Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Indebtedness to Martial and Catullus

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Indebtedness to Martial and Catullus

Article excerpt


Byron was interested in the epigram throughout his life, and learned the art of writing epigrams primarily by reading Catullus and Martial, though Alexander Pope was also an influence. Byron not only translated and imitated the Romans' epigrams but also wrote his own. He was interested, like the Romans, in dealing with quotidian human activities such as love, friendship, wining, dining and so forth. On top of these topics, Byron makes a point of following in the Romans' footsteps by using the form to comment on the writing profession. This article demonstrates the extent to which Byron shared, and was indebted to, some of the epigrammatical tendencies of Martial and Catullus, as well as, to a lesser degree, Pope.

In Don Juan, Donna Inez does not want her son to read Classical authors because she 'dreaded the mythology' (I, 41).1 She tries to censor Classical writers mainly on moral grounds. The narrator, with tongue in cheek, agrees with her apprehension, saying:

Ovid's a rake, as half his verses show him,

Anacreon's morals are a still worse sample,

Catullus scarcely has a decent poem,

I don't think Sappho's Ode a good example [...]

And then what proper person can be partial

To all those nauseous epigrams of Martial? (I, 42-43)

As the narrator points out, one finds an abundance of obscenity in Catullus and Martial. Yet we know that Byron was quite interested in these two Roman poets, since he both translated and imitated a fair number of their poems.

Martial wrote over 1,500 epigrams. The total number of Catullus' poems, as handed down to us, is 116, and about half of them are generally considered epigrams.2 Byron's Hours of Idleness includes two translations and one imitation of Catullus.3 One translation famously concerns the death of Lesbia's sparrow. The other translation shows how Catullus is affected by his love for Lesbia by enumerating his physical reactions. The imitation is addressed to 'Ellen' while Catullus' original poem is addressed to Juventius. It is about the poet's insatiable appetite for kisses. As far as translations and imitations are concerned, Byron sticks to the Roman poet's love poems. But he also mentions Catullus elsewhere. In Don Juan, for example, he apostrophises the god of love as follows: 'Oh Love! Of whom great Caesar was the suitor, / Titus the master, Antony the slave, / Horace, Catullus, scholars, Ovid tutor' (II, 205). In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Thomas Moore is compared to Catullus and humorously censured thus: ''Tis LITTLE! Young Catullus of his day, / As sweet, but as immoral in his lay' (287-88). Catullus wrote about various facets of love both heterosexual and homosexual. Love is both passion and farce for him. It is often linked to scabrous physical detail. In a note to The Island, Byron mentions the name of Catullus when he refers to Savage Landor's Latin poems, 'which vie with Martial or Catullus in obscenity'.4

'Edleston', written in Latin in 1811 or 1812, is a dirge lamenting the death of the Cambridge choirboy, with whom Byron was, as he told Elizabeth Pigot, in love.5 According to Jerome McGann, this poem is indebted to Catullus' two elegies on the death of his brother.6 Why did Byron resort to Latin to express his ardent love of, and lament for, Edleston? No doubt, by writing in Latin, he was covering up his Greek love, but he was also paying homage to Catullus. While Byron ironically claims to consider Catullus an immoral poet, he does not choose to translate or imitate those poems that show this aspect of the Latin poet. Catullus wrote epigrams on various subjects: love, friendship, the writing profession and the human infirmities and oddities to be found in the quotidian life of Rome. So does Byron in his own epigrams and other poems.

As for Martial, Byron either translated or imitated his epigrams even more often than those of Catullus. According to McGann, Byron's output based upon Martial amounts to ten poems in total and includes two translations, seven imitations and one adaptation, all written in 1812, except for one translation, which was produced in 1822. …

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