The poems of Catullus, translated by Peter Whigham (1966)

Peter Whigham

I bought this funky translation of Caius Valerius Catullus’s 116 short poems as a Penguin paperback when I was at school. I was just discovering Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams so I loved Peter Whigham’s freewheeling free verse translations which aim to capture the verve and fun of Catullus’s poetry.

Born in Oxford in 1925, Whigham was self educated and, after a range of jobs, went to Italy in the early 1960s to concentrate on writing. Many of the translations gathered in this volume were first published in the late 1950s i.e. amid the wave of rebellious, try-anything Beat poets. The book is dedicated to William Carlos Williams, who is obviously a major influence and who, Whigham tells us, right at the end of his life, had some of these poems read to him and gave Whigham valuable support and encouragement. Kindness.

Caius Valerius Catullus

What little we know of Catullus is quickly told. Born around 84 BC into a wealthy family in Verona, he tells us he spent most of his life in Rome. He started writing verse around 68 BC i.e. aged around 16. His one excursion was a trip to Bithynia in the entourage of a praetor. He died young, around 54 BC, 30 or so years old.


Neoterikoi is Greek for ‘new poets’, in Latin the poetae novi. It was a label attached to a new generation of poets in the first century BC. The neoterics consciously rejected the grand style of epic poetry or the inflated style of theatrical tragedy, and the entire lumber of ancient myth and legend.

Instead they turned to personal reflections, thoughts, adorations and execrations on a much smaller, more intimate scale. Working on this small scale, they were interested in experimenting with construction, and a playful mixture of, or subversion of, genres, alongside verbal tricks such as puns or complex allusions.

Of all the poets described as neoterics, Catullus was by far the most famous and influential. His personal, informal style affected everyone. It mixes elegant vocabulary, with the crudest vulgarity, profound sensuality, with virulent execration.

Thus we find that Catullus’s poetry is overwhelming about real people, not gods and heroes (well, that’s not entirely true, since 8 poems in the middle of the sequence – numbers 61 to 68 – are about Greek gods and religious festivals and invoke the gods; but they’re striking exceptions to the majority of his poems which are secular and sociable). His poetry is casually catty and gossipy, addressing named individuals, reproaching, teasing or scandalising them:





















He makes them actors in anecdotes:










While the Republic collapsed around him, Catullus wrote about dinner parties, drinking sessions, sex and love and jealousy, scandalous rumours, and shocking insults, using words your mother told you never to say out loud. The ad hominem nature of the poems is particularly evident in the final 48 poems, as we have in the standard arrangement of 116 – these final 48 are all short epigrams (69 to 116).

While he was a lover of the notorious Clodia Metelli, wife of Quintus Metellus Celer, he wrote her some of the tenderest love poetry ever composed. The poem which starts odi et amo (‘I love and hate’) is one of the most famous lyrics in European literature. After she dumped him, he produced some of the bitterest  anti-love poems, often very funny in their self-aware dramatisation of his loverly woes:

Poem 11

I send Lesbia this valediction
succinctly discourteous:
live with your three hundred lovers,
open your legs to them all (simultaneously)
lovelessly dragging the guts out of each of them
each time you do it…

There is mild overlap with the circle of Cicero, 20 years Catullus’s senior. Cornelius Nepos the historian was a friend of Cicero’s and is the dedicatee of the entire collection of poems. Poem 49 directly addresses Cicero with an ambiguous compliment calling him ‘prince of lawyers’. Cicero, an older more traditional man, kept his distance, though one or two not particularly admiring references to the neoterics can be found in his voluminous writings.

Layout creates an open feel

Whigham’s translations rely heavily on indentation and the breaking up of lines to create a very strong visual effect, as of posters or infographics.

His canny spacing of words creates a forceful visual dynamic which reinforces the drama inherent in the words and brings out the rhythms of a speaking voice, heightened and dramatised.

I went through carefully spacing the lines in this blog post to replicate Whigham’s effects and then, when I pressed Save, WordPress removed them all, which is irritating. The only solution I can devise is writing out excerpts in Word, then taking screengrabs and inserting them into this blog as images. You’ll have to take my word for it that Whigham’s choice of where to break lines, and his use of indentations, hugely contributes to the poems’ impact.








Thus one of the pleasures of this volume is observing how many different visual formats Whigham can devise. Some are plain as a pikestaff:

Poem 5

live with me
& love me so
we’ll laugh at all
the sour-faced strict-
ures of the wise.
This sun once set
will rise again,
when our sun sets
follows night &
endless sleep.
Kiss me now a
thousand times &
now a hundred
more & then a
hundred & a
thousand more again
till with so many
hundred thousand
kisses you & I
shall both lose count…

Some more inventive:

Supercharged sensuality

Above all Catullus’s poems wonderfully celebrate human sensuality

Poem 9

I shall embrace
your neck & kiss
you on the mouth
& on the eyes


The Victorians had a problem with Catullus because his verse is brilliant with life but, quite regularly, deliberately moves from acceptable sensuality to calculated vulgarity. Personally, I am not afraid of penises but the Victorians were terrified of them and modern society seems to be just as threatened. Currently, in the UK, the maximum penalty for exposing your penis with ‘intent to cause alarm or distress’ is two years in prison. I wish my penis was impressive enough to cause anyone alarm or distress. Instead, revealed in privatebetween consenting adults, it has mostly prompted gales of laughter.

Anyway, living in less censorious times, Catullus confidently describes different types of penis and the comedy involved in owning one. Take the comic poem about his friend Aurelius’s inability to deny his penis anything or anyone. I wonder whether a contemporary poet, writing about this undeniable part of human anatomy, in these terms, using the world ‘threat’, would get into trouble, of not with the law, with critics and publishers.








or poem 25:






Poem 32 is a straightforward offer to a friend to pop round and fuck her:

in fact if you
should want it now
I’ll come at once
for lolling on
the sofa here
with jutting cock
and stuffed with food
I’m ripe for stuffing
my sweet Ipsíthilla.

Some of the poems address the reputation Catullus had acquired because of his poems’ scandalous nature, refuting the way people took the poems to be straightforwardly autobiographical. For, as he points out in poem 16, a poem is not an affadavit to be used in court, it is a performance of both language and attitude.

Poem 16

The devoted poet remains in his own fashion chaste
his poems not necessarily so…


Invective was a recognised genre in ancient times, designed to amuse and entertain its hearer with the vehemence of its animosity i.e. calculated insults or abuse, usually targeted at named individuals. In poem 17 he asks a bridge to give way under an enemy:






It is a strange thought that many of the individuals in Catullus’s poems only live on, their names only survive, because of the devastating insults and abuse, often about supremely personal matters of appearance, hygiene or sexuality, which he subjected them to, thus ensuring their memory would endure for all time.


An epigram is defined as ‘a pithy saying or remark expressing an idea in a clever and amusing way’. On the whole I don’t find many of Catullu’s epigrams that amusing. Short and virulent, yes. Rarely funny. Here’s one of the shorter epigrams, number 93:

Utter indifference to your welfare, Caesar,
is matched only by ignorance of who you are.

Not exactly a side-splitter, is it? Here’s the opening of one of the crudest, Poem 97 which is funny by virtue of the combination of flowing speech rhythm with extreme crudeness:

As God is my witness, where is the difference between
the smell of Aemilius’ mouth and that of his arse?

Although it’s impossible for the non-Latinist to know whether this flowing quality is down to the fluency of Whigham’s translation and his way with conversational speech rhythms. This poem about Aemilius’s reek continues in the same vein for eight entertaining lines before its showstopper conclusion:

Whatever woman handles this man is equally
capable of licking the arsehole of a leprous hangman.

I remember particularly enjoying that one when I was 17.

Despair at politics

For as long as we have had written records intelligent people have despaired at the kind of idiots who float to the top of politics. Hard to avoid despair in an era when Liz Truss is going to be the next Prime Minister, when Nadine Dorries controls Britain’s media, and Jacob Rees-Mogg has any kind of position of power at all. Catullus proves the feeling is nothing new, not least in this short poem which exaggerates his despair at the lackwits who win office.

Poem 52

Drop dead, Catullus, lie right down where you are & die.
That blister Nonnius occupies a magistrate’s chair;
Vatinius commits perjury – & collects a consulate.
Drop dead, Catullus, just drop right down (& die).

Genuine emotion

Just a handful of times a poem expresses what appears to be Catullus’s real feelings, without porn or sarcasm or ritual abuse or catty gossip. The obvious examples are the couple of poems dedicated to his brother, who died on diplomatic assignment in what is modern-day Turkey and was buried there, not far from the site of the legendary city of Troy.

Mellow yellow

I’ve always thought there should be more kissing, lots of kissing, and a lot less shouting, fighting and shooting. Now, in middle age, I see the enemies of sensuality triumphing everywhere and the enjoyment of relaxed physical pleasure being stamped on and banned. Everyone is angry about something, there seem to be so much injustice to rage against, so many grievances to call out, so many people who need to be named and shamed and silenced. The enemies of pleasure are everywhere, often inside our own heads.

Catullus’s works are a lot more varied than I remembered, including a hefty selection of vituperative epigrams, themselves expressing anger, frustration, irritation, disgust – and, contrary to neoterik doctrine, half a dozen unexpectedly long ‘classical’ poems filled with references to heroes and gods.

But running through the book is the solid sensual thread which has attracted readers for over 2,000 years, the celebration of pleasure, which makes Catullus an antidote to a world consumed with anger – a welcome defender of blissful kisses.

Poem 48

were I allowed
to kiss your eyes
as sweet as honey
on & on, three
thousand kisses
would not seem
too much for me,
as many as
ripe harvest ears
of sheaves of corn
would still not be
too much of kiss-
ing you, for me.

Above all there is Catullus’s charm. Reading the epigrams, I inevitably thought of Oscar Wilde and his hundreds of famous bons mots. Some of Wilde’s rely on word play for their humour (‘Like all people who set out to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners.’) But a large number rely on a knowledge of – or loudly proclaim – the flamboyant, self-dramatising persona he built for himself (‘I have nothing to declare but my genius’). We are amused by the outrageousness of Wilde’s ironically self-aggrandising claims, the camp grandiosity of his posing.

Something similar is true of Catullus. He is charming. Even when he’s being absolutely filthy (the most extreme case is Poem 16, which opens: ‘Pēdīcābo ego vōs et irrumābō’ or ‘I will bugger and face-fuck you’) the content is not funny, exactly, but what is amusing is his cheek, his boldness, his breezy dismissal of canons of good taste or polite conversation. He drives a coach and horses through conventional manners, cheerily waving at us as he blithely rides by.

So it is partly the range of intimate emotions and feelings which Catullus conveys, but it’s mostly the airy confidence with which he expresses them, in candid conversational tones, along with his unembarrassed use of the most obscene images and rudest possible language, all of which go to create an impression of exuberance, confidence, youthful charm and brio, which are still hugely attractive, 2,000 years later.

Roman reviews

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