“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” –Oscar Wilde
Only Oscar Wilde could be quite so frivolous when describing a matter as grave as the punctuation of poetry, something that causes particular grief in our attempts to understand ancient texts. Their writers were not so obliging as to provide their poems with punctuation marks, nor to distinguish between capitals and small letters. If modern editors wanted to recreate the ancient reading experience, we ought to print texts in capitals throughout, with no punctuation or even spaces between the words; but our readers would probably not thank us for doing that. So in our editions we have to make choices about punctuation and the like, based on our understanding of what the texts mean. And if Oscar Wilde could be perplexed by the placing of one of his own commas, we should not be surprised if we sometimes misinterpret the articulation of ancient texts – sometimes with unfortunate results.
The longest poem by Catullus (c. 84-54 bc) contains an account of the wedding of the Greek hero Peleus to the sea-goddess Thetis – a key event in mythological history, which led to the birth of the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles, and (thanks to the intervention of Eris with her golden apple) to the Trojan War in which he would win fame. In one part of the work the Parcae (Fates) describe Peleus’ future to him, opening their song with the following address (64.323-6):
O decus eximium magnis uirtutibus augens,
Emathiae tutamen opis, clarissime nato,
accipe, quod laeta tibi pandunt luce sorores,
O you who augment your outstanding fame through your mighty
Protector of the might of Emathia [i.e. Thessaly], most famous through
Receive the truth-telling oracle, that the sisters reveal
To you on this happy day
At least, this is how the passage appears in the Oxford Classical Text of 1904, edited by Robinson Ellis. In line 324 he prints a modern emendation, clarissime, ‘most famous’; the manuscripts of Catullus read carissime, which would give ‘most dear to his son’, a senseless phrase, since Peleus at the time of this address is childless. Some half a century later, Roger Mynors in his Oxford Classical Text of 1958 – still the standard text of Catullus, and recently published in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (or read the translation) – printed a different version of the second line, as follows:
Emathiae tutamen, Opis carissime nato
Protector of Emathia, most dear to the son of Ops
If modern editors wanted to recreate the ancient reading experience, we ought to print texts in capitals throughout, with no punctuation or even spaces between the words
Mynors’s new edition retains the text of the manuscripts (carissime) and, for its punctuation, adopts a suggestion made by A. E. Housman in 1915. By placing the comma before opis rather than after it, and by capitalising that word to make it a proper name, Housman restores what must have been Catullus’ intended meaning, and avoids the need to emend the text. Instead of the flabby phrase ‘Protector of the might of Emathia’ (as Housman remarks, “the might of Emathia did not need protecting: it was itself a protection”), we get the tighter ‘Protector of Emathia’. More crucially, the meaning of the second half of the line is now clear. Ops was a Roman goddess identified with Rhea, mother of Jupiter; so Catullus is saying that Peleus was ‘dear to Jupiter’, recreating in Latin the Homeric epithet διίφιλος (Iliad 1.74 etc.). Peleus was indeed dear to the gods, in that he was allowed to marry a goddess; and since Jupiter himself had previously expressed a personal interest in Thetis, it could be said that he showed Peleus particular favour in withdrawing his claim. This very point is made earlier in the poem in another invocation of Peleus, which is recalled by our passage as interpreted by Housman (64.26-7): Thessaliae columen Peleu, cui Iuppiter ipse, | ipse suos diuum genitor concessit amores (“pillar of Thessaly, Peleus, to whom Jupiter himself, the very father of the gods, conceded his beloved”).
So an apparently trivial change of punctuation allows us to understand a passage of ancient poetry that had frustrated scholars and readers for centuries. No wonder C. J. Fordyce (not a man given to hyperbole), in his commentary on Catullus published by Oxford University Press in 1961 and recently added to Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, called this “the most spectacular contribution of modern scholarship to the interpretation of Catullus”. Or as A. E. Housman said elsewhere – not in real life, but as the character of that name in Sir Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love – “There is truth and falsehood in a comma.”
Featured image credit: Man sailing a corbita, a small coastal vessel with two masts by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.