Ranald Barnicot’s Catullus: Friendship, Love, Abuse

sirmione catullus


Ranald Barnicot lives in Watford, UK. He has a BA in Classics from Balliol College, Oxford, and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Birkbeck College, London. He is a retired teacher of EFL/ESOL who has worked in Spain, Portugal, Italy and the UK. His original poems and translations from Ancient Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian in various journals, including Stand, Acumen, Orbis, The French Literary Review, Priapus, The Dark Horse and  Poetry Salzburg Review.   A Greek Verse for Ophelia, and other poems by Giovanni Quessep (Out-spoken Press), co-translated from Spanish with Felipe Botero Quintana, came out in November 2018. By Me, Through Me, original poems and translations, was published by Alba Publishing in December of the same year.




Review by Richard HawtreeEight Poems by CatullusPoem by David Cooke



Ranald Barnicot’s Friendship, Love, Abuse etc: The Shorter Poems of Catullus, Versions and Variations, reviewed by Richard Hawtree

catullus book cover

Friendship, Love, Abuse, Etc.: The Shorter Poems of Catullus. Versions and Variations. £10.00. Vole. ISBN: 978-1913329242

The cover image of Friendship, Love, Abuse, Etc. shows the evocative ruins of a substantial Roman villa on the Sirmione peninsula. [See poem, ‘Sirmione’ by David Cooke, included below. ed.] The beauty of this Lake Garda complex known as the Grotto di Catullo, precariously balanced at the water’s edge, powerfully complements Ranald Barnicot’s vigorous new versions of Catullus. In this translation the Latin poet’s oeuvre retains its literary bite, teasing and shocking modern readers in equal measure. Like the ruined Grotto Catullus remains both strange and familiar, challenging us to find meaning in poems at once monumental and open to the elements.

Although Catullus is notorious for his poems of abuse – and Barnicot renders these with panache – one of the great pleasures of this book comes from discovering the ancient poet’s more reflective side. In ‘To Hortalus’ (LXV) Catullus sends his friend a translation of the Greek poet Callimachus. This text should arrive:

Just like an apple, sent to gladden
A young girl’s heart, clandestine token
From her betrothed, which she keeps hidden
In her soft dress, and at her mother’s sudden
Entrance she jumps up, and it’s shaken
Out, rolls forward. (p. 35).

If we approach the poems in Friendship, Love, Abuse as apples, then Barnicot certainly knows how they may be experimentally:


xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx‘Lesbia’s Bird 1’ (II), (p. 42).
or kept skilfully in the air:

Hey, hendecasyllables, wherever you be,
Come, the whole lot of you, hither to me.
There’s a filthy adulterous slut-and-a-half,
She’s taking the piss, she’s having a laugh! ‘Call for a Posse’ (XLII), (p. 57).

The examples given here clearly demonstrate this translator’s skill in using a range of poetic forms and techniques. In Barnicot’s hands, supple half rhymes and jaunty couplets work together to reflect both Catullus’ diverse subject matter and his deft handling of the traditional classical metres. Barnicot’s wry engagement with Catullus’ intellectual games is especially apparent in ‘Camerius and the Scholars’ (LV) where twentieth-century textual criticism infiltrates the poem:

– Thus nicknamed from the Greek for Brassiere,
Proposed by Copley (1952) –
Don’t take offence but tell us in what lair
You’re lurking. We’ve searched everywhere for you, […] (p. 18).

This is one of the book’s most successful ‘variations’ (Introduction, ix) on a Catullan theme, and succeeds in conveying the Latin poet’s literary sophistication to a modern audience. Many of Barnicot’s more literal versions prove equally powerful. Occasionally, scholarly considerations threaten to upset the exquisite balance found in the Latin originals. In ‘Lesbia’s Bird 2’, for example, the famous passer (traditionally translated as ‘sparrow’) becomes: ‘… My girl’s rock thrush [….], her blue / Thrush…’ (p. 43) in a variation which slightly obscures the poem’s lightness of touch.

This translator’s decision to present the poems of Catullus in three distinct groups moving broadly from friendship to love and on to abuse gives a refreshing sense of shape and cumulative impact. Such cohesion is much less apparent when the poems are read in the traditional numbering of the Latin editions. This bold new arrangement has rich rewards for readers: it also leaves Catullus’ poems of abuse and recrimination exposed at the end of the volume, lending them an unsettling shrillness.

This lively translation will undoubtedly win Catullus new admirers. The volume is furnished with a clear introduction and includes a generous portion of absorbing endnotes. Here novices will find the crucial information they need, while old hands may be inspired to dust off that neglected copy of Catullus: A Commentary by C. J. Fordyce keeping watch from a high shelf. Whether tackling an enemy like ‘Prick the Poet’ (CV) or counting up beloved Lesbia’s ‘colossal kisses’ in ‘Kiss Poem 3’ (VII), Catullus and Barnicot blaze through this book as conjurers of the unexpected:

Day incandescent in my calendar of gloom
Restoring you to me
Quite unexpectedly!
You have flown back to me – kazoom!
Naturally, I’m over the moon! ‘Unexpectedly’ (CVII), (p. 45).

Richard Hawtree‘s poems have appeared in literary magazines including: The Stinging Fly, The Blue Nib, Nine Muses Poetry, SOUTH, Skylight 47, Banshee, and The Honest Ulsterman. His pamphlet The Night I Spoke Irish in Surrey was published by Dempsey and Windle in 2019. You can read a review of it here.

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Eight Poems by Catullus translated by Ranald Barnicot
[Click on the titles for the Latin. Ed.]



To whom shall I dedicate
This smartly turned-out slim collection?
To you, Cornelius, with affection
And thanks, who found the time to rate
My ephemera significant,
The one Italian with ambition
To raise your three-scroll monument
Of back-breaking erudition
And most ingenious compression,
A history of all ages.
So take (for what they’re worth) these pages ―
Which, Goddess of my Inspiration,
Preserve beyond one generation!


Veranius, of all my friends you mean the most.
Were it a race, you’d be first past the post,
Three hundred miles in front, at the very least.
And have you now returned where you’ve been missed,
To brothers, a single heart within each breast,
Mother ― she’s getting on, must be confessed ―
And holy gods of home in whom we trust?
You have! Wonderful news! I feel so blessed!
And I’ll find you unscathed, I’ll find you just
The same charming, inimitable enthusiast,
Telling Iberian tribes, events, places of interest,
As is your custom; meanwhile, you’ll be kissed,
Your merry face, your eyes, your neck embraced
By me, nor will you shrug me off nor call me pest.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI must declare my joy or burst,
And all men’s joy by mine shall be increased!
All joyful people that on earth do dwell,
Whose joy shall equal mine, whose joy excel?

(But when that’s done, let’s go out and get pissed!)


Fabullus, you’ll dine well within a
Week chez moi, gods willing,
But make sure you bring a dinner
Ample, tasty, filling.
Also you’ll need to contribute
Laughter, wit and wine,
A girl who’s radiantly cute.
Bring these, my charmer, and you’ll dine
Well, I say, because yours truly
Has a purse that’s cobweb-packed,
But you’ll be requited duly:
Pure love’s my part in this compact,
Or what’s even more becoming,
For I’ll present you with a perfume
Of a power suave and cunning,
My sweetheart’s gift from love-gods, whom
(Venuses, Cupids, such as those)
You’ll petition to metamorphose
You into nothing else but nose.


I laughed the other day in court,
Observing how my Calvus with amazing
Skill was skewering Vatinius and exposing
Each latest scheme and scam,
When some onlooker in the crowd,
His arms, let out:
“Ye gods! This mouthy bantam
‘s well-endowed
For one so short!”


Wretched Catullus, cease your fooling;
What you see lost admit losing.
Time was, your sun blazed incandescent,
When you kept following where she led you.
No future love will match that feeling.
Then what occurred there was so pleasant,
Which you desired, nor she denied you.
Truly, your sun blazed incandescent.
She wants no longer. Stop wanting, weakling.
Shun a wretched life. She’ll evade your stalking.
From now on there’s no reneguing.
So good-bye, girl. Since you’re unwilling
You’ll find Catullus, quite unyielding,
Won’t seek you out. But you, unsought
Completely, will feel some pains.
Ah, wretched woman, what life remains?
Who’ll find you lovely? Who’ll approach you?
Whom will you love? And whose be thought?
Whom will you kiss? And whose lips gnaw at?

Don’t yield, Catullus, don’t let this touch you.


Through many races, over many seas, I reach
Your grave, far from the land that gave us birth,
Brother, to lay down here these wretch-
-ed tributes, rendering the dead their final dues,
(As if dumb ashes might in my fine speech
To any purpose be addressed!),
Seeing that, disregarding youth and worth,
Poor brother, fortune has dispossessed
Me of your self so brutally.
Brother, accept these gifts placed here in keeping
With ancient, ancest-
-ral custom in such obsequies,
Drenched from a brother’s weeping.
Hail, brother, and farewell ― perpetually!


Asinius of the Marrucini, you
Make ugly use of your left hand; while we
Beguile the time with wine and jest, your larceny
Eludes the unalert, lifting their napkins. Do
You think it’s smart? You’ve got it wrong, you fool!
I cannot say how gross it is and graceless.
You don’t believe me? Believe your brother, who
Would give a fortune, were it in his bestowal,
To undo a theft so stupid, spiteful, tasteless,
For Pollio’s a witty, charming lad. Return
My napkin, therefore, or expect three hun-
-dred hendecasyllables to spoil your fun.
Pecuniary value’s not my main concern,
But rather as this item is a gift,
Memento of a comrade, for
Veranius and Fabullus both sent napkins of
The finest linen from Spanish Saetabis,
For me to treasure, not for you to lift,
And I must love them surely as I love
My dear Fabullus and Veranius. Restore
My napkin, therefore, or …
Expect swift
Poetic justice.


What now, Catullus? Why defer decease?
Rome is a sewer running high with sleaze,
Where Nonius and Vatinius float at ease.
The former of these twin excrescences
Lolls in the Curule Chair. The latter’s promises,
Secured by the consulate he knows is his,
Are nothing but a string of perjuries.

Every man to his humour. Rome’s a fair,
Where everything’s for sale. If you’re aware
Whom to coerce, to flatter or cajole,
Whose palms to grease, the cursus’ greasy pole
‘s not hard to clamber up for those who dare.

No, no, don’t wait for midnight, but just cease!
(The first line, I’ll admit it, is Guy Lee’s)

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David Cooke: Poem


At the height of the summer, Catullus,
it’s always best to arrive here early
– as it probably was in your day too –
before the heat builds up to its climax
each late afternoon; for some things surely
remain unchanged on this cypress-clad
peninsula, where you absorbed its peace –
strapped for the readies and strung out on sex.

Addicted to diminutives, you called it
ocellus, a place as precious to you as sight
and a haven beyond the power play
of unbridled mobs. Dying young,
you never dreamed the worst was still to come,
when minders cleared the way for mad men
and an enviable way with a verse
might see you slumped and slashed in a tub.

For a modest fee in recent money
I explore the remains of a villa
they have opportunistically named
for you. Not even your dates are certain
or anything else that isn’t contained
in the wine-stained codex they found in a cellar;
while I savour now, imagining that you did,
the wild rosemary’s oily scent.

David Cooke is the editor of The High Window

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2 thoughts on “Ranald Barnicot’s Catullus: Friendship, Love, Abuse

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