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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Frank Churchill aka Catullus as Mrs. Elton's abominable puppy

“"Oh! for myself, I protest I must be excused," said Mrs. Elton; "I really cannot attempt—I am not at all fond of the sort of thing. I had an acrostic once sent to me upon my own name, which I was not at all pleased with. I knew who it came from. AN ABOMINABLE PUPPY!—You know who I mean (nodding to her husband). These kind of things are very well at Christmas, when one is sitting round the fire; but quite out of place, in my opinion, when one is exploring about the country in summer. Miss Woodhouse must excuse me. I am not one of those who have witty things at every body's service. I do not pretend to be a wit. I have a great deal of vivacity in my own way, but I really must be allowed to judge when to speak and when to hold my tongue. Pass us, if you please, Mr. Churchill. Pass Mr. E., Knightley, Jane, and myself. We have nothing clever to say—not one of us.”

It has been over 8 years since I first identified Frank Churchill as the unnamed “abominable puppy” in the above speech by Mrs. Elton. As I have parsed it out, on Valentine’s Day, Frank first gives to (the then) Miss Hawkins the “courtship” charade (which, as Colleen Sheehan first showed in 2006, contains two anagram acrostics on the word/name “Lamb”),  and then, some time later,  Frank (the “fairy”) then passes on to his former wing-man Mr. Elton, who then recycles it by giving it to Emma.

I began publicly speaking about that interpretation, which ties up so many loose ends in Emma in a perfect harmonious whole, in May 2010, in my presentation to the NYC JASNA regional group, and I most recently briefly summarized my argument on this point here:

Anyway, today, in Janeites and Austen-L, Anielka Briggs brought forward what I believe to be another significant piece of that same literary jigsaw puzzle, a piece of which I had previously been completely unaware, but which I will demonstrate, below, to be part yet another thread in that same harmonious whole I described years earlier:

Anielka: “Having posted about Cicero as a style-sheet for Austen's prose it's only fair to reveal that Cicero's friends feature in various Austen novels. You may remember that the AUGUSTAn and Julian poets were fond of acrostics. One poet is famed for his impudent references to his lover. Clodia Metelli was a somewhat conceited, fairly well-to-do woman and kept plethora of boyfriends on the boil, including Austen's style-guru, Cicero. Clodia also dumped the impudent chap who wrote poetry to her. What was the name of her impudent erstwhile lover?  Catullus
And what does "Catullus" mean?  PUPPY.  So the "puppy" who wrote acrostics on her name is Catullus.  (Clodia was immortalised by Catullus as Lesbia) “  END QUOTE

Combining (i) my prior insight about Frank as the poetic puppy with (ii) Anielka’s very intriguing catch of the name of the poet “catullus” meaning “puppy”, I hypothesized that Jane Austen might just have been covertly presenting Frank Churchill as a Regency Era Catullus. So I decided to dig deeper, to see what else came up.

First, I checked and verified that my classical scholar friend Mary DeForest had, way back in 1988, made the following comment in her 1988 Persuasions article about classical literary influences on Jane Austen: 

“The Roman poets invented a new genre of poetry, consistent love-elegy, a cycle of poems narrating the vicissitudes of a single love-affair.  The most famous example is Catullus’ cycle of poems about Lesbia. “

But Mary, while recognizing that Jane Austen had drawn inspiration for her own mock self-depreciations,  had not realized that Jane Austen might have had specific Roman poems on her radar screen—specifically, those very same Lesbia  poems that both Mary (in 1988) and Anielka (in 2014) had mentioned.

It didn’t take long to find the Lesbia poem which Catullus scholars universally agree is the best textual evidence supporting the identification of the real life Clodia as Catullus’s source for his fictional Lesbia:

Lesbius is beautiful. Of course he is! Lesbia would choose him
  over you, Catullus, with your whole family.
But yet, this beautiful man would sell Catullus, with family,
  if he could find three kisses from men who know him.

And that last line about Lesbius having to scramble to gather three kisses from friends reminded me immediately of Frank’s playful challenge at Box Hill:

“[Emma] only demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all."

Be it prose or verse? I’d say, in this case, very definitely verse-Catullus’s very clever verse!

And that last line from that most famous of the Lesbia poems also brought to my mind the playful last line of Garrick’s Riddle---the dirty part that Mr. Woodhouse doesn’t quite remember:

Must I this youth address?
Cupid and he are not the same—
Tho' both can raise or quench a flame —
I'LL KISS YOU if you guess."

So, the idea that these really were JA’s teasing hints of Catullus hidden in plain sight in the word games of Emma was growing more and more promising. But it turns out, as you’ll see shortly, I was only half done.

Next on the list of leads to check was picking up on Anielka’s general suggestion about the love of acrostics in Latin poetry—did that, I wondered, apply specifically to Catullus’s poetry?  The poem I quoted first about Lesbia was actually only one of nearly a hundred poems about Lesbia that he wrote. Did any of them contain an acrostic? Google quickly confirmed that this was the case:

Lesbia Poem 60

Num te leaena montibus Libystinis
Aut Scylla latrans infina inguinum parte
Tam mente dura procreavit ac taetra,
ut supplicis  vocem in novissimo casu
contemptam haberes, a nimis fero corde?

Either a lioness from Libya’s mountains
Or Scylla barking from her terrible bitch-womb
Gave birth to you, so foul and so hard your heart is!
The great contempt you show as I lie here dying
With not a word from you! Such a bestial coldness.

In Catullus (1992) by Charles Martin, we read about the above poem at p. 72:

“G.P. Goold, an editor and translator of Catullus, recently [actually, in 1965, as far as I can tell] noted a clue that had been overlooked for at least the past seven hundred years: if you read down the first letters of each line and then read up the last letters, you find a telegraphically terse ACROSTIC message: NATU CEU AES, by birth like bronze…”


N (um) …A(ut) …T (am) … U(t)     = NATU
C(ontemptam) … (cord)E … (cas)U = CEU
(taetr)A … (part)E … (Libystini)S    = AES

This down-then-up acrostic in Lesbia Poem 60 means “by BIRTH with bronze”, in a stanza which refers to giving BIRTH.  Clearly not a random event.

So, we DO have an acrostic, and a particularly elegant one, in Lesbia Poem 60! Did Jane Austen recognize it? I believe so, and that is in part why Mrs. Elton refers to the author of the “lamb/ courtship” acrostic/charade as a “puppy”---and “terrible” is a good synonym for “abominable”---but all of that is just prelude to the most Mrs. Eltonesque part of this particular acrostic Poem 60.

Note the image that Catullus chose to depict the idea of terrible in Poem 60—it’s Scylla, of course one of the two proverbial mythological sea monsters who makes Odysseus’s seafaring quite challenging in The Odyssey.

So what?” you say? “ Well, I leave it to Daniel H. Garrison in his Students Catullus at p. 125, in his footnote for Scylla in Poem 60, to explain why I connect Poem 60 to JA’s charade in Emma:

“…as described in the Odyssey, [Scylla] yaps like a PUPPY, in Lucretius the canine component has grown to a ring of rapid dogs attached to her body. Here and in Virgil, Propertius, and Ovid they comprise the lower part of her body.”

So Scylla was famous to Roman poets like Catullus, who surely knew Homer’s epic well. And indeed, in Book 12 of The Odyssey, we learn about Scylla that “She makes a horrible sound that is no louder than the whine of a PUPPY ...”

So, to sum up the key points, is it just one gigantic coincidence that:

Catullus (whose name means ‘puppy’) wrote a 4-line poem with its one named character being Scylla (whose voice was famously that of a puppy) and with an elegant acrostic---a poem written as part of a series of poems which included one other poem that concluded with a playful reference to three kisses;


Mrs. Elton repeatedly refers to a “puppy”  as the author of a charade (consisting of  two 4-line stanzas, each one with an anagram acrostic on another animal name-“lamb”---a charade written as part of a series of word games in Emma which included one which concluded  with a playful reference to a kiss, and another one  which referred to a playful reference to three

I think the conclusion is obvious.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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