Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Catullus textual criticism class, Wadham College, Oxford


I’ve been out in the world too long with people who associate that word with Pentonville.

I want to go back to circles where people talk about nonce-words and connect with dead scholars who wrote ‘for the nonce’.

I find a class on textual criticism of Catullus. Top poet, could do The Lot. Anguish, filth, everything in between.

I email Stephen Harrison, Professor of Latin Literature. May I come to the class, as a long-ago graduate of this establishment?

Professor Harrison, Dr Heyworth
‘It’s rather austere,’ he warns.

But it’s not austere to try to find out what Catullus actually wrote. A continuous stream of scholars from the middle ages to today (ooh look, there’s A. E. Housman) have been wrestling with careless transcribers and opinionated editors, on the quest for a true text.


The works of Catullus survived through one incomplete manuscript, shot with mistakes (not his), now lost.
Professor Harrison

This class is wonderful. Two top geezers conduct it in stereo: Professor Harrison - I haven’t captured his exquisite gestures here but he subtly hand-jives fragments of the poems - and Dr Stephen Heyworth.

Hate and love. Catullus uses a gleaming probe. Poem 85 is two lines:

Me (glib):

     HATE LOVE knuckles. You ask me why the needle’s stuck.
     I don’t know. But it’s hissing and it hurts like ****.

James Methven from Precious Asses (Seren, £5):

     Hard copy

     Hate. Love. And you have to ask me why.
         I don’t know. I feel it burning up my spine.
     I can’t.  
         I can’t.

     There’s your answer.
Dr Heyworth, Tristan

These are versions. I don’t believe in translation. I don’t even believe in synonym. That’s tough.

Today, Tristan Franklinos contributes a scholarly canter through the variants in 69.

Something cataclysmic has happened since I was last in these parts: Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Would Catullus have written this phrase? Word search. Click. It’s there. Hang on a second - Plautus wrote it too.

It feels like cheating.

And silently, throughout the class, my BlackBerry hoards a trickle of messages from, a discussion website via which I contact my sitters for a different blog:

‘Hitchin Bitches’ was started in London UK Scene

'Besoin d’aide pour un jeu érotique et fétichiste’ was started in BDSM France

'Kamasu knot: is it Somerville bowline?' was started in Riggers and Rope Sluts

Please, Gaius Valerius Catullus, send me a message via

Say you love me.

When I arrived at university as a neurotic, ineducable teenager my motto was from Richard II: ‘I wasted time and now doth time waste me.’ In my adult years it’s ‘Otium Catulle’ from a section of 51 which he may or may not have written. And what is otium? ‘Time on your hands/freedom/leisure/idling/slacking/messing around/not having to fight a war (and is that a good or maybe a bad thing?), Catullus… It’s bad for you… Destructive…

I got Argos to make the necklace. They won't use so many
letters any more
There were some Japanese manga scholars in town recently so I went to their seminar. It killed a living art form stone dead with desiccated non-scholarship. ‘Japanese colours were changed to Korean colours.’ What are these colours? Oh just show us some flaming pictures!

Catullus shows us all the colours. This class exposes living tissue.

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