Odi et amo: Rowling, Strike, and Roman Poetry

by Dr. Beatrice Groves

At the beginning of this month, it looked like Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling) was up early working on the proofs of Lethal White. On July 1 at 5:47 a.m., she replied to a pleading tweet from a fan (“when should we expect the new strike novel? I wanna read itttttt”) with “release date will be announced soon! #LethalWhite.” So far, so normal. Cormoran Strike addicts have been teased with promises of the imminent release of Lethal White for some time (although, at least, this time it turned out to be true; a week later, the release date of September 18 was announced). But then, 26 minutes later, Rowling gave us something much meatier. The tweet “can you give us a tease on Lethal White? #Withdrawals” garnered what is, I believe, Rowling’s first Latin tweet: “Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.”



The first thing many Twitter users learned from this tweet is that “Twitter translate” does not translate Latin: “Odi et amo. Quare ID faciam fortasse requiris nescio, sed proud sentio et excrucior” (otherwise known as “that isn’t really a translation is it”) was as good as it gave.

The second is that – as predicted – Strike’s favorite poet appears to be making a comeback for the fourth novel of the series.

Rowling’s tweet quotes the whole of Catullus 85. The Loeb translation (a bit of an improvement over Twitter translate) is “I hate and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask, I know not, but I feel it, and I am in torment.”

This is a proper tease – a delightful return to the clue-dropping that Rowling engaged in in the gaps between Potter books. She is both returning to Latin (the language of magic in the Potterverse) and once again dropping hints into the laps of her faithful followers. Lethal White, indeed, has seen her re-embracing such playful interaction with fans, as when she started a Twitter treasure hunt for its title by sending out the tweet “—H—H—“ (on March 14, 2017) in response to the fan tweet, “Can you give a hint as to what the next Strike novel will be called?”

Catullus also pops up in one of Harry Potter’s literary forebears, Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co (1899) (which, like Potter, is a school story that takes on more adult themes; both are rare examples of the genre to acknowledge both sex and young death). Beetle, the studious one of Kipling’s trio of friends (think Hermione) is asked by his friends to “make up a giddy epigram, a la Catullus.”¹ His school masters would not have approved. Catullus was generally considered a bit “mature” (read: “obscene”) for the traditional school curriculum, and Rowling has, naturally enough, only referenced him in her adult writing. Catullus’s “giddy epigrams” make him a famously to-the-point author. He is outspoken, witty, acerbically sexy – and sometimes all within 280 characters. He is, in fact, a poet formed for Twitter.

Rowling frequently cites great writers on Twitter. In the last year alone, she has quoted Shakespeare, Plato, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Euripides, Somerset Maugham, Aeschylus, Maya Angelou, the Bible, and George Eliot. Of these, only the Dickinson was unreferenced and only the Eliot did not use quotation marks. All the references to classical authors were in English. This Catullus quotation, therefore, is not only the first time Rowling has published a tweet that most of her readers would need to be translated but also almost the first quotation that was not attributed or marked out by quotation marks (and the first quotation to be neither). It is also the first time she has used a literary quotation on Twitter in reference to the content of her work.

All these aspects fit with the detective aspect, “the tease.” The tweet appears in a foreign language and without the usual scaffolding. It forces readers into some detective work and intimates that it might be worth their while digging for what the relevance to Lethal White might be. And Rowling’s Twitter followers eagerly picked up the gauntlet: “Catullus will be featured in some way? A murderer who leaves bits of poetry?”; “So the plot involves an amorous, possibly black widow-esque Lesbia-like femme fatale? Or is the elegiac aspect more important? Hmm…”; “Basically, Strike should’ve said something when he had the chance. Roll the dice. Or is Strike going to be the suspect in Matthew’s murder?”; “That’s a giveaway. It was the gardener!”; “Please tell me Robin breaks up with Matthew”; “Catullus, 85?… So will Mathew be cheating on Robin?…” (In a nicely surreal touch, the fansite @CormanStrike_ noted, “I’m proud of myself for knowing this one, since I’ve read Catullus since reading Silkworm and this one stuck out to me.”)

By quoting Catullus in Latin, Rowling links herself directly with her detective. Catullus is Strike’s favorite poet, and within The Silkworm, he quotes both Catullus 76 and 77 in Latin from memory. Rowling has commented in an interview that these quotations are a hint about Strike’s own personal story arc: “It is a clue to what he was studying before he left university… I have backstory there.” Rowling, too, studied the classics in college (in her case, additional Greek and Roman Studies at Exeter University), and lines from Catullus clearly rise to her mind as expressing precisely the mot juste, just as they do for Strike.

The epigram Rowling quotes in her tweet – “Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior” / “I hate and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask, I know not, but I feel it, and I am in torment” – is one of Catullus’s most well-known poems. (Indeed, I was pleased to note that in the Loeb in my university’s Classics Lending Library – the section most heavily used by undergraduates – it is the only Catullus poem to have been underlined in its entirety.) It is considered justly famous by classicists and celebrated for its stark distillation of emotional paradox into just eight letters (odi et amo).

One critic writes of how such brevity encapsulates, or perhaps masks, a rhetorical trick:

The power of this poem has had a remarkable impact on many readers, yet one of its main sources of effect on the connoisseur of Roman epigram is to make the reader believe it will go in a predictable direction, only to foil that expectation. The reader is tricked. If we know the form we are reassured to be addressed in the question of the first line, and we feel that we have played our silent part in helping the poem to a resolution, yet the expected come-back does not arrive. Catullus is not the only poet to say that he does not know what is happening to him; but the trajectory of expectation generation by the paradox epigram form pitches him into a failure of knowledge and cognition that is starker than anything formulated before him.²

Denis Feeney’s argument – which fits beautifully with leaving this poem as a “tease” for a detective novel – is that Catullus is doing the poetic equivalent of leading the reader up the garden path. In this kind of poem (a paradox epigram), the reader expects to be greeted by a paradox, a question, and then a witty solution to the problem. The poet, like the detective, solves the riddle and everyone goes home happy. In Catullus 85, the poet sidesteps the cognitive solution promised by the poem’s form. The speaker does not know (nescio); instead, he can only feel (sentio). Feeney concludes that “the capacity of the form to deliver a cognitive solution collapses in the face of the irresolvable paradox of odi et amo.”

Rowling’s previous tweet quotations have usually, as is suitable for the intimate and immediate nature of Twitter, been all about sentio. They have encapsulated her own personal and emotional response. At first glance, this is also the most natural way to read this tweet. She is tussling with Lethal White in its final, proof stages and alternating between feelings of “this is the greatest thing since sliced bread!” and “I must throw this in the bin and start again!” Odi et amo tersely and brilliantly captures the love-hate feelings of an author for her manuscript. But this quotation was also Rowling’s response to a request for a “tease” about Lethal White. Given the way Catullus (and indeed, classical quotation more generally) has been used within Strike, it seems more than reasonable to think that its primary relevance lies in its relation to the ongoing love stories within the series.

In Silkworm (as in the tweet), Rowling asks the reader to do a bit of detective work around Catullus. Catullus is first mentioned as Strike’s favorite book without giving the reader anything to identify it by: “His favorite book lay in one of the unpacked boxes of possessions on the landing; it was twenty years old and he had not opened it for a long time” (254). Catullus’s poems lie buried in Strike’s subconscious (just as they are literally buried among the books on his landing) and first rise unbidden to his mind on receiving Charlotte’s text, “Congratulate me. Mrs. Jago Ross“:

As he walked with the aid of his stick back to Denmark Street he remembered words from his favorite book, unread for a very long time, buried at the bottom of the box of belongings on his landing.
…difficile est longum subito deponere amoren,
difficile est, uerum hoc qua lubet efficias…
… it is hard to throw off long-established love:
Hard, but this you must manage somehow…” (373)

It is only in the third and final reference to Catullus in Silkworm that the poet is finally identified. In this passage – which one reviewer called “corny but thrilling anyway” – Strike performs the ultimate put-down by quoting Catullus at length in Latin:

‘sicine subrepsti mi, atque intestina pururens
ei misero eripuisti omnia nostra bona?
Eripuisti, eheu, nostrae crudele uenenum
Uitae, eheu nostrae pestis amicitiae.’
He looked unsmilingly upon Fancourt’s astonishment. The writer rallied quickly.
‘Catullus,’ said Strike, heaving himself off the low pouffe with the aid of the table. ‘Translates roughly:
So that’s how you crept up on me, an acid eating away
My guts, stole from me everything I most treasure?
Yes, alas, stole: grim poison in my blood
The plague, alas, of the friendship we once had.
‘Well, I expect we’ll see each other around,’ said Strike pleasantly.” (401)

This is a quotation of almost the whole of Catullus 77, and its relevance to the grotesque murder in Silkworm is clear. But the earlier quotation of Catullus 76 – “it is hard to throw off long-established love:/ Hard, but this you must manage somehow” – just like Rowling’s tweet of Catullus 85, appears to have a more wide-ranging relevance for the Strike series.

Catullus 76, indeed, can be seen as a guide to Strike and Charlotte’s relationship in its entirety. This is how the poem ends in Peter Green’s translation (a translation I think Rowling is using; see below):

I no longer ask that she should return my love, or –
an impossibility – agree to be chaste.
What I long for is health, to cast off this unclean sickness.
O gods, if I have kept faith, please grant me this!³

But it is also possible to read Catullus 76 (and indeed Catullus 85) as containing clues to the other acknowledged love affair of the series: Robin and Matthew. The speaker of Catullus 76 (like Robin might) reflects on how he has “never broken his sworn word” in this “thankless love.” But despite his constancy, the worth of these vows “entrusted to an ungrateful spirit,/ is lost.” This being the case, the speaker muses, why not cut and run? “Why torment yourself any more?/ Why not make a firm resolve, regain your freedom?”

Robin, of course, has just given her “sworn word” to Matthew at the very end of Career of Evil, and as Rowling told a BBC interviewer, Lethal White is going to start at the exact moment that Career of Evil finished. In that case, it will start the moment Robin has just said “I do” to Matthew while looking at Strike; Strike who, unlike her new husband or any other part of the wedding ceremony, has just made her smile.

The conclusion of Catullus 76 sounds pretty hopeful to all the Strike/Robin shippers out there. If Robin takes this poem’s message to heart, she may remain true to her sworn word a little longer, but she may also ultimately decide to “regain her freedom” from this “thankless love.” The passionate tension within both Catullus 76 and 85 hint that all may not be rosy in the marriage of Mrs. Matthew Cunliffe.

Catullus 85 marks the zenith of the conflicted emotion in this section of Catullus’s poems. Kenneth Quinn makes note of Catullus 85’s impact:

A couplet that is justly famous. It easily stantds on its own feet as a 2-line fragment. But in the context of the persistent, probing analysis which began with Poem 70, to be doggedly resumed again and again till Poem 109, the impact of Poem 85 is even greater, for it represents the poet’s admission that there is a point beyond which logical analysis cannot advance, or help.⁴

The poem Rowling has chosen for her tweet, therefore, is linked to poems that directly precede it, which she has quoted within Silkworm. Odi et amo epitomizes the emotional conflict that marks the speaker’s on-off relationship(s) throughout this section. Indeed, the climactic word of 85, expressing the excruciating torment he suffers (excrucior), appeared earlier in Catullus 76 (the poem that Strike feels encapsulates his feelings about Charlotte).

As mentioned above, Rowling’s Catullus tweet is a first in many ways. It is her first tweet in Latin, the first time she has used quotation without either quotation marks or attribution, and the first time she has used a quotation to give hints about her work. But it is, in fact, the second time Catullus has turned up in her Twitter feed. On November 16, 2017, she posted a picture in which we could see Peter Green’s bilingual translation of Catullus sitting on her desk (it’s hiding under the popcorn):



Comparing Peter Green’s translations for Catullus 76 and 77 with the translations that Strike gives within Silkworm makes it clear, I think, that the modern diction and rhythms of his translations have influenced hers. So here is Green’s translation of Catullus 85, our best guess at how Rowling/Strike would translate it:

I hate and love. You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?
I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified.⁵

The blurb for Lethal White – which Rowling released in the week following her Catullus 85 tweet – notes that Strike’s personal relationship with Robin has comes become “more fraught than it ever has been – Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much more tricky than that…” The blurb certainly suggests that the emotional torture (excrucior) of Catullus 85 points to the “fraught” feelings Strike has for Robin. Other options remain – Strike’s relations with Charlotte, Robin’s feelings for Matthew, and Robin’s own feelings for Strike – but I think it is most likely that odi et amo encapsulates the tensions within all three relationships.

We know that Rowling has Green’s translation of Catullus sitting on her desk (in her highly covetable “writing room in the garden,” according to her tweet, where her husband has brought her tea and popcorn). I like to think that, like Hermione, Rowling is someone who pays attention to the footnotes in the books she reads. So let’s have a look at Green’s critical note to Catullus 85: “There can be few better-known Latin poems than this pungent and desperate distich… Logic (nescio) has failed; all that remains is feeling (sentio), painful to the point of torture (excrucior).”⁶ This emphasis on feelings over facts, emotions over cognition, might relate to the murder within Lethal White in a wider way. The critics all agree that Catullus 85 enacts “a failure of knowledge and cognition” (Feeney), and we have seen in Strike before the ability of the detective-hero to “feel” the emotional truth of the situation while the police rely on mere cognitive probabilities. Strike seems to share in Catullus 85’s belief “that there is a point beyond which logical analysis cannot advance” (Quinn). And indeed it is often Strike’s intuitive sympathy that keeps him one step ahead of the police (in, for example, his reading of Lenora Quine).

As of this week, we now know a little more about Lethal White’s murder. We have a witness, Billy, who thinks he saw it when he was a child: “I seen a kid killed… He strangled it, up by the horse.” There is not much here to connect it with Catullus (although the mention of the horse does feed into earlier speculation that the novel’s title refers to lethal white syndrome, a genetic disease suffered by horses and particularly prevalent in American Paint Horses). The blurb does, however, suggest that Strike will be following his gut over his brain again, in time-honored fashion, “while Billy…cannot remember many concrete details” […]; “there is something sincere about him and his story.” It sounds as though the plot of Lethal White will involve Strike following his hunches. Or as Green writes of Catullus 85, “logic has failed; all that remains is feeling.”

¹Rudyard Kipling, The Complete Stalky & Co., ed. Isabel Quigly (Oxford, 2009), p.210.

²Denis Feeney (2009), “Catullus and the Roman Paradox Epigram,” Materiali e discussioni per l’analisi dei testi classici, No. 61, Callida Musa: Papers on Latin Literature: In Honor of R. Elaine Fantham, pp. 29-39.

³The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Peter Green (London: University of California Press, 2005). p.185.

Catullus: The Poems, ed. Kenneth Quinn (London: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 421-422.

Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Green, p.191.

Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Green, p.261.

Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches early modern drama at Oxford University and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet, in which she discusses Harry Potter and Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, and more!