December 07, 2009

Catullus and the way to read Roman poetry

This review of a new book on Catullus reminds me of two things. The first is the excitement with which I read Catullus for the first time, of all the Latin poets I have read, Catullus and Martial were my favourites and though they may not remain so, the biting intensity of their short lines still has an impact upon me. The second thing though is less personal and perhaps more interesting and that is about how Catullus himself should be read, how any Roman poet indeed possibly any poet before a certain point should be read. Catullus, this author comments, must be read out loud: "reading Catullus with the eye is like studying the libretto of an opera without listening to the music". The same thing could be said of so many of the texts that we have left to us from the past- obviously dramatic pieces like Shakespeare and things that were originally meant to be read aloud like Homer or Beowulf, but also the simpler poems and passages that we come across in ancient texts were often designed for their rhetorical flow as well as their look on a page. St Augustine noted with amazement that St Ambrose read silently: to miss the rhetorical flourishes in Cicero or Tacitus or even the sound of Catullus not to mention of Shakespeare, Jonson et al. is to miss what the author was trying to do, what his intention was. In a sense, in order to appreciate everything that can be appreciated about some art, you have to consume it as it was meant to be consumed- loudly and not silently!