Classics Literature Poetry

Musings on Catullus, Housman and Stoppard

From Catullus 64

Peliaco quondam prognatae uertice pinus
dicuntur liquidas Neptuni nasse per undas
Phasidos ad fluctus et fines Aeetaeos,
cum lecti iuuenes, Argiuae robora pubis,
auratam optantes Colchis auertere pellem
ausi sunt uada salsa cita decurrere puppi,
caerula uerrentes abiegnis aequora palmis.
diua quibus retinens in summis urbibus arces,
ipsa leui fecit uolitantem flamine currum,
pinea coniungens inflexae texta carinae.
illa rudem cursu prima imbuit Amphitriten.
quae simul ac rostro uentosum proscidit aequor,
tortaque remigio spumis incanuit unda,
emersere feri candenti e gurgite uultus
aequoreae monstrum Nereides admirantes.
illa, atque haud alia, uiderunt luce marinas
mortales oculi nudato corpore Nymphas

It is said that formerly pines sprung from Pelion’s peak
swam the liquid waves of Neptune
To the waves of Phasis and the lands of Aeetes,
When the chosen youths, the strength of Argive manhood
Choosing to run away with the Golden Fleece from the Colchians,
They dared to traverse with swift ship through the salty waters,
Sweeping the azure sea with fir oars,
For whom the goddess herself occupying the citadels in the highest cities
Made the flying chariot with a light wind,
Fitting the pine timbers to the curved keel.
She first stained inexperienced Amphitrite with sailing;
But which likewise plowed the fickle wave with curved ship’s beak
And the water, twisted by the rowing grew warm with foam,
Aquatic Nereids emerged their faces from the white eddies
Admiring the apparition
On that day, and hardly any other, mortals saw with their own eyes
Marine nymphs, with naked body,

I had just been reading the Stoppard play about Houseman in which this passage is referenced called “The Invention of Love”.

In a recent discussion at Jewish Book Week 2021, Hermione Lee mentioned that this was Stoppard’s favourite play. It was first published in 1997 and given it’s themes I wondered if it’s writing had any connection with Stoppard’s feelings about Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. This very interesting play can be viewed on You Tube but sadly the quality of the sound is not very good.

I think it is interesting that Stoppard who appears not to have had a University Education appears so interested in the minutaie of recondite and eclectic matters such as logical positivism (Jumpers) or textual analysis as in this play.

Isn’t it interesting how the road not taken, so to speak, may become so interesting one’s later in life. This was seemingly the case about higher education with Tom Stoppard who has become so formidably well read and erudite. I was thinking too of James Callaghan a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1976 to 1979. He became so very interested in Education and seems to have engendered the changes that resulted in the National Curriculum.

The other major figure that springs to mind is George Orwell. However, my most recent encounter with Orwell portrays him rather more as the man of action and not perhaps very interested in University Education as that of describing authoritarian atmosphere of the minor Prep school. I was reading fairly recently an account by Rayner Heppenstall in his engaging account Four Absentees which mentions the time the author spent with Orwell in their Camden flat-

It is difficult to imagine what Orwell might have chosen to read had he gone to University and then again he was young at a time well before the expansion of University Education. Perhaps, he is now studied under the area of Media Studies. There appears to be considerable debate about his writing. Personally I found his diaries which I think appeared in Penguin around 1988 absorbingly interesting.

Darcy Moore's Blog |ORWELL COLLECTION - Darcy Moore's Blog

Orwell and Stoppard are both concerned with language and truth. When looking at this play, there is a debate about the relative merits of poetry and academic scholarship as well as the human relationships. Houseman the classicist obsessed by the scientific and heterosexual Jackson. Obsessed too with such close textual analysis that he seems to missed his first in Greats. How might he be diagnosed or labelled nowadays one wonders.

After recently reading Three Rings by Daniel Mendelsohn (A tale of Exile, Narrative and Fate) I have been tempted to explore diversions and must now return to the text above.

The first two lines above do not appear to make a great deal of sense in English. My Heinemann edition translated by F.W.Cornish (Erstwhile Vice-Provost of Eton) 2nd Edition 1914 gives-

Pine-trees of old, born on top of the Pelion, are said to have swam through the clear waters of Neptune to the waves of Phasis and the realms of Aeetes, when the chosen youths, the flowers of Argive strength, desiring to bear away from the Colchians the golden fleece...

Now the obvious difficulty in getting the poetry here is the number of allusions with which the text is crammed. The sort of associations that in Keats time many were familiar. Looking them up…..

Pelion is simply there as a mountain today and looks gorgeous too.

Pelion: the forgotten Greek peninsula with alpine treks and sandy beaches –  but no tourists

Phasis appears to be beautiful -The Rioni river, as it is called in classical sources.  Ancient Greek Φᾶσις as it says in Wikitionary! Aeetes may be found at, an ancient King of Colchis who has been represented thus:-


“The flowers of Argive strength” is rather lovely and associated with gladiolus flowers which suggest not only strength but honour and moral integrity. Gladius being Latin for sword. Argive refers to the ancient city of Argos and obviously not the on-line delivery store! Argos (Ancient Argos, located in the Peloponnese in Greece, was a major Mycenaean settlement in the Late Bronze Age (1700-1100 BCE) and remained important throughout the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman periods until its destruction by the Visigoths in 395 CE)

The full import of Catullus 64 may be found at

Finally, there is a little possible alternative at line 14 where freti might replace feri above and seems to mean narrow-anyway freti candenti sounds rather nice though I cannot quite make sense of it. It seemsto refer to a white narrow watery space I am told. See and according to Cornish might instead mean “wild visages” of the emerging Neriads in the spume of the churning oars. Houseman and probably Stoppard would doubtless be intrigued by these codd. (Codices) Referring to the different manuscripts. Cornish in my book -1st Edition 1912 refers to 7 different manuscripts- one of which is in the Bodleian and one of which is no longer extant but 6 of the others are derived from it. Codex Veronensis.

By penwithlit

Freelance writer and radio presenter

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