Poem 35 appears to be a straightforward request from Catullus to the poet Caecilius (via Catullus’ papyrus) to hurry to Verona to hear “certain thoughts of a friend of his and mine” (quasdam…cogitationes / amici …sui meique, 35.5-6). These “thoughts” seem to relate to the poem on the Magna Mater which Caecilius has started but not finished, and which has so inflamed his learned girlfriend that she doesn’t want him to leave Novum Comum for Verona. However, this simple reading leaves many unanswered questions, particularly concerning the identity of Caecilius and his puella. Most scholars believe that Caecilius is a neoteric poet in Catullus’ circle who has disappeared without a trace, along with his poem on the Magna Mater. This paper will argue, however, that Caecilius is an alter ego of Catullus. Poem 35 is Catullus’ exhortation to himself to leave behind his puella (i.e. his Lesbia poetry) so that he can bring to a conclusion his learned poem on the Magna Mater (i.e. Poem 63).
A few previous scholars have emphasized the close connections between Caecilius’ poem and Catullus 63 (e.g. Basto 1982), or between Caecilius’ girlfriend and Lesbia (e.g. Pascal 1921). Biondi 1998 (supported by Hunink 2000) has even suggested that Caecilius’ Magna Mater poem is Poem 63, but he believes Caecilius is a friend who has stolen Catullus’ poem—and not Catullus himself.
Interpreting Caecilius as an alter ego of Catullus explains not just the mysterious disappearance of “Caecilius the neoteric poet” from the historical record, but adds layers of meaning to Catullus 35, which becomes a poem of self-criticism and metapoetic reflection. Fisher 1971 has read the puella’s resistance to Caecilius’ journey to Verona as a metapoetic statement about Caecilius’ preoccupation with writing love poetry instead of finishing a learned poem, though Khan 1974 rejected this thesis because of the deep connections in Poem 35 between Caecilius’ love affair and his learned composition. I would suggest that both readings are correct: Catullus sets up a potential opposition between the love poetry of “Caecilius” and his learned, Alexandrian poem only to thoroughly conflate them. Just as Attis and the Magna Mater model (and inspire) the relationship between Caecilius and his puella in Poem 35 (cf. Basto 1982), so do Lesbia and Catullus hover in the background of Poem 63 (cf. Harkins 1959 and many others). Catullus/Caecilius is a poet of both love and learned poetry, and his divided self is not so divided.
Catullus’ own papyrus is a fitting intermediary between his two poetic selves, and the frequent identification of the “friend of his and mine” (35.6) with Catullus himself (e.g. Merrill 1893, Copley 1953, Godwin 1999) makes even more sense if Caecilius is Catullus, too. The name “Caecilius” might pun on caecus (“blind”). In Catullus’ poetry, blindness or “not seeing” is associated with insane love (e.g. 64.197 amenti caeca furore, 67.25 caeco…amore), as well as with a failure to see one’s own faults, whether of a literary nature (e.g. like those of Suffenus; 22.21-22) or amatory (e.g. the cuckolded husbands in 17.21 and 83.3). In addition, the pseudonym cleverly makes Catullus into a double of Lesbia’s husband Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer (assuming the standard identification of Lesbia with Clodia Metelli is correct). Catullus’ advice to “Caecilius” to escape the clutches of insane love and love poetry attempts to counter both types of blindess, though, of course, in an ironic way: Poem 35 shows that Catullus is just as capable of enslaving his mistress as she is of him and that he is a master of mixing love poetry with Alexandrianism.