Beatrice Groves: Rowling and Catullus

Trinity College Portraits by Ian Wallman

A Nativity Guest Post post from Beatrice Groves, Research Fellow and Tutor in English at Oxford’s Trinity College and the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter as a Christmas gift to you about distinguishing an artist from her artwork and a pointer to a BBC program this week which Serious Strikers will want to attend. Enjoy — and Merry Christmas!

On 9 Jan on Radio 4 (9am and 9.30pm) there will be an ‘In Our Time’ episode on Catullus – which serious Strikers may be  interested in listening in on. Guests include my friend and colleague Dr Gail Trimble, who has written the forthcoming Cambridge University Press edition of Catullus 64 (and what she doesn’t know about Catullus isn’t worth knowing). The write-up of the programme describes how:

Catullus (c84-c54 BC) wrote some of the most sublime poetry in the late Roman Republic, and some of the most obscene. He found a new way to write about love, in poems to the mysterious Lesbia, married and elusive, and he influenced Virgil and Ovid and others, yet his explicit poems were to blight his reputation for a thousand years. Once the one surviving manuscript was discovered in the Middle Ages, though, anecdotally as a plug in a wine butt, he inspired Petrarch and the Elizabethan poets, as he continues to inspire many today. 

One those he continues to inspire, of course, is J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith. She has made Catullus her new hero’s favourite poet – in a way that marks both Strike’s continuity with Harry Potter (in which she delights in using Latin as a magical language) and a gear-change in the way in which she approaches such subjects in her more explicitly adult series. Catullus is a major presence in both the second and fourth Strike novels. In Silkworm Catullus is first mentioned as Strike’s favourite author without giving the reader anything to identify the book by: his favourite book lay in one of the unpacked boxes of possessions on the landing; it was twenty years old and he had not opened it for a long time’ (Silkworm, p.254). Catullus’s poems lies buried in Strike’s subconcious (just as they are literally buried among the books on his landing) and first rise unbidden to his mind on receiving Charlotte’s text ‘Congratulate me. Mrs Jago Ross:’

As he walked with the aid of his stick back to Denmark Street he remembered words from his favourite book, unread for a very long time, buried at the bottom of the box of belongings on his landing.

difficile est longum subito deponere amoren,

difficile est, uerum hoc qua lubet efficias

it is hard to throw off long-established love:

Hard, but this you must manage somehow… (Silkworm, p.373)

It is only in the third and final reference to Catullus in Silkworm that the poet is finally identified. In this passage – which one reviewer called ‘corny but thrilling anyway’1 – Strike performs the ultimate put-down by quoting Catullus at length in Latin:

sicine subrepsti mi, atque intestina pururens

ei misero eripuisti omnia nostra bona?

Eripuisti, eheu, nostrae crudele uenenum

Uitae, eheu nostrae pestis amicitiae.’

He looked unsmilingly upon Fancourt’s astonishment. The writer rallied quickly.

Ovid?’

Catullus,’ said Strike, heaving himself off the low pouffe with the aid of the table. ‘Translates roughly:

So that’s how you crept up on me, an acid eating away

My guts, stole from me everything I most treasure?

Yes, alas, stole: grim poison in my blood

The plague, alas, of the friendship we once had.

 ‘Well, I expect we’ll see each other around,’ said Strike pleasantly.

(Silkworm, p.401)

This is a quotation of almost the whole of Catullus 77 and its relevance to the grotesque murder in Silkworm is clear. But the earlier quotation of Catullus 76 – ‘it is hard to throw off long-established love:/ Hard, but this you must manage somehow’ – appears to have a more wide-ranging relevance for the Strike series.

Rowling has had an all-or-nothing relationship with Twitter in 2019 – her year-long near-silence broken at the very end of the year by a tweet which seems to have been one of the most talked-about tweets of recent times. In the good old days, however, she used Twitter to tell us about Catullus.

On the 16th November 2017 she posted a picture in which I was delighted to spot Peter Green’s bilingual translation of Catullus hiding under the popcorn.

After reading Lethal White I can’t but wonder if this was an intentional set-up – another of her infamous gingerbread trails. For Strike, likewise, strains to read the half-revealed book titles on Jasper Chiswell’s coffee-table and spots an edition of Catullus: ‘Strike could see nothing but a partial title on an old cloth edition – “CATUL”’ (p.292). In this tweet Rowling places her readers in precisely the same position as her detective: straining to find clues from a photograph of a copy of Catullus on the coffee-table of someone who has been quoting that poet. And is she teasing us by leaving precisely the same five letters ‘CATUL’ visible on the book’s spine? Can we come to the same conclusion as Strike from precisely the same evidence?!

Then, on 1 July 2018, Rowling replied to a fan-tweet (can you give us a tease on Lethal White?’) with her first Latin tweet: ‘Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.’ Rowling’s tweet quotes the whole of Catullus 85: ‘I hate and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask, I know not, but I feel it, and I am in torment.’

By quoting Catullus in Latin, Rowling links herself directly with her detective (who, as noted above, has quoted both Catullus 76 and 77 in Latin from memory). Rowling has commented in interview that these quotations are a hint about Strike’s own personal story arc: ‘it is a clue to what he was studying before he left university… I have backstory there.’2 Rowling, too, studied the classics at university (in her case Greek and Roman Studies at Exeter University – in addition to French) and lines from Catullus clearly rise to her mind as expressing precisely the mot juste, just as they do for Strike. Before the publication of Lethal White I wrote a post for Bathilda’s Notebook on Mugglenet about Rowling’s ‘Odi et amo’ tweet (– which I hope John will post a link to here when Mugglenet is back up!). And, as promised, in Lethal White Catullus did indeed make a return. The copy Strike spots on the villain-victim Chiswell’s coffee table is a pointer to his two important quotations of the poet.

Firstly Chiswell quotes Catullus 16 (apparently with homophobic intent) at Aamir Mallik: ‘Catullus more up your street, I expect. He produced some fine poetry about men of your habits. Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo, Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi, eh? Poem 16, look it up, you’ll enjoy it’ (pp.186-7). (In a nice detective-y detail Strike is able to identify the poet later when discussing this moment with Robin – although she cannot remember the Latin – because Chiswell gives the poem a number not a name: ‘Catullus’s poems are numbered, not titled’ [p.296]).

And then, just as in Rowling’s ‘Odi et amo’ tweet, Chiswell quotes Catullus 85 itself: ‘Odi et amo, quare id faciam fortasse requiris? Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.’ Robin finds it written out in Latin by Chiswell on a crucial note that is one of her biggest under-cover finds. Strike translates it for us – ‘“I hate and I love. Why do I do it, you might ask? I don’t know. I just feel it, and it crucifies me….” that’s Catullus again. A famous one’ (p.449) – and in doing so reveals a little more of his backstory as he parries Robin’s question about how come he can read Latin though he did not (like Rowling) study it at university: ‘in fact the story of his ability to read Latin wasn’t long, merely (to most people) inexplicable. He didn’t feel like telling it in the middle of the night, nor did he want to explain that Charlotte had studied Catullus at Oxford’ (p.453).

In my Mugglenet blog I suggested Peter Green’s translation of Catullus 85 as our best pre-publication guess at how Rowling/Strike would translate it:

I hate and love. You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?

I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified.3

Rowling hasn’t followed it precisely (as indeed, given copyright, she couldn’t have), but the ‘I just feel it’ and the verb ‘crucify’ suggests that she has used Green as a guide in her translation (Strike’s version, for example, is much closer to Green than to the Loeb: ‘I hate and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask, I know not, but I feel it, and I am in torment’).

Rowling kept faith with that ‘Odi et amo’ tweet, too, in the sense that Catullus is even more important for the plot in Lethal White than in Silkworm (a pattern we should see repeated in Strike 6 if John is right about the structure, with Lethal White as the ‘pivot’ novel). Strike, musing on why Chiswell has quoted Catullus to Aamir Mallik, notes the obvious point that Chiswell is calling out some form of sexual deviancy – sexually explicit poetry being what Catullus is best-known for: ‘Catullus described plenty of interesting habits: incest, sodomy, child rape… he might’ve missed out bestiality’ (p.296).

He also makes the slightly less obvious connection that Catullus writes about relations with an older woman: ‘the best-known ones are on that very subject,’ said Strike. ‘Catullus was in love with an older woman’ (p.337). An older, married, woman, indeed – although Rowling wants us to work out that clue for ourselves. And Chiswell is indeed, by quoting Catullus 16, expressing his violent anger at sexual deviancy (something very close to incest, in fact) with an older, married woman. Strike has put his finger on the oblique accusation Chiswell is making, he just isn’t ‘addressing’ the person Strike thinks that he is (‘we are never too old to learn, eh, Raff?’ [p.187]).

Catullus – even, perhaps the startlingly adult Catullus 16 – also marks a subtle cross-over between the Strike and Wizarding Worlds. It is difficult not to notice post-Crimes of Grindelwald that Rowling quotes the second line of the Catullus 16 in Lethal White, the line which addresses ‘Aureli:’ the Roman Senator Marcus Aurelius Cotta Maximus Messalinus. This Aurelius is a tempting source for Credence’s new name (revealed to the world two months after the publication of Lethal White) – did she come up with it when re-reading Catullus 16 for Strike research?

More pertinently, I think, Catullus is a name Rowling used in her Wizarding World (posted on Pottermore in 2016 after he had turned up as Strike’s favourite poet in Silkworm in 2014) for ‘the great eighteenth-century researcher of Charms, Professor Catullus Spangle.’ Catullus Spangle is an authority on the Patronus, and in particular, on the way in which this Charm (as we’ve seen in particular with Harry, Snape’s and Tonks’s Patronuses) makes deeply private realities visible: ‘the Patronus, asserted Spangle, represents that which is hidden, unknown but necessary within the personality… the Patronus is the awakened secret self that lies dormant until needed, but which must now be brought to light…’ (Rowling deepens this point by having Spangle, surprisingly, suggest that there is something odd about those whose Patronus takes the form of their favourite animal: ‘Here is a wizard who may not be able to hide their essential self in common life, who may, indeed, parade tendencies that others might prefer to conceal.’4) The Patronus – a bit like more traditional acts of creativity? – negotiates between someone’s private and public natures, their surface and their depths.

Catullus 16, which is only quoted in Lethal White in Latin (and, indeed, was only published in full in English in the late twentieth century), is far from suitable fare for many Pottermore readers. But it is a poem Rowling chooses to quote in her adult work and it is interesting that she gives its author’s name to an academic who writes about the Charm which mediates between the hidden and revealed selves.

The most interesting aspect of Catullus 16 (for this reader, at least) is its explicit (in both senses) discussion of the relation between an author and their art. It is a performance of outrage against those who cannot distinguish between an artist and an art-work. Others claim that Catullus ‘parades tendencies that others might prefer to conceal’ and he replies, in effect, that the poetry is no measure of the man. But he does so, of course, poetically: the poem is a wittily circular, as well as violently memorable, demonstration of its central point.

As we wait for Strike 5 (which Rowling noted last month is pages away from completion) I hope you’ll join me in tuning into the Catullus special on Radio 4 and learning a bit more about Strike’s favourite poet. Who knows? It might provide future clues….

  1. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/jk-rowling-the-most-successful-writer-in-the-world-spins-a-winner/news-story/49666ffcf0ae7d82afdbc379101f584b
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbvJbbgFhrQ
  3. The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Peter Green (London: University of California Press, 2005). p.191.
  4. https://www.wizardingworld.com/writing-by-jk-rowling/patronus-charm

Comments

  1. Joanne Gray says

    Thank you so much for this information! I will absolutely tune in to listen on Jan. 9 on Radio 4.

    This is very insightful post to spur further study and it made me realize that I need to go back and re-read the series before book 5 comes out (hopefully later this year) because there are a great many items you bring up that I thought I knew but now I’m not so sure.

    I’m off to revisit books 1-4 before 5 arrives.

  2. Melissa Aaron (Moonyprof) says

    Fascinating! Catullus is one of my favorites, so I will be sure to check that out. Are you familiar with Carl Orff’s Catulli Carmina?

  3. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks Joanne and Melissa! Glad you enjoyed and crossed fingers for more Catullus in the Strikes to come….

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