Over and Under in Catullus 1

In poem 1, Catullus uses understatement and overstatement to situate his work in his own era and beyond. Catullus begins with the highly alliterative and assonant line “cui dono lepidum novum libellum,” in which the diminutive “libellum” is “lepidum,” charming, and “novum,” new, characteristic of his neoteric school of poetry. By playfully asking to whom he will dedicate or send his new little book, he grants it authority that it may not otherwise command. The word sequence in the first two lines enjambs unusually across to the declaration that the little book has recently been polished by a dry pumice stone, with the verb “dono” coming at the beginning to allow for building intensity about the startling newness and delicacy of the book. The participial phrase ending with “expolitum” designates a completed work that, although new, is fully-realized. The symbolism of the “arida pumice” also entices the reader to imagine that his book, while its physical form can be worn down by objects, contains vibrant words that he wishes to remain “plus uno saeclo.”  It also implies that Catullus has polished his work quite carefully, despite the fact that he downplays his achievement.

This contrasts with Cornelius Nepos, who “ausus es unus Italorum / omne aevum tribus explicare cartis.” Again with consonance and assonance, Catullus strikes a different effect, with a slightly ironic tone, invoking the alterity and grandly different authority of someone who has set out to describe all the ages of the world in three papyrus rolls. The split of “tribus” and “cartis” around “explicare” evokes the expansiveness of Nepos’s project, one that is unlike Catullus’s.

However, Catullus says that Nepos is accustomed to think, presumably well, of his “nugas,” or trifling. A preponderance of sibilance characterizes the middle of the poem. “… tu solebas / meas esse” and “ausus es unus” are followed by “tribus,” “cartis,” and “Doctis… laboriosis.” The use of this forceful pattern of sounds instructs the reader or listener to pay special attention to the author Catullus is describing, as the author has done to Catullus’s “nugas,” which is sibilant as well.

Catullus invokes “Iuppiter” in characterizing Nepos, which comes across as either slightly tongue-in-cheek or earnest or both, and the result is amusing. Having assigned grandiose overstatement to his recipient, he writes “Quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli—/quaelecumque.” The understatement of his own achievement and the offhand manner in which he offers it to an accomplished writer further reinforces the ironic tone of the poem. Catullus seems well aware that the “little book, whatever it is, of whatever sort” is fit for Nepos to read. This use of aporia to express feigned or real misgivings about his book creates excitement both about this poem itself and about the rest of the oeuvre.

Paired with his eventual supplication to “patrona virgo” that his work remain for more than an age, the poem successfully creates a mixture of irony and sincerity that is relatable rather than irksome. His artistic sentiment is soundly underscored in the final line when he again splits and bookends his expansive plea around “maneat.” As he did in describing Nepos’s papyrus rolls, he urges the future to allow his words to remain everlasting for more than one age. Following the relentless alliteration of the understatement words “Quare,” “quidquid,” “quaelecumque,” and “quod,” the final exhortation to the patrona is musically accented with deep, long vowels and the three words that begin with p. Catullus effortlessly transforms his careful rhetoric into a poised and polished call to his peer and to his future readers.

Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas.
Iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis…
Doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis!
Quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli—
qualecumque, quod, o patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo!

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