A COCKNEY CATULLUS: The Reception of Catullus in Romantic Britain, 1795-1821

By Henry Stead

OUP (2016) h/b 339pp £65 (ISBN 9780198744887)

 Although Catullus was known and translated long before the Romantic era, translators confined themselves mostly, though by no means entirely, to the inoffensive and well-known poems, and S. estimates that translations of ‘about half’ of Catullus’ oeuvre had appeared in print by the end of the eighteenth century. Or at least until the first complete translation by John Nott appeared in 1795; a second by George Lamb followed soon after in 1821. These two are the focus of interest in the first chapter.

Nott’s edition had the English versions in verse and the Latin on facing pages, with footnotes. His aims, S. avers, were to make the text accessible primarily to students and scholars rather than the general reader, although there were a number of Latin editions available by then. The translation was ‘poetic but close’—in contrast to Lamb’s poetic versions—and was also more explicit and published anonymously. Lamb omitted 31 poems (Fordyce left out 32 as recently as 1961) and ‘materially altered’ others, thus avoiding ‘all the beastliness of Catullus’ neatly highlighted in this ditty by W.S.Landor:

Among these treasures there are some
That floated past the wreck of Rome;
But others, for their place unfit,
Are sullied by uncleanly wit.
So in its shell a pearl is found
With rank putridity around.

Not a poem for oyster lovers! But Lamb, it appears, was fit even ‘for the delicate hands of high society’s women’. A reviewer in Blackwood’s Magazine was not impressed by Lamb’s ‘drivelling vapidity’, a judgement S. somewhat softens by reference to the ‘untimeliness’ of his ‘method’.

The second chapter has Catullus 64 as its focus, turning first to versions by Frank Sayers (1803) and Sir Charles Elton (1814), before considering the narrative verse of the cockney poets Peacock (‘Greeky Peaky’), Keats and Hunt and their ‘interweaving of classical imitation and unborrowed ideas’. Particular elements, especially the abandonment of Ariadne and the arrival of Bacchus, made this poem appealing as a challenge to the establishment and its ‘traditional heroic classicism’.

Chapter three examines the reception of Catullus by other non-cockney Romantic poets, particularly Landor, Wordsworth, Moore and Byron, before turning to the use of Catullus (in parodies) to attack the reformists. ‘King of Cockaigne’ Leigh Hunt is the subject of chapter four and Keats of the final chapter. Close readings of Hunt’s translations are followed by a search for the ‘shady presence’ of Catullus in Keats, where there is little overt allusion, but sufficient textual echoes, to establish that Keats was at least familiar with some of Catullus.

Catullus may not at first seem an obvious choice of poet for either the traditionalists of the educated elite or reformers to bring before the newly emerging reading public, but S. has assembled a fascinating history of the diverse receptions of Catullus in an age of polarised politics and high anxiety because of events on the continent. The struggle with the poetry and language of Catullus is constantly under scrutiny as we watch, for example, Hunt attempting a diminutive (‘Septimy’ which didn’t work), or emasculating the emasculation of Catullus 63 (‘a custom,’ says Hunt, ‘of which neither our manners nor morals should endure to hear’).

S. is a perceptive guide to these turbulent times. His style is not encumbered by a reliance on jargon, but manages to be both academic and accessible. One solecism, lepidus carmen, should have been spotted at proof reading.

Alan Beale

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