Catullus wit and charm are preferable to seriousness and precise, highly refined use of language to length. These values recur throughout Catullus’ poetry; the brevity of his poems and their non-serious subject matter can obviously be seen, but just as important is his vocabulary – lepidus and its synonym venustus recur frequently, in poems 3, 6, 10, 12, 13, 16, 22, 36 and 50 for example. Even the meter used by Catullus in this poem (and the majority of poems 1-51), the hendecasyllabic, reflects Catullus’ values – it has a colloquial vernacular quality, which suits the informal, often humorous nature of his poetry. Thus Carmen 1 serves not only as a dedication, but also to set forth the things which Catullus considers important and desirable in his own poetry.


In Ode III.30, however, none of Catullus’ self-deprecation is to be found. A grand tone is established from the very beginning with the initial placement of the verb (exegi), the comparative adjectives emphasised at the end of the line (perennius, altius), the grand metaphors (imber edax, Aquilo impotens), the mythological, religious and geographical references (Libitinam, Capitolium, Aufidus, Daunus, Delphica, Melpomene) and even the length of the first sentence which gives the reader no time to pause until the end of line 5. Horace is proud of his poetry and has a written a suitably grand poem to match the grandness of his achievement. Unlike Catullus, Horace openly and confidently proclaims the immortality of his work; he doesn’t even request of his muse that his poetry might last, but states, as if it were fact, not only that it will outlast bronze statues and the pyramids (aere, pyramidum) but that he himself will survive (non omnis moriar, crescam) as long as Rome endures (dum… pontifex). Horace acknowledges the arrogance of this claim (sume superbiam), but he doesn’t apologise for it; in fact he claims that he has earned the right to boast through his own merit (quaesitam meritis). This directness of approach is typical of much of Horace’s writing. He is typically honest and earnest, such as in poems I.9, I.11, II.14 and IV.7, where the message of his poetry is clear and direct. In contrast to Catullus’ self-deprecatory and somewhat disingenuous approach, Horace often tells his reader exactly what is on his mind.

It is important to ask, however, exactly what Horace valued about his poetry, and Ode III.30, also gives us insight into this question. Horace’s key claim is that he was the first (princeps) to apply the achievements of the Greek poets, and especially their lyric meters (Aeolium Carmen), to Italian (Roman) poetry (Italos modos). We see the truth of this claim (though Catullus also experimented with various Greek meters) throughout Horace’s work, with poems dealing with a wide range of traditional Lyric subjects (a drinking poem, a conversation between lovers, a hymn to Diana, an invitation etc) in a wide range of meters (Alcaic, Sapphic, various Asclepiad systems etc).

To conclude, both poets express a desire for their work to endure – in fact the same word (perenne/perennius) is used by both Catullus and Horace to describe their hopes for their poetry. However in these two poems we see significant differences in each poet’s attitude. Catullus is self-deprecatory and considers wit and brevity the most desirable qualities in his writing. Horace on the other hand is unashamedly proud of his grand poetry, and clearly places great importance on his achievements in bringing Greek poetry to Rome.

1 comment:

veritas said...

it's a good essay and everything is explained thoroughly. i think my essay had too much analysis of the language itself which is not as good as it is bad- i shall, most definitely, try to improve on that.