Virgil vs Catullus

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Unfortunately, it often happens that people, who do not understand much or do not care to understand much about the nature of certain things tend to judge about them in a very straight-forward manner and giving the problem only one view, being the first and the last combined. This is easy to forgive to an illiterate person or somebody, who is not much involved in the subject, however when we face such straight-forward judgments, made by highly educated and intelligent people, this sounds quite strange indeed.

In this paper we shall discuss two extremes of roman literature - poetry of Catullus and the great poem Aeneid, written by Virgil. This contrast is important to be seen in order to understand the point of view of the great roman philosopher and social leader of the time - Marcus Tullius Cicero, who believed the main role of literature to be the educational function, he insisted, that the main role of literature was to educate a "vir bonus" - an excellent citizen. Can we relate this to all the literature? Can we relate this to all the Roman literature of the time? In fact, it appears that Cicero might have made to strict of a judgment and have seen the problem too narrowly. He was trying too much to generalize about the literature functions and how literature should look like. He made attempts to support his own generalizations with his own poetic exercises, which, of course, were somewhat awkward due to his applying too many rules and requirements when composing them. However, here is what can be said about the two Roman authors, who were chosen for this paper.

Contrasting the poetry of Catullus and Virgil one should first of all focus on the different spheres of interest of both poets. Virgil is concentrated on the problems of state importance. He is writing a poem, which puts together numerous myths and provides Roman people with a unitary legend, which can be called even as history of their country. Aeneid tells its reader at first the story of Aeneas, a citizen of Troja, who travelled to Italy, and became the first of the Romans. The second part of the poem concentrates on his glorious war with the Latins, which results in the victory of Aeneas. The poem was written in the severe times for the Roman Empire and those were the times, when many of the citizens lost their belief in the greatness of their country. But the poem depicts a man, who is devoted to his country and puts the interests of the Empire much higher, than his own interests, and the reader is supposed to take inspiration in his doings, becoming such a devoted citizen himself. Leaving Troja, Aeneas makes a promise that he is going to take up the combat once again.

Virgil writes in a style and in a language, which is believed by many of the critics to be a reflection of his own character. His writing is very even, and famous for its dignity. Virgil sticks to just one style in his writing. According to what is known about his own personal features, his character was much like that - very even and, to a point, pedantic. Quite different from the character of Catullus. This man of literature, also belonging to almost the same time as Virgil, was quite an expressive man; he loved life and loved enjoying it and the diversity of the pleasures, offered by it. Catullus did not think that one should entirely dedicate himself to the state. Human life was designed by gods for pleasure, and to pleasures he dedicated himself, being a great fan of entertainments and women. This was expressed in his poetry. He did not write large epic poems, like the "Aeneid". Instead, he wrote shorter pieces of poetry, concentrating mainly on personal feelings, relations and other similar matters. He wrote a lot about love, about his feelings towards his married lover, about his friends and relatives. He cared much less about politics, and little he wrote on the subject. Instead, his emotions and feelings about love and physical relations with the opposite, and, sometimes it appears that not only with, the opposite gender, are quite openly expressed.

Here is what life stands for Catullus according to one of his own poems:

"Woe to you wicked one! Which life remains for you?

Who now will go to you? To whom will [you] seem pretty?

Whom will you now love? Whose will you be said to be?

Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?

But you, Catullus, be resolved to be strong".

This sort of poetry, this kind of literature cannot be called "educative", and can hardly be taken for such, that educates the reader to be an excellent citizen of the Roman Empire. At least not such, in the understanding of Cicero. Besides, the poems of Catullus have little to do with the Roman Empire and various social problems of the time. But is it bad literature? For the time it is not bad at all.

However even Cicero admitted, that literature was not supposed to solely educate the excellent citizens. Even such a strict judge, as Cicero, agreed: literature needs to entertain the reader, give him a chance to enjoy perfect forms, perfect rhythm. However this function of the poetry and literature was believed to be secondary by Cicero. To be more precise, we need to remember, that Cicero, just like Plato, strongly believed, that not the words alone influenced the reader or the listener of a piece of literary art. What matters a lot, is the rhythm of the poetry, the sound of the words, their combinations, which influence the personality of a reader/listener beyond his consciousness.

In general Cicero was a representative of those writers, who mainly concentrate on fact; various literary approaches were not his cup of tea. He believed that the functions of rectories and such of the literature were very much the same. The function of rhetoric’s was to influence illiterate people, make impression and provoke compassion among ignorant people. Literature, by means of beautiful literary forms, was supposed to influence more literary "prepared" people. However, as we have seen, literature often goes, and, to be more exact, went beyond these limits even in those old times. The writers dedicated their work not only to the state, to the country, but also to things, which have nothing to do with political and social life. Many lyrical poems were dedicated to the inner world of a person, a lot has been written about love, passion, sexual relations between people, and Catullus is one of the brightest examples of this tendency.

Of course, one might say, for instance, that "educating a perfect citizen" should be seen in a much wider context. This should not be solely limited to the political aspect of the matter. It could be, but, on the one hand, Cicero did not see it that way, what he solely paid attention to the matters. One way or another related to politics and law, since these were his major paths in life, things, he loved, understood and was known for. Besides, when speaking about Catullus, we need to remember: a lot of his poems were not design to teach or preach. They were written as an attempt to share his inner worries, his joys and sorrows, such being very intimate and deeply personal. Catullus and other poets, like him, did not care much about educating somebody; it was a discussion, a conversation with a reader, story telling, and emotion sharing, but not educating or teaching.

Besides, literature, being an art, needs to be and is free; it cannot be limited to certain functions and described within some narrow framework. It is, in many cases, an alive organism, which develops in a way, independent of critics' desires or points of view. What critics can do is describe what has already happened in literature and not predict what is about to happen or tell, how the future of the literature will look like, or, rule on how and in which directions it is allowed to write. If this happens - though, Cicero, clearly, did not have such intentions, - literature will stop belonging to arts and will become writing. And what will become of the world without literature? This is a question, which luckily has got no answers. This question is the question, the human kind, at least, the majority of the human kind, do not want to know the answer for. Long live literature, all of its diversity and let it teach and educate us, tell us stories and provoke our dreams, and may it not always have to do with politics.

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