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Unmetrical Mamurra: The Impure Iambs of Catullus c. 29

Michael Wheeler

            In this paper I make a case for the reading hunc, the presumed reading of manuscript V, at Catullus 29.20, treating it as an intentional exception to the pure iambic trimeters of the poem analogous to the use of the proper name Mamurra in line 3 of the same poem.

            There are two potentially valid ways of describing the meter of Catullus’ poem 29.  The first is simply as iambic trimeters, with the usual allowable substitutions of long syllables for short, as in poem 52.  In poem 29, however, Catullus only takes the opportunity for substitution at the beginning of lines 3 and possibly 20.  The other approach, on which commentators generally agree, is to describe poem 29’s meter in the same fashion as poem 4’s, as “pure” iambics; lines 3 and 20, then, are treated as exceptions to the rule, the former out of expedience and the latter due to textual corruption.

           The name Mamurram at the beginning of line 3 has an initial spondee (pace Baehrens, p. 181; Ellis, p. 97; and Harrison & Heyworth, p. 90).  With this metrical irregularity acknowledged, Catullus’ desire to identify his target is typically taken as an unfortunate necessity to be excused—so McKie, p. 33, who suggests that “Catullus buried the unavoidable long of the proper name in the anceps of the first metron.”  Poem 29 is, of course, the main piece of evidence for connecting Mamurra to his pseudonym, mentula.  Catullus, however, need not have named Mamurra in this otherwise purely iambic poem.  He calls Mamurra by name in the hendecasyllabic poem 57, and nothing metrical would have prevented him from using mentula in that meter; likewise elegiac couplets, in which he calls Mamurra mentula (105, 114-115), do not preclude the name.  This suggests that Catullus’ decision to break the iambic rhythm with Mamurra’s unmetrical name is deliberate. 

            Yet there is also an important contextual reason for the metrical violation, in that it interrupts the poem’s flow just as Mamurra himself proves disruptive to Comata Gallia et ultima Britannia (lines 3-4).  When next Gallia and Britannia are mentioned, it is together with poem 29’s other metrical break, at line 20 (printed in Thomson, following Badian, as nunc Gallicae timetur et Britannicae).  There are three common approaches to this line.  Many editors, like Thomson, acknowledge the metrical problem yet simply print nunc, following a few 15th century manuscripts (e.g. Fordyce, Kroll, Quinn).  Some, following Scaliger, argue for the line’s deletion (Trappes-Lomax, Kokoszkiewicz).  Finally, others tackle the supposed metrical inconsistency directly, though this requires serious emendation (e.g. Baehrens).  I suggest another approach, to retain hunc at the beginning of the line (see e.g. Froehner, p. 583, hunc Gallia extimescit et Britannia, and Owen, p. 312, hunc Galliae timent et hunc Britanniae).  Here hunc would fulfill a function similar to line 3’s Mamurram, referring to the same person in the same metrical sedes.  In this reading, Catullus is purposefully derailing the metrical flow of the poem for a second time, again coinciding with the locations of Mamurra’s most recent spoils. 

            More than this, poem 29 serves as an important counterpoint to poem 4, Catullus’ only completely purely iambic poem.  In poem 4, Catullus drives the iambic meter’s traditional association with invective beneath the surface, instead bringing a previously minor feature, speed, to the fore; the phaselus swiftly bypasses a number of obstacles serving as invective markers (Wheeler, pp. 39ff., expanding on Morgan, p. 150, n. 92).  In poem 29, Catullus reasserts the meter’s abusive potential.  Rather than simply overwhelming his audience with an unceasing rhythmical torrent of abuse, he focuses their attention by disrupting the meter for a clear purpose: identification of a named target, a key function of the iambic genre.  The unmetrical hunc of line 20, underscored by the hunc … hic of the following line, reinforces the connection to Mamurra, hammering home Catullus’ main target for the audience.  

Session/Panel Title:

Language and Meter

Session/Paper Number

69.3

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