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Where is 'Here'? Analogies of Physical and Literary Space in Catullus 42 and 55

Jessica Seidman

           The purpose of this paper is to explore the ways in which Catullus constructs space on the pages of his poems.  The importance of geography in Catullus’ Carmina is evident even to the first-time reader: Garrison’s classic The Student’s Catullus includes four pages of reference maps designed to help such a reader locate everything from Celtiberia in the west, homeland of the smiling Egnatius, to Nicea in the east, Catullus’ point of departure for his springtime travel in poem 46.  The significance of “silphium-bearing Cyrene” (c.7.4) has been explored at length, and plausible ports of call for a ship the size of a phaselus have been assiduously researched and mapped (Wiseman, 45).

            Less attention has been devoted to the ways in which Catullus represents place, position, and movement on the landscape of the page itself.  In this paper, I show that the poet positions and repeats various representative words to show movement on the page, creating thematic and intratextual landmarks to show progress forward in literary space or a retreat back to semantic ground already covered.  In such cases, the imaginative representation value of the words in the mind of the reader blurs with the literal position of letters, words, and metrical feet mapped onto the page and manipulated by the poet at will, as if on a model of a stage.

            Poem 42 offers a good example of this collapse of imaginative and literary space.  Here, Catullus attempts to retrieve some notebooks from a woman, whom he repeatedly characterizes as a “dirty whore” (moecha turpis, 3; moecha putida, 11, 12, 19, 20), through the extra-legal custom of flagitatio (Fraenkel, 49-51).  From the very first word, adeste, “be here,” the poet points to the page itself as the space where all of the action will take place.  He sets his characters, his hendecasyllables, on the scene through the first line of the poem.  He then pushes them into motion down the page, where they succeed in surrounding their quarry and metrically engulfing her (circumsistite eam, et reflagitate, 10).  At this point, however, the hendecasyllables begin retracing their steps, passing by intratextual and thematic ground that they have already covered (turpis, 3 and lutum, 13; moecha, 3 and lupanar, 13; catuli ore, 9 and canis...ore, 17), until lines 19-20 find them in precisely the same verbal spot they were in at lines 11-12.  The poet recognizes that forward progress has come to a halt (nil proficimus, nihil movetur, “we aren’t making any progress, she isn’t moved at all,” 21) and suspects his actors might be to blame: a change in modus (22) may be a change in “method,” but also a change in “meter.”  The poet bounds (perhaps also modus) the space of the poem and moves on.

            Similarly, in poem 55, Catullus stages a search for his friend, Camerius, through the public spaces of the city, but ultimately discovers him in the equally public “space” of his libellus.  In this case, the commentaries themselves participate in the literary/spatial metaphor, as Quinn observes that Camerius “has disappeared from circulation all together.” Catullus insists that Camerius “publish” (ede, 15) his location himself – otherwise, he (and perhaps his mysterious girlfriend) will continue to be “found” in Catullus’s own verse.

            In these playful moments of spatial representational confusion, Catullus demonstrates his ability not only to represent the Roman world from Bithynia to Britain, but to create a whole new one on the page, before the reader’s very eyes.  

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Running Down Rome: Lyric, Iambic, and Satire

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