The Poetry of Gaius Valerius Catullus/1

Text and TranslationEdit

Meter - Hendecasyllabic

Line Latin Text English Translation Scansion
1 cui dono lepidum novum libellum To whom do I give this pleasing new little book, c dōnō lĕpĭdūm nŏvūm lĭbēllŭm
2 arida modo pumice expolitum Just now smoothed with dry pumice? ārĭdā mŏdŏ pūmĭce ēxpŏlītŭm
3 Corneli tibi namque tu solebas To you, Cornelius: For you were accustomed Cōrnēlī tĭbĭ nāmquĕ tū sŏlēbās
4 meas esse aliquid putare nugas To consider my trifles to be something mĕās ēsse ălĭquīd pŭtārĕ nūgās
5 iam tum cum ausus es unus Italorum At a time when you alone of the Italians dared iām tūm cum sŭs ĕs ūnŭs Ītălōrŭm
6 omne aevum tribus explicare cartis To unfurl the whole of time in three volumes, ōmne vūm trĭbŭs ēxplĭcārĕ cārtīs
7 doctis Iuppiter et laboriosis Learned (by Jupiter!) and elaborate. dōctīs Iūppĭtĕr ēt lăbōōsīs
8 quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli For this reason have for yourself whatever this is of a little book, quāre hăbē tĭbĭ quīdquĭd hōc lĭbēllī
9 qualecumque quod <o> patrona virgo Such as it is; O virgin patron, quālĕcūmquĕ quŏd ō pătrōnă vīrgō
10 plus uno maneat perenne saeclo That it may endure for more than one age. plūs ūnō mănĕāt pĕrēnnĕ sclō

Connotations of the TextEdit

This is traditionally arranged first among Catullus' poems, though it was not necessarily the first poem that he wrote. It is a dedication to Cornelius Nepos, a historian and sometimes poet, though some consider Catullus' praise of Cornelius' history (Chronica) to have been sarcastic; Catullus attempts in many cases to do away with large-scale forms, focusing rather on small but elaborate constructions. Nepos' project, although "doctus" and "laboriosus" (not insignificant compliments from Catullus), is in the tradition of large, comprehensive works, which Catullus contrasts with his "nugae."

The poem alternates between humility and self-confidence; Catullus calls his poetry "trifles", but asks that it remain for more than one age. This understatement is deliberate; Catullus knows very well the quality of his poetry, and also the provocative form it has. He also calls his work "new"; the poems are recently made and therefore new, but they are also new as some of the first examples of Neoteric poetry in the Latin language.

The poem begins with a 2-line question followed by a 1-line answer. The body of the poem, the middle 4 lines, is an explanation for the dedication; Catullus is dedicating the poems to Nepos because Nepos supported Catullus and because Catullus respects Nepos' work (and finds it similar to his own). The next line affirms that Nepos should accept Catullus' "whatever this is of a book," and the poem closes with a 2-line invocation of the Muse.

Line 1Edit

  • dono

We can understand 'cui dono...?' in one of two ways. 1) Taking the present tense literally: 'Who am I giving this booklet to (you may ask)?: well, the answer is Nepos'. 2) Taking the present tense as equivalent to a future, or a deliberative sujunctive: 'Who do I give this booklet to (I wonder)?: I know! Nepos' = 'who shall I give it to?', or 'who am I to give it to?'. In favour of (1) is the very similar opening of Meleager's dedicatory poem from his 'Garland' anthology (now preserved in the Greek Anthology, AP 4.1): "Dear muse, to whom to you bring this all-fruited song? Or who was it that made this garland of poets? Meleager made it, and he laboured at this gift as a keepsake for glorious Diocles". Either Catullus knew this poem, or knew of others like it, now lost: his own poem is a witty response. In favour of (2), Latin questions in the present tense sometimes have an urgent future, or deliberative, quality: Plaut. Cas. 384 Compressan palma an porrecta ferio?, Cic. Att. 13.40 advolone an maneo?, Verg. Aen. 4.534 en, quid ago?. Furthermore, Ausonius seems to have taken it this way, as if Catullus, puzzled for a moment, plucked a name out of the air: 'inventoque/statim dedit Nepoti' = "and on finding Nepos, gave it immediately to him". See Ausonius poem in full, in the note to line 3.
Through the light, bantering tone (here and elsewhere) Catullus wants us to know that he is Nepos' social equal -- not, for instance, a lickspittle poetaster in need of a patron. There's no-one he needs to impress, and these little gems are dedicated as lightly as they are rattled off. That's the pose, anyway...

  • libellum

A "papyrus roll" (liber, diminutive libellus) was the standard ancient format for a body of writings and the ancient equivalent of a modern book. Likewise, "papyrus sheets" (cartae) can refer to a "volume" of papyrus rolls. Catullus' labeling of his poems as a "libellum" (as opposed to librum) is an instance of the humble tone that pervades the poem. It is perhaps a mock humility, considering Catullus' loftier statements present both here and in his other poems.

There has been much debate about what poems exactly composed the "libellus," since the 116 poems (just shy of 2300 lines) that have come down to us are too many to fit onto a single papyrus. It is mostly accepted now that the "libellus" was some selection of Catullus' poems, although which poems these were is unknown.

Line 2Edit

  • arida

Pumex is masculine, and the MSS give 'arido'. Servius ad Aeneid 12.587 remarks that 'Catullus said it in the feminine'; and in modern times most editors have followed Servius' hint, reading 'arida' here (Mynors in his OCT, Fordyce, Quinn; but Riese (1884) and Merrill (1893) read 'arido'). But that's jumping the gun: Servius does not specifically quote this poem (though it's the only one we have where it makes a difference). Martial uses the masculine in 8.72.2, a poem which imitates Catullus (Nondum murice cultus asperoque / morsu pumicis aridi politus / Arcanum properas sequi, libelle...). See LCM 1986 p. 131 for the arguments against 'arida'.

  • modo

The "modo" gives the impression of these poems being "hot off the presses."

  • pumice

Pumice was used to smooth off the ends of papyrus scrolls to prevent ragged edges.

  • expolitum

The "ex-" has a sense of thoroughness. It refers literally to the papyrus, and figuratively to the poems contained therein. Quintilian, writing a century and a half later, used expolio in a literary sense (Inst. 8.3.42, warning against too great a polish in oratory), but the word was used metaphorically even as early as Plautus. The pumice-stone was soon to appear as an explicit literary metaphor in Propertius 3.1.8 exactus tenui pumice versus eat).

Line 3Edit

  • Corneli

This Cornelius is identified as Nepos by Ausonius XXIII (= Ecl. 1 = Schenkl p.120 = 'Ausonius Drepanio filio'), itself an imitation of Catullus 1, which is quoted in full here, because it's by no means easy to track down:

«Cui dono lepidum novum libellum?»
Veronensis ait poeta quondam inventoque
dedit statim Nepoti. At nos inlepidum,
rudem libellum, burras quisquilias
ineptiasque, credemus gremio cui fovendum?
Inveni, trepidae silete nugae,
nec doctum minus et magis benignum,
quam quem Gallia praebuit Catullo.
Hoc nullus mihi carior meorum,
quem pluris faciunt novem sorores,
quam cunctos alios, Marone dempto.
«Pacatum haut dubie, poeta, dicis?»
Ipse est. Intrepide volate, versus,
et nidum in gremio fovete tuto.
Hic vos diligere, hic volet tueri:
ignoscenda teget, probata tradet:
post hunc iudicium timete nullum. Vale.


The allusion to Nepos' Gallic origins[1] in line 8 is added confirmation that Catullus is addressing Cornelius Nepos the historian and biographer. Catullus himself also came from Cisalpine Gaul -- hence 'Veronensis... poeta' (the poet from Verona) in line 2.

  • tu solebas

The imperfect 'you used to think'[2] is evidence that Catullus' relationship with Nepos is long-standing. The emphatic 'tu' may imply 'you, at least, think something of my poems, even if no-one else does': Nepos has taste.

Line 4Edit

  • aliquid

The idea here is that Cornelius thought Catullus' trifles ("nothings") to be something.

  • nugas

Catullus again is being self-deprecating about his own poetry. At the same time, the idea of creating these little "nuggets" was a point of pride for Catullus and the neoterics; they were creating a new genre of Latin poetry, quite distinct from weighty epics.

Line 5Edit

  • ausus es unus Italorum

Nepos' boldness and uniqueness are admirable qualities in an author; but the vocabulary also makes Nepos resemble a character from his own historical works -- adventurous, and the single man out of the multitude able to solve a crisis (like Horatius, Fabius Maximus, for instance), a point well made by Johnston 1997.

Line 6Edit

According to Ausonius Epist. 16 and Aulus Gellius 17.21.3, Nepos wrote a work (now lost) entitled Chronica, which is presumably what Catullus is alluding to here, rather than any of his biographical prose works (some of which survive). The Chronica need not have been a prose work (the usual assumption), but could have been in verse, like the Chronica by the Greek Apollodorus of Athens, which covered events from the fall of Troy to the poet's own time.

  • explicare

A standard word to denote the setting-out in order of a historical account, used indeed by Nepos himself in the preface to his surviving work 'On excellent leaders of foreign races'; or any verbal description, written or spoken. At the same time its basic meaning 'to unroll' can literally be applied to the scrolls -- Nepos', and Catullus' own -- upon which the poet's eye dwells.

Line 7Edit

  • Iuppiter

An exclamation; Catullus is marveling at the quality of Nepos' work.

  • doctis et laboriosis

Neoteric values; Catullus' poems are filled with "learned" references to mythology and are very finely crafted. Nepos' work is allegedly of similar quality.

Line 8Edit

  • quidquid hoc libelli

Self-deprecating, as is the "qualecumque" of the next line.

Line 9Edit

  • o

O does not appear in any extant manuscripts, but is supplied by modern editors on the assumption that it was in the original, based on context and metrical concerns.

  • patrona virgo

The "virgin patron" is either a muse or Pallas Athena. The invocation of a muse or inspiring deity is, of course, a common enough phenomenon in poetry -- Meleager addresses an unnamed Muse in his intro poem (see note on line 1). Notable here, however, is the Romanness of 'patrona': it's often the job of a dedication to define or enact the roles of poet and dedicatee as client and patron. Here, the job of patron is offered to the goddess.

Line 10Edit

  • plus uno saeclo

Saeclo ("age", syncopated from saeculum) can more specifically mean "lifetime", "generation", or "century"; it does not necessarily refer to anything approaching the amount of time over which Catullus' poetry has survived. Notably, Catullus does not ask for many ages. He merely asks that his "quidquid hoc libelli" remain for more than one. This is a touch of modesty, even in the middle of an invocation to the Muse (one of the more elevated activities of a poet).

  • maneat

Optative subjunctive, not jussive subjunctive; one does not command the Muse.

VocabularyEdit

Line 1Edit

  • lepidus, -a, -um - delightful, pleasant, charming

Line 2Edit

  • modo, (adv.) - just now
  • expolio, -ire, -ivi, -itus. - to polish, smooth; to smooth off

Line 3Edit

  • soleo, solere, solitus sum be accustomed to

Line 4Edit

  • aliquis, aliquid - someone, something
  • puto, -are, -avi, -atum to think, consider
  • nugae, nugarum -trifle, nugget

Line 5Edit

  • cum, (conj.) -when
  • audeo, -ere, ausus sum -to dare

Line 6Edit

  • aevum, aevi -age, generation
  • explico, -are, -avi, -atus -to unfurl; explain
  • carta, cartae -papyrus sheet; volume

Line 7Edit

Line 8Edit

  • quare, (adv.) -wherefore, therefore

Line 9Edit

Line 10Edit

  • plus, (adv.) -more than


NOTESEdit

  1. Pliny N.H. 3.127, calling Nepos 'a dweller by the river Po', i.e. in Cisalpine Gaul
  2. Quinn (1970 ad loc.) suggests it may be an 'epistolary' past tense (see for instance De Pretis 2004 p. 150), i.e. Catullus chooses his tenses from the point of view of Nepos receiving this message in the future -- from which vantage point everything happening now will be in the past. If so: 'for you generally think...'. This view, however, sits oddly with the opening of the poem in the present tense ('dono'), and is hard to tie in with the later 'iam tum... cum' which clearly indicates a time in the past. So Rauk (1997) p. 327.

External LinksEdit

Last modified on 6 October 2012, at 04:09