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This review is taken from PN Review 12, Volume 6 Number 4, March - April 1980.

LESBIA BITCH-BITCH-BITCHES The Poems of Catullus, translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish (Cape) £3.50

The poems of Catullus echo down the centuries with a rare immediacy. Tender, witty, insulting, defiant or bawdy, the best capture a transient intensity of feeling with unnerving poetic control. The tension between tautness of poetic form and rawness of subject- matter lies at the heart of Catullus' achievement. This tension is almost unreproduceable in twentieth-century English. Rochester might have succeeded in an age when strict verse-forms were still a natural mode of expression; Gavin Ewart might come near success today. Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish have not made the attempt. With occasional lapses into rhyme or half-rhyme, they have opted for an unbuttoned looseness of both form and language, concentrating above all on raciness.

The result is a reworking, rather than a translation, that is frank and lively. Except for the rather tedious longer poems, and the short elegiac verses, Raphael and McLeish have adopted a dramatic, slangy style even where Catullus is relatively uncolloquial. Indeed, sexual slang is exploited to such an extent that the reader is attuned to it at unfortunate moments. The trouble is the large array of English words that can have sexual connotations. Once on the dirty language register, the mind finds it difficult to move off. Poem 92 is a typical example of where the effect is to transform Catullus' meaning. A literal translation would read: "Lesbia is always disparaging me and never keeps quiet about me. May I die if Lesbia does not love me. How do I know? ...


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