The love poem may be as old as the act of wooing itself. Lovers may have composed lyrics on the spot in order to tempt a potential partner into “[nodding]…agreement.” Few love poets are as direct as Catullus, who lived and wrote at the time of the first Roman triumvirate. Catullus is not only known for his love poems but also for his satirical invective—another kind of love poem, since invective often originates out of love’s anger.
Both Catullus’ loves and life are the subject of Daisy Dunn’s marvelous Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, a remarkable telling of the life of Catullus through the poet’s own words: a careful reading and rendering of his poetry, including his longest work, his “bedspread poem,” which serves as the ongoing centerpiece of Dunn’s examination.
The book’s very title titillates—suggestive of erotic use, of erotic play, of the tales the bedspread might tell—and Dunn’s study itself is, as Catullus writes and Dunn quotes in the epigraph, a kind of “bedspread / Embroidered with the shapes of men / Who lived long ago”: not only Catullus and his loves but also Caesar, Crassus, Pompey, Cicero, and a tapestry of others. As Dunn explains, the book is “meant to convey the whole fabric of Catullus’ time.”
The 117 known poems of Catullus that have survived serve as the materials which tell of his life and these times. Dunn combines her classical and art historical training to examine the work and life. There are only about six facts known about Catullus’ life, Dunn says. As a result, “I want to bring readers to his poems,” she says. But she also acknowledges that “few people today are likely to read his poems without knowing about the man. As I read his 117 poems over and over again, they began to tell a story. So I created a life of Catullus written largely in his own words.”
Dunn used many other sources as well. For example, the letters and speeches of Cicero provided her with a rich resource. Her art historian expertise found application not only in the tapestry of the bedspread poem but also in a Titian painting, Bacchus and Ariadne, which references Catullus’ poem or, as Dunn writes, “Titian’s canvas became Catullus’ bedspread turned inside out.” “I had Titian’s painting in my head as I worked through the process of writing the book,” she explains.
Dunn came to the work of Catullus as an adolescent—and she fell for him, hard. In her acknowledgements, she writes about her “passionate affair” with Catullus. This book serves as a consummation, as she also translates many of his poems in this study. “Catullus changed my perception of what poetry is and what it could be,” Dunn says. “It’s bold, confessional, and straightforward; it seems so simple. As you read the poems more carefully,” Dunn elaborates, “you realize how much is behind them. In my translations of the poems, I wanted to convey the Latin, and I wanted to create versions that would speak to current readers and students. I had to balance the perfect word with considerations of the poem’s rhythm—and I always opted in favor of the vocabulary.”
Dunn’s translations are clear, direct, and colloquial, full of double entendres. Catullus’ heirs may be found in certain hip hop artists; Kate Tempest and the Streets come to mind. As Dunn laments, “It’s hard to find contemporary poets as romantic and incisive as Catullus.” When pressed, Dunn points to the work of British poet Hugo Williams, whose “raw honesty” and colloquial strengths earn her admiration. Indeed, she showed Williams her Catullus translations in order to garner his perspective.
Dunn has broadened the book’s scope to examine the times and prominent characters of the era. Catullus, for example, skewers Julius Caesar, a friend of his father’s. So many historians and literary works elevate Caesar; Catullus salaciously writes about “penetrated Caesar,” calls him an adulterer, and dismisses his stature by claiming Caesar is merely engaged in frivolous rivalries “over little girls.”
Dunn explains that Caesar represented an older generation Catullus would just as soon seen overthrown, and, even more importantly, Caesar conducted bloody campaigns throughout Gaul, Catullus’ birthplace. “Caesar committed numerous atrocities in subduing the region, yet he glorified his role in his memoirs.” Caesar’s version, the victor’s narrative, became the master narrative for centuries thereafter. Expanding on this point, Dunn adds, “Caesar is the bridge between the Republic and the Empire. Caesar was more charismatic than Augustus, the actual first Emperor. There was a huge fear of a monarchy or emperor in Catullus’ time.” Catullus’ portrait of Caesar builds on that anxiety.
Dunn worked to maintain a balance between keeping the poems at the forefront while simultaneously establishing a context for the work. “It proved a difficult balance,” Dunn admits. “I was tempted, with my history background, to chart all elements of the alliances and the politics. But I had to keep Catullus in the foreground, so the reader would see the times and events through Catullus’ eyes, as he saw them.”
It’s easy, too, given the recent Brexit vote, to look to the Roman empire as a model of globalization. “The Romans were models for incorporating as many peoples as possible,” Dunn claims. “One can see Roman expansion as ugly imperialism, yet Romans were also investing in infrastructure and creating economic exchanges.”
The bedspread poem at the heart of the book serves a role similar to the shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. Each depicts a world: Catullus’ on the bedspread, on the battlefield of love; Achilles’ on his shield forged for battle against Hector and the Trojans. Dunn observes that these elaborate and epic descriptions “knit together the works. They present a perspective that the world itself is epic.”
The bedspread poem is Catullus’ longest poem, and it’s a poem written after he has travelled to Asia, to the regions described in his poem, following the death of his brother, who died in the region near Troy. It’s also likely a veiled allusion to his affair with Lesbia (Clodia Metelli), with all the underlying tragic elements of Ariadne and Theseus, the marriage of Peleus and Thetis and the fate of their son, Achilles. The erotic and sardonic poems, Dunn believes, likely belong to his earlier life. “Catullus might have moved to writing extended works if he had lived longer,” Dunn suggests. “It wasn’t necessarily his brother’s death itself that changed his focus; rather, Catullus’ journey into Asia literally changed his poetry horizons. The journey imbued the poetry with a broader sense of place than the bedrooms and alleys of Rome.”
All the sexual frankness of the earlier poems portray Rome as a kind of small, intense, university hook-up culture. “Yes,” Dunn agrees. “Rome was a kind of campus society which made all the sexual and political intrigues more heated.”
Dunn is a proselytizer for Catullus’ work and for a classical education. “I feel evangelical about people studying Greek and Latin,” Dunn explains. “And Catullus offers a subversive and modern reading of these ancient times.” Dunn’s study of the life of Rome’s most erotic poet is likely to bring many other lovers to Catullus’ side.
J. W. Bonner teaches writing and Humanities at Asheville School in Asheville, N.C.