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Commentaries on Catullus’ Poetry (Poems 72 & 42) Essay

There is great nuance and sensitivity in poem 72. We are told very early in the poem that it is addressed to Lesbia, Catullus’ love to whom a moderate number of poems in the collection are addressed (or concern). Earlier “Lesbia poems” had shown Catullus’ simple and insatiable love for “my girl”1 in very romantic language: for example, the lines describing the number of times he wished that they could kiss, in poem 5, which caused Aurelius and Furius to describe Catullus as a “sissy” poet2.

However, in poem 70 we begin to see Catullus’ feelings for Lesbia turn sour as he tells us that a woman’s words to her lover are as trustworthy as those written on wind or water after presumably disbelieving her when she told him that there was no one she would rather marry than him, “not even if asked by Jove himself”3. If we assume that Lesbia was Clodia Metelli, we know that she was already married, so if her words are not suggesting that she has become available, she must be describing an unfulfillable wish and it is perhaps the fact that she says these words but is unable to act on her marriage vow which causes Catullus to be so untrusting4. Compared to the “outbursts of joy and fury” in the poems of what has been described as the first book, poem 72 is much “cooler and more analytical”5: Catullus here seems to be writing from his head rather than this heart.

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He uses, in the poem, two striking, and contrasting, similes to try to understand his love for Lesbia. He loved her (note the past tense) as a common might love his girlfriend (72.3), but in addition to that he loved her also as a father might his sons and sons-in-law (72.4). This is touching because it obviously implies that the latter relationship might be closer, with more of a connection, than the former, and, most importantly, that Lesbia was as dear to him as a son would have been, his own flesh and blood. Wray finds this comparison interesting because it is evidence against the long-standing assumption that Roman paternity was “a tyrannical and grimly loveless exercise [of parental power]”6

However, from here on in, the tone of love and affection darkens to one of cynicism. Now that he knows Lesbia he is has less affection for the woman. Catullus uses the language of obligation and Lesbia, as he sees it, has “wronged him”7. The poem ends with the enigmatic but powerful statement that, because of the hurt she has caused him, Catullus loves Lesbia more, but likes her less. At first, this may seem like nonsense and a contradiction in terms. However, when Catullus uses the verb amare (“to love”) he is describing his attraction to her, a kind of lust or natural allure, something that he seemingly has no control over. As much, then, as he does not like Lesbia for what she has put him through (i.e. her adultery), his love for her remains from the simpler time when he wished to “kiss you just so many kisses” (7.9)

Poem 85 is where Catullus perhaps expresses the ambiguity and seeming contradiction inherent in his feelings best:

I hate and I love. Perhaps you’re asking why I do that?

I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and am racked.

We can again see here clearly that Catullus “is less a master than a subject”8 of his emotions. The fact that he paints himself as being so emotionally powerless gives such poems as these a tragic quality; it also, arguably, helps to make Catullus such a universal poet who can still touch people through the ages. Poem 73 also carries some of the injustice that Catullus had expressed in 72: the attack on a friend who is probably Rufus (though we do not realise that the poem is addressed to him until it becomes evident later in the collection) is because he has returned honest kindness with no more than ingratitude. “We now realise why the lampoons on Rufus alternated with Lesbia-poems at 69-72”.9 This whole section of Catullus’ collection is a study of betrayal and adverse emotions.

In the very first line of poem 72, Catullus talks about himself in the third-person, and this seems to be a literary device which emphasises the fact that he is not in control: it is Lesbia (and her actions) who is the subject of the poem. By declaring that his “passion is more intense” (72.5) Catullus leads us to think that he is about to, also, tell us how much he therefore loves Lesbia. However, by introducing the dichotomy in the last line between his love and dislike for Lesbia, our expectations are finally overthrown, which makes the contrast seem to be huge. It is by means of literary effects such as these that Catullus manages to express the almost inexpressible nuance of his emotion.

This poem, ultimately, is most successful when read as part of the collection, as one can then draw links between the subtle issues in the “Lesbia poems” and see the complex web of emotions that Catullus paints for us. The development from a romantic, devoting relationship between Lesbia and Catullus to the trauma of that relationship breaking down is fascinating, and may reflect the emotions of millions of people alive today in similar situations.


This poem is perhaps most interesting because it in itself can be seen as an imitation of the Roman practice of flagitatio10, which was a form of popular justice involving a crowd surrounding the man suspected of wrongdoing (or his house) whilst shouting ‘roughly rhythmical phrases’ in unflattering language, demanding redress11. This was a very effective tactic because in a small community fear of defamation was strong; though it did, of course, rely on having friends willing to engage in the practice in order for what was seen as justice to be done. In this case, Catullus tells us that the crime was the theft of a notebook and the subsequent refusal to return it12. We can only speculate about the girl who stole them (though it has been inferred from the fact that she is described as an ‘adulteress’13 that she may well be Lesbia) and we also have just as little knowledge about what Catullus’ stolen notebook may have contained (and why it seems to be so precious to him): we may guess that it contained poetry, but that is no more than a guess.

If that were true, the first two lines would contain a sweet irony: Catullus deploys poetry himself, hendecasyllables, as his “flagitatio mob”. He orders the hendecasyllables to come “from everywhere” (42.2), to metaphorically surround her. The image is an intimidating one: the lines of poetry have become men enclosing in on the suspect, shouting about her crime. When Catullus demands, ‘Dirty adulteress, give back the notebook. Give back the notebook, dirty adulteress’ (42.11-12), he is using a technique common to flagitatio: ‘the reversal of word order belonged to a very old popular custom as a means of intensifying the demand’14. Catullus’ readership, we can surely assume, would have been aware of such devices and would at once have understood what Catullus was doing.

Between the demands for the notebook, there is much invective and abuse hurled at the girl. Catullus tells us that she has an ugly gait, a “face like a Gallican puppy’s” (42.9) and is a “filthy trollop” (42.13) and a “brazen bitch-face” (42.17). Newman describes this as “a fine example of carnival caricature” included for primarily humorous effect15. However, it is not hard to see how these lines could be intended to have a hurtful effect, too, shaming the thief into repentance.

Catullus is also “all too aware of his social superiority”10 and may simply be arrogantly showing his self-importance by making such a fuss over the loss of his notebook. This idea can be seen in, for example, poem 84, in which Catullus mocks Arrius’ incorrect use of aspirates which is surely caused by the politician’s less privileged upbringing: Catullus’ attack, in this case as could be argued is the case in poem 42, is really then a display of his own aristocratic superiority. There is also a general link with poems such as 46, in which Catullus advertises his social status by documenting his travels with a sense of entitlement to faraway Roman lands.

Perhaps the most pleasing feature of this poem is its conclusion. After all the fortissimo shouting, invective and carmina (chanting typical of flagitatio16), Catullus decides that he needs to change “tone and tactics” (42.22). He thus, seemingly sarcastically, ends the poem by asking for the notebook not by calling her a “dirty adulteress” but a “virtuous lady” (42.24), as we see that his invective has, somewhat comically, failed in its objective. On the other hand, the last line could more literally be interpreted as an acknowledgement of the flaws of this kind of public system of obtaining restitution. It does not seem unlikely that the girl would have responded more positively to flattery than flagitatio: Catullus could thus be making a wider point about the role of invective in society.

The poem, in the collection, sits between invective poems on either side of it, with the previous three poems containing invective, some quite rude and obscene: in poem 43, for example, Mamurra’s mistress is described as being ugly from head to toe and, in poem 41, Ameana is called “the female fuck-up”. Perhaps, then, poem 42 is in the perfect location to show Catullus’ invective being tempered: it is in that poem that he shows that such anger does not always produce the desired effects. In poems 41 and 43, however, we are not shown any consequences of Catullus airing his opinions. We are simply told, in each, that there is an ugly girl in whom he is not interested: there is not intended to be the nuance and comedy value that poem 42 contains.

To conclude, Catullus’ adopting the form of flagitatio for this poem ‘underscores the poet’s association with the traditional purposes and values inherent in Roman invective’17; not only does he derive authority from the tradition of the technique, but it also allows him to attack her harshly and eloquently. However, ultimately, he couldn’t force a blush from, in Catullus’ words, the “brazen bitch-face”. We, therefore, see the limitations of invective: perhaps Catullus is admitting to us that we should see it as little more than entertainment.

More importantly, though, the twist at the end of the poem is of stylistic and comedic value and can, perhaps, be said to show Catullus’ eloquence. Moreover, the fact that he feels no qualms at using such openly offensive language can be attributed to the fact that Romans would surely have sympathised with his demands for justice in face of a thief and may, also, be a reflection of his superior social status (not to mention the lower regard with which women were held generally) and consequent security in his right to show his anger in whatever way that he pleased. Ultimately, the poem makes character assassination into an appealing and technically adept art.


Dyson, J.T. (2007). “The Lesbia Poems”, in M.B. Skinner (ed.), A Companion to Catullus (Oxford) 254-275.

Fitzgerald, W. (1999). Catullan Provocations: Lyric Poetry and the Drama of Position. London.

Fraenkel, E. (1961). “Catullus XLII”, in J.H. Gaisser (ed.), Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Catullus (Oxford) 356-368.

Newman, J.K. (1990). Roman Catullus. Bodenheim.

Selden, D.L. (1992). “Catullus and the Rhetoric of Performance”, in J.H. Gaisser (ed.), Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Catullus (Oxford) 490-559.

Tatum, W.J. (2007). “Social Commentary and Political Invective”, in M.B. Skinner, A Companion to Catullus (Oxford) 333-354.

Wiseman, T.P. (1985). Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal. Cambridge.

Wray, D. (2001). Catullus and the Poetics of Roman Manhood. Cambridge.

1 Catullus 2.1.

2 cf. Catullus 16.

3 Catullus 70.2.

4 Dyson (2007) 269.

5 Wiseman (1985) 166.

6 Wray (2001) 112.

7 Fitzgerald (1999) 117.

8 Selden (1992) 541.

9 Wiseman (1985) 167.

10 Fitzgerald (1999) 62.

11 Fraenkel (1961) 364.

12 Catullus 42.4 (“refuses to give me our notebook back”).

13 Catullus 42.12

14 Fraenkel (1961) 363.

15 Newman (1990) 192.

16 Fraenkel (1961) 364.

17 Tatum (2007) 337.

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