Friday, January 9, 2009


John Warden, Taking Back the Text: Poetic Technique in Catullus, Propertius and Tibullus. Toronto: Edgar Kent, 2008. Pp. 111. ISBN 9780888666567. $72.50 (Canadian).
Reviewed by Robert Maltby, University of Leeds (

The book consists of a series of essays on poems by Catullus (5, 7, 8, 11, 16, 48, 51, 58, 68a and b, 73, 76, 85), Propertius (1.3; 2.14; 2.15; 2.29b; 4.7) and Tibullus (1.1; 1.3; 1.5; 1.10). We are told in the acknowledgements that it arose out of a collection of essays intended to introduce students to Latin poetry. The introduction argues for a need to salvage the personality of the individual text, which the author sees as being in danger of losing some of its immediacy as a result of recent trends in literary theory. The aim of the book is to analyze in detail individual poems in terms of their lexis, meter, sound and structure. The poems chosen are intended to trace a development in love poetry from the short poems of Catullus, through his longer elegiacs to the more extended elegies of Propertius and Tibullus. The book is divided into two parts to reflect this development, Part I Breve discusses Catullus' shorter poems and Part II Longum discusses Catullus 68 and the poems by Propertius and Tibullus.

Chapter 1 discusses Catullus poems 5, 7, 48 and 16 (in that order) in hendecasyllables on kissing. In each case the Latin text is accompanied by an English verse translation. There is considerable emphasis throughout on the rhythm of the poems and of the relation of sound to sense. The discussion is a useful reminder that these poems were intended to be read aloud and that effects of sound and meter have an important contribution to make to their interpretation. The danger is a drift into subjectivity. Along the way some important and original points are made, particularly on the greater sensuality of the Juventus poem 48, with its reference to the physical characteristics of the beloved, in comparison with the Lesbia poems which combine a greater urgency with a lack of overt sensuality (p. 15). The chapter ends with a perceptive discussion of the way in which the serious poetic manifesto of poem 16 that the poet is distinct from the poem is enfolded within an abusive beginning and ending.

Chapter 2 on loving and hating discusses this theme in Catullus poems 8, 76, 73, 85, 11, 51 and 58. The question of the ordering of these poems in our manuscript tradition and its relation to the author's intentions is left unanswered (p. 8). There is a good comparison of the treatment of this similar theme in the polymetric poem 8, showing a more detached, lyrical self-mockery, with the more intense, self-absorbed, almost prosaic development in the elegiac poem 76. The remarks about the theatricality of these two poems and their connection with the stage miser amator (p. 25) is perceptive, but as with a number of passing literary references (e.g. the Callimachean background to poem 7) could usefully have been developed at greater length. In some cases, as for example in the discussion of poem 11, essential information about the poem's genre and literary background is omitted entirely from the discussion.

Chapter 3 on Catullus 68a and b begins the second part of the book, Longum on the longer elegiac poems. The author makes a good case for seeing the translation of Callimachus' narrative elegy Lock of Berenice (poem 66) as leading the way to the creation of a new form of verse in 68 a and b, a subjective elegy on Catullus' grief at his brother's death and love for Lesbia. The discussion of the use of mythology and extended similes in these poems is not new, but the detailed analysis of the poem, its structure, sound effects and literary affiliations makes a coherent case for seeing 68 as the culmination of Catullus' exploration of his own personal experience through the elegiac medium and as the starting point for later Latin elegy.

With chapter 4 we move on to elegy proper with an analysis of Propertius 1.3 and its relation to the later poem 2.29b on a similar theme of the poet's visit to his sleeping mistress. Again there is much emphasis on the effects of meter and sound in these poems, but there are also some perceptive remarks on the way Propertian elegy differs from Catullus 68. In comparison with Catullus 68, myth and narrative are shown to be much more integrated in Propertius 1.3 and the relationship between the two worlds of myth and reality made more apparent. The nature of Warden's collection, concerned as it is with the discussion of individual poems, by necessity has to miss out any speculation as to the influence of figures such as Gallus in these key developments. The study of myth in Propertius continues in chapter 5 with its discussion of the pair 2.14 and 2.15 and their treatment of the theme of a night of love-making. Myth in poem 2.14 is said to operate in a different way from 1.3. There it had served to universalize and glamorize an everyday situation, whereas in 2.14 the opening accumulation of mythological parallels is said to depersonalize and distance the description. By contrast, the absence of myth in 2.15 contributes to a directness of expression more akin to that achieved in Catullus' shorter poems. Again essential literary background is missing, in the case of 2.14 the influence of the boastful slave's mythological comparisons in comedy.

Chapter 6 moves on to Tibullus with a detailed analysis of 1.1. There is a good discussion of the differences between Tibullus and Propertius, with emphasis on the seamless and understated way in which Tibullus can weave together a number of themes. Love is not as central to Tibullus' world but simply contributes to a wider ideal which embraces the simple rustic life and the worship of traditional rural gods. A useful discussion of poem 1.5 (which again lacks any discussion of literary precedents, particularly in Greek epigram) adds some rather less obvious points about the capacity of Tibullus for self-ridicule in his stance as a lover. A more balanced picture of Tibullus would perhaps have been gained by adding to the discussion a poem from the second book.

The final chapter on Love and Death compares Propertius 4.7 (Propertius' vision of Cynthia's ghost) with Tibullus 1.3 (where the poet imagines his death in Corfu (Phaeacia) on military campaign). The Homeric allusions of both are brought to the fore (dead Patroclus appearing to Achilles for Prop. 4.7 and the Odyssean associations of Phaeacia for Tib. 1.3). Obvious similarities between the Propertian and Tibullan poems are usefully catalogued and a good case is made at the end for seeing Propertius 4.7 as a darker, more sardonic re-working of Tibullus 1.3.

Overall the book fulfills its purpose of providing a students' introduction to these sophisticated and often difficult poems. The emphasis on the meter, sound and lexicon of the poems is to be welcomed. However, the book's merits are limited to this introductory function and any more serious analysis of the poems concerned would require a greater engagement with modern scholarship (the majority of works cited in the short bibliography come from the period 1960-1980) on their generic and wider literary affinities.

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