Academic journal article Akroterion

The Heart of the Poet at the Heart of His Poem: The Manner and Purpose of Catullus' Identification with Ariadne in Poem 64

Academic journal article Akroterion

The Heart of the Poet at the Heart of His Poem: The Manner and Purpose of Catullus' Identification with Ariadne in Poem 64

Article excerpt

The essay competition is sponsored by the Classical Association of South Africa. This paper was judged to be the best student essay submitted to CASA for 2018.

1. Introduction

In recent times, the longer poems of Catullus have been receiving renewed attention. Previously regarded as highly technical, impersonal works written to earn the poet the epithet of doctus in neoteric circles, there is now a greater tendency to see them as personal expressions of the Catullan persona (1) in much the same way as it is accepted that his shorter, lyric poems do (Putnam 1961:165). In Poem 64, written in epic meter and dealing with epic heroes and their deeds, Catullus embeds deeply lyrical concerns relating to love, betrayal and grief at the very heart of his epyllion (Konstan 1993:71).

The epyllion is a mini-epic that is crafted with skill, loaded with learned allusions, and often intended to provide ironic commentary on the contemporary socio-political context by referencing the mythical heroes, heroic deeds and storylines of a bygone age (Johnson 2007:182). However, it does this in a new way--in the instance of Poem 64, by focusing on the 'unepic' theme of risky love, giving voice to the inner torment of a heroine, often as critique of the brave deeds of the hero (Gaisser 2009:151).

At the core of Poem 64, which ostensibly concerns the marriage of divine sea nymph Thetis and the mortal hero Peleus, one of the Argonauts, and slayer of the Minotaur, Catullus embroiders in an ekphrasis a tragic tale of unrequited love, bitter betrayal and grief. The intrusion of the personal, lyric themes of love (amor), loss and betrayal into an epic genre concerned with the public values of heroic virtue, faith and dutiful loyalty (virtus, fides, pietas) and other values that constituted Romanitas--the essence of being Roman (Braund 2002:71)--is not simply a masterful display of poetic skill, a highly crafted rhetorical flourish, but is indeed a profoundly personal revelation of Catullus' private pain and anguish at his failed love relationship with Lesbia (Putnam 1961:166).

Furthermore, the very act of making this private world of the deserted lover public is a deliberate questioning and subversion of the public values of Rome and the ideals of Roman masculinity by Catullus--a Roman man on the margins of the socio-political elite, and in the shadow of the love of his life's many 'backstreet' dalliances (de Villiers 2016:4).

It is well accepted that Catullus identifies himself closely with Ariadne in his epyllion--when she speaks, it is the poet putting his words into the mouth of the central character in his poem. (Putnam 1961:167; Konstan 1993:70; (2) Ferguson 1985:198; Daniels 1967:352) But how is he identifying with the character of Ariadne, and most importantly, what is he wanting to accomplish through this? Through the surprising twists and turns of old stories made new through the stylus of the poet, Catullus turns things upside down.

Things are not what they seem in Poem 64: the words of a deserted lover, suffering alone and spoken in private, are broadcast in public--firstly to the Furies and to Jupiter in the poem, and secondly to the readers / hearers of the poem; a peripheral matter becomes central as the ekphrasis steps into the spotlight and turns the apparent topic of Thetis and Peleus into a frame for a different story--though there is still a thematic connection between the two (Konstan 1993:67); and the sword the hero wields in acts of epic virtus is shown in a morally dubious light (Ancona 2008:132), and is exchanged for the stylus in the hand of lyric poet, by which the socio-political order is subverted because its words do things as surely as deeds do (Ancona 2008:134). The private lament and curse of a lovelorn and betrayed Ariadne is approved by Jupiter and acted upon: the house of a man renowned for public displays of courage, character and moral excellence (virtus), yet whom is called in private faithless, heedless and cruel (perfide, immemor, immite), is decisively bought to ruin as a son loses his father and their father-son relationship. …

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