Horace and Catullus along with the English Literature Classroom:  An Expansion

Will S. Jennings

Episcopal Collegiate School

When our students first encounter the lyric poetry of Catullus and Horace in modern context, their reactions often reveal an underlying sense of familiarity.  For most, the universal themes of the poets are recognizable and the emotional immediacy of the poems are still felt.  However, the deep traditions and connective threads of ancient lyrics to our own English poetic tradition many times remain overlooked. Where can we create opportunities for students to find these valuable connections within the lyrical tradition?  As our students begin their study of Catullus and Horace, they often are beginning a survey course of British literature.  One supplemental and effective method of understanding continues to be an active comparison to the British poetic canon. 

In his book Catullus and His Influence (1923) Karl Pomeroy notes the lasting influence of the lyric poetry of Catullus on the poetic traditions of English Literature.  More recently, widely-used student texts, such as Love and Betrayal:  A Catullus Reader (Arnold, Aronson, Lawall) and Catullus (Bender, Forsyth) offer opportunities for students to examine direct influences, notably through Catullus 5 and 51.  However, there continues to be a greater opportunity for students to expand their understanding of Catullus and Horace through comparison and poetic analysis.   

This paper reflects on new opportunities and methods incorporating different English literature texts into students' study of Catullus and Horace, notably John Donne, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Shakespeare. Using these new opportunities, the texts reinforce, refine, or react to the thematic ideas found within Catullus and Horace. 

As illustration, I provide five separate encounters as students react to the analyses of separate poems:  two encounters with Horace (Odes 1.23 and 3.30) and three encounters with Catullus (Catullus 7, 70 and 72, and 85).  Selected student responses demonstrate the lasting value of these analyses.  With their inherent similarities and differences, the analyses raise relevant questions and involve a rewarding encounter with both texts:  how do these two poets react to the immediate problem presented to them?  Are there similarities in word choice, imagery, or tone?  If similar in theme, what are the subtle ways that these poems differ?  How does background biographical/historical information shed light on the poetic problem or narrative that is being presented?  These questions provoke textual interest, invite dialogue, and allow discovery of underlying patterns.  Through the activity of analysis students emerge with a refined and broader understanding of Roman lyrics, and an ability to discuss different connective threads found in the Roman lyric tradition to our own.  The paper concludes with a thematic syllabus of Catullus and Horace that includes suggested English Literature counterparts.


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