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An early Roman analogue for the 'shoe my foot' stanzas?

The 'shoe my foot' stanzas have been called 'the hydrogen ion of balladry because of their readiness of combination'. (1) Appearing in many folk songs and ballads, they also often occur simply by themselves, as a separate song, usually with an antistrophe: (2)
Who's gonna shoe your pretty little foot?
Who's gonna glove your hand?
Who's gonna kiss your ruby red lips?
Who's gonna be your man?

Papa's gonna shoe my pretty little foot
Mama's gonna glove my hand
Sister's gonna kiss my ruby red lips
And I don't need no man. (3)

The earliest known versions of the 'shoe my foot' stanzas appear in the eighteenth-century Scottish ballad 'The Lass of Roch Royal' (Child 76), which is thought to have been composed considerably earlier than its oldest text was written down. (4) In the course of several decades, the strophe changes from a woman's lament, as in 'Roch Royal', to a mans inquiry, as in the generic example above. Similarly, the third and fourth lines above do not make their way into the stanzas until decades after 'Roch Royal', but they do provide a nice progression: going from shoe to glove to lips carries the audience's attention closer and closer to the real issue, that of who the woman's romantic partner will be. (5) A possible early analogue, however, incorporating these lines and including a very similar progression of thought, appears in Poem 8 of the first-century BCE Roman poet Catullus.

How close is this Roman analogue to later versions? Is there any evidence for transmission of these lines from Roman times to the eighteenth century? And if not, what can we conclude from the existence of a Roman analogue? Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84-54 BCE), born in Verona, grew up in Rome where he became a well-known lyric poet. Dying at around the age of thirty, he left behind 116 poems, ranging from two to 408 lines, in various metres. The corpus of poems is arranged by scholars on metrical grounds, rather than chronologically or by subject. At least twenty-six of his poems arise from his relationship with a woman he calls 'Lesbia'. Scholars generally agree that Catullus 8 marks a late stage in the poet's relationship with Lesbia, referred to in this (and several other of his poems) simply as puella, 'girl'. (6) In Poem 8, Catullus laments that the girl has broken off the relationship, and he alternately reminisces and reminds himself not to dwell on what cannot be regained:
Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.
fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles,
cum ventitabas quo puella ducebat,

5 amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla.
ibi ilia multa turn iocosa fiebant,
quae tu volebas nec puella nolebat.
fulsere vere candidi tibi soles,
nunc iam ilia non vult: tu quoque,
impote[ns, noli]

10 nec quae fugit sectare, nee miser vive,
sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.
vale, puella, iam Catullus obdurat,
nec te requiret nee rogabit invitam.
at tu dolebis, cum rogaberis nulla.

15 scelesta, vae te! quae tibi manet vita?
quis nunc te adibit? cui videberis bella?
quem nunc amabis? cuius esse diceris?
quem basiabis? cui labella mordebis?
at tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura! (7)
Pitiable Catullus, stop acting foolishly
and count as lost what you see has been lost.
Suns once shone brightly for you
when you used to go where the girl used to lead,
she who was loved by us as no other will be loved.
Then there were many joyous times
which you used to want, nor did she not want them.
Suns truly shone brightly for you.
But now she is unwilling, and you, too,
should be unwilling, since you have no choice;
and do not follow her who flees, not live in misery,
but rather endure with a resolute mind - don't waver.
Farewell, girl; Catullus has already
hardened his heart,
and will not need you nor seek you, since you are unwilling.
But you will be sorry, when you will not be sought.
Wretched girl - woe to you! What life remains for you?
Who will visit you now? To whom will you seem pretty?
Whom will you love? Whose will you be said to be?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?
But you, Catullus, be firm - don't get all emotional. (8)

Scholars analysing the structure of Catullus 8 have suggested many different groupings for the nineteen lines, (9) yet most agree that lines 15-18 form a discrete unit within the poem, bracketed by at tu before and after. This is where our analogue appears.

The four lines 15-18 contain seven short questions. Moritz notes that the six carefully structured questions in lines 16-18, in particular, 'are kept strictly parallel in metre and language. In each line the seven syllables of the second "half" supplement and intensify the five syllables of the first'. (10) Thus:
scelesta, vae te! quae tibi manet vita?
quis nunc te adibit? cui videberis bella?
quem nunc amabis? cuius esse diceris?
quem basiabis? cui labella mordebis?
Wretched girl - woe to you! What life remains for you?
Who will visit you now? To whom will you seem pretty?
Whom will you love? Whose will you be said to be?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?

Catullus does not provide an answer, there is no equivalent of the antistrophe of the English text. But the absence of responding lines - or of any response whatsoever within the poem - has bothered classical scholars. (11) Is there actually an expected, implied answer to these lines - 'no one", for example? (12)

Catullus may not have had anyone else in mind - no rival lover - and the questions may be rhetorical. The speaker may merely wish to remind the girl just how much attention he has paid to her, perhaps hoping that she will realize how much she will miss that attention. Rowland suggests that the answers to these questions are 'not "nobody" - that would be absurd; nor is it even "a rival" [...] but simply "not me"'. (13) Lyne hypothesizes that Catullus 'fears the answer to the repeated questions is not going to be "no one"' and that he more and more clearly wishes it might be himself'. (14) Greene, however, argues that in lines 15-18 we hear 'the voice of a man tormented by images of infidelity [...] With masochistic pageantry, he trots out the images of his beloved in the arms of potential rivals. (15) We can also argue that Catullus is reimagining himself in the girl's arms and simply gets carried away with an increasingly passionate and physical description. Both readings fit with the admonishment to 'Catullus' in the last line, where 'the qualifying conjunction at reveals that his confidence in his own earlier stance of rationality has been shaken [...] The emphatic position of at in the last line stresses the ambivalence and confusion inherent in the lover's situation.' (16) Although there is little agreement on interpretation here, most scholars admit that an answer to these questions is very strongly implied.

Whatever the interpretation, this series of short questions in four lines clearly forms a discrete unit of thought, one extremely similar to the 'shoe my foot' stanzas found in "The Lass of Roch Royal' and later. In particular, the last question in the 'shoe my foot' stanzas, which asks who will take care of her, embodies the same sentiment as Catullus's lines. And, as in the Scottish ballad and later songs, in Catullus we have a progression of intensity in the questions, from the general 'who will care for you?' to 'who will be your lover?' There are differences, of course. For one, in many of the ballad versions the questions are not rhetorical but are subsequently answered: various family members will step in to care for the abandoned girl. For another, unlike in Catullus's poem, where the girl is the subject of five out of the seven questions, the girl in 'Roch Royal' is not the subject of the questions, but rather the object, or at least the possessor of the objects. In the ballad, the girl has lost her lover, but it is apparently he who has left her, not she who has rejected him. The man has intentionally abandoned her, moved away, or died as in the case of 'The Lass of Roch Royal' or 'John Henry', for example. But Toelken notes that one possible interpretation of the 'shoe my foot' stanzas is that 'a man recalls with irony what a previous sweetheart had told him (that she would remain faithful during his absence, after which she betrayed him)'. (17) This sounds very much like Catullus. (18) And in arguing for Catullus's lines as an early analogue, we should not underestimate the coincidence of the ballad verses comprising a four-line stanza of short questions commencing with pronouns, just as Catullus's lines all begin with pronouns. (19)

In addition to identifying Catullus's lines as an early analogue for the 'shoe my foot' stanzas, wc might also ask whether there is any evidence that Catullus adapted these lines from one of his literary predecessors. The question cui labella mordebis? in line 18, 'whose lips will you bite?', has been compared to a line from Plautus, teneris labellis molles morsiunculae, 'sweet little kisses on our tender lips' (Pseudolus 67); (20) but even though the general sentiment is similar, 'lips' (labella/labellis) is the only word the phrases have in common. Another, better possibility may be Admetus's lament in Euripides's Alcestis 942-43, 'To whom shall I speak, by whom shall I be spoken to, that I might have a pleasant homecoming?' (21) But this connection, too, is only tangential. Yet Catullus is known to have borrowed from Sappho for Poem 51, and he apparently borrowed from Euripides, Menander, and Plautus for other lines in Poem 8. (22) There is no reason why he could not have adapted lines 15-18 from elsewhere as well, even if the source has not yet been identified.

Catullus 8 was surely, as were most Latin poems, meant to be read aloud; quite probably it was even meant to be sung. (23) In short, it is worth asking whether these four lines had their origin in an oral tradition rather than a literary one, such as a folk song already in circulation in Catullus's time. This is certainly not out of the question; there are other, quite definite examples of such adaptation in classical literature. (24) Furthermore, the lack of grammatical subordination in these four lines, particularly when compared with the rest of Catullus 8, strongly suggests an oral source. (25) And the expectation of answers to the questions hints at the existence of another context outside of Catullus. So it is a viable proposition that Catullus heard a version of these four lines in a song and modified them for his own use.

Overall, the correspondences in content, structure, and tone of the later ballad stanzas and Catullus 8.15-18, along with the possibility of oral transmission even in Roman times, allow us to posit that the Roman version is an early analogue for the 'shoe my foot' stanzas. Is it likely, then, that Catullus directly influenced 'The Lass of Roch Royal' and later ballads? Most ballads have miscellaneous origins, and medieval minstrels, for instance, were certainly not necessarily illiterate; it is not a stretch to say that some of them might have been familiar with Catullus. Dronke, for example, has demonstrated that a Latin lyric ballad from the early Middle Ages (c. 1000 CE) drew heavily on Ovid. (26) Nevertheless, a direct line of transmission seems unlikely. For one, Catullus's lines are more similar to versions later than those in 'The Lass of Roch Royal'. For another, we have a very considerable lapse of time even between Catullus and 'Roch Royal' itself, during which no analogues have yet come to light. Also, although Catullus was certainly read in the eighteenth century, English translations of the time were rather overwrought in their attempts to be highly literary - for example, they were made to rhyme - and their language was far from the relatively colloquial Latin that Catullus himself used. (27) They were also quite far removed from the plain language of contemporary ballads.

At the very least, what we have here is a remarkable early parallel. The similarities in structure, tone, and context identify the Catullus lines as an early analogue, indicating that this general verse form existed not only in the eighteenth century but also in Roman times. (28) Also, it is important to note that a gap of several centuries is not at all unusual when looking at classical analogues for items of modern folklore. (29) We are entitled to speculate that the 'shoe my foot' stanzas are far older than has been thought - not only earlier than 'The Lass of Roch Royal', but quite possibly older than Catullus (8).


The author is very grateful to the editorial board of FMJ, and David Atkinson in particular, for their many helpful comments on this paper.


University of Massachusetts, Amherst

(1) Traditional Ballads of Virginia, collected under the auspices of the Virginia Folk-Lore Society, ed. by Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1929), p. 261. On the flexibility of the 'shoe my foot' stanzas, see also David C. Fowler, An Accused Queen in "The Lass of Roch Royal" (Child 76)' Journal of American Folklore, 71 (1958), 553-63 (p. 553); David C. Fowler, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1968), pp. 219-26.

(2) Davis, pp. 260-77, gives no fewer than thirty versions from the state of Virginia alone. See also Isabel Gordon Carter, 'Some Songs and Ballads from Tennessee and North Carolina', Journal of American Folklore, 46 (1933), 22-50.

(3) Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore, rev. edn (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996), p. 212.

(4) Hugh Shields, 'The History of "The Lass of Aughrim"', in Musicology in Ireland, ed. by Gerard Gillen and Harry White, Irish Musical Studies, 1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1990), pp. 58-73 (p. 59).

(5) Barre Toelken, Morning Dew and Roses: Nuance, Metaphor, and Meaning in Folksongs (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), p. 98. See also Pauline Greenhill, '"Who's Gonna Kiss Your Ruby Red Lips?" Sexual Scripts in Floating Verses', in Ballads into Books: The Legacies of Francis James Child, ed. by Lorn Cheesman and Sigrid Rieuwerts, Selected Papers from the 26th International Ballad Conference (SIEF Ballad Commission), Swansea, Wales, 19-24 July 1996 (Bern: Peter Fang, 1997), pp. 225-35 (especially pp. 225-26).

(6) C. J. Fordyce, Catullus: A Commentary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), p. 110; Peter Green, The Poems of Catullus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 215, among others, suggest that this may be the poet's attempt to distance himself emotionally from her. The girl clearly must be Lesbia, because phrasing extremely similar to 8.5 appears in two poems in which Lesbia is named (58.3, 87.1).

(7) Latin text from Catullus: The Poems, ed. by Kenneth Quinn, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1973).

(8) With the exception of my attempted variations on obdura, I have kept to a fairly literal translation.

(9) For example, do the first two lines form a unit? Or should the first eight lines be considered as one thought? And what about the false closures at lines 12 and 14? The poem could easily have ended at either of those places and been complete, although, as Don Fowler, Roman Constructions: Readings in Postmodern Latin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 262, notes, the point of the poem is that Catullus cannot stop his obsessing about the girl: 'In declaring that his obsession with Lesbia is over, he demonstrates that it is not [...] The false closure of 11-12 casts its shadow even over the real concluding line, and makes us unsure of its finality; if Catullus could not stop before, how seriously do we take him now?' And cf. p. 123: 'There is a persistent interplay between the impulse to go on and the need to make an end', both in the poem and in the relationship. For a detailed review of two centuries' worth of structural interpretation of Catullus 8, see Robert Schmiel, 'The Structure of Catullus 8: A History of Interpretation', Classical Journal, 86 (1990), 158-66. Roy Arthur Swanson, 'The Humor of Catullus 8', Classical Journal, 58 (1963), 193-96 (p. 194), for example, points to chiastic structures in lines 1-8, 9-13, and 14-19, thus arranging the poem in groups of 8-5-6 lines. See also Paolo Fedeli, 'La struttura di alcuni carmi di Catullo', in La didattica del latino (Foggia: Atlantica Editrice, 1982), pp. 143-49 (pp. 147-48); Ellen Greene, 'The Catullan Ego: Fragmentation and the Erotic Self,' American Journal of Philology, 116 (1995), 77-93 (p. 83).

(10) L. A. Moritz, 'Miser Catulle: A Postscript', Greece & Rome, 2nd ser. 13 (1966), 155-57 (p. 157). Catullus 8 is written in the choliambic meter, sometimes also called 'limping iambics', or scazons. There is an elision between 'te adibit' in line 16, so that, rather than having four syllables, the phrase is pronounced with just three. Many have noted Catullus's virtuosity in using alternate case forms of the same word in structurally parallel positions: for example, George A. Sheets, 'Elements of Style in Catullus', in A Companion to Catullus, ed. by Marilyn B. Skinner (Malden: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 190-211 (p. 204, also n. 19).

(11) Question-and-answer strophe and antistrophe in balladry is not unique to "The Lass of Roch Royal', nor is it unusual in Creek and Roman poetry: the use of strophe with a responding antistrophe appears frequently in the choruses of Greek drama, for example.

(12) As suggested by, for example, H. Akbar Khan, 'Style and Meaning in Catullus' Eighth Poem', Latomus, 27 (1968), 555-74 (p. 562): Lesbia is imagined 'to feel utterly crushed by the repeated impact of the "Nobody"-answers she would get in reply to the questions'.

(13) R. L. Rowland, 'Miser Catulle: An Interpretation of the Eighth Poem of Catullus', Greece & Rome, 2nd ser. 13 (1966), 15-21 (p. 19).

(14) R. O. A. M. Lyne, The Latin Love Poets: From Catullus to Horace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 49.

(15) Greene, p. 84. See also Eduard Fraenkel, 'Two Poems of Catullus', Journal of Roman Studies, 51 (1962), 46-53 (p. 53): 'At the end his imagination is tormented with the vision of the rival, of Lesbia embracing him.' Similarly, Julia Haig Gaisser, Catullus and his Renaissance Readers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 218, describes these lines as 'a jealous fantasy'.

(16) Greene, p. 84.

(17) Toelken, Morning Dew and Roses, p. 99.

(18) This is actually Catullus's attitude toward Lesbia during most of their relationship, as far as we can tell from his body of work. He frequently accuses her of being unfaithful to him, which is in itself ironic because, if Lesbia was realty the Roman noblewoman Clodia Metelli - and there seems to be little doubt; that she was - she already had a husband. It seems that she took various lovers.

(19) Catullus's lines famously use four different cases of the Latin interrogative pronoun quis (nominative, dative, accusative, genitive). The English pronoun and the metre of the ballads provide less flexibility of expression compared to the inflected Latin. Also in favour of Catullus 8.15-18 as an early analogue is the expression in line 15 that introduces the questions: scelesta, vae te, 'wretched girl - woe to you!'. This is quite similar to the line 'Begone, you base creature!' spoken by Lord Gregory's mother in 'The Lass of Ocram' (Child 76 [L]), which prompts the lass to utter the 'shoe my foot' stanzas. Catullus's Latin could, in fact, be translated as you base creature - begone!'. On the 'conceptual flexibility' of the Latin scelesta, see, among others, Khan, p. 563.

(20) See, for example, Catullus, ed. by E. T. Merrill (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1893; repr. 1974), p. 19.

(21) Here, as in the Catullus, the questions begin with pronouns in different cases.

(22) See Richard Thomas, 'Menander and Catullus 8', Rheinisches Museum, 127 (1984), 308-16.

(23) See, for example, Fraenkel, p. 52: '[Catullus 8] if it is fully to be appreciated, has to be read aloud [...] enjambement is not to be found in this poem [...] The hard rhythm, produced by the incision at the end of every single line, is in keeping with the hard tone of the whole poem. Its keynote is the imperative obdura.' Thomas Habinek, The World of Roman Song (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), p. 274, notes a multitude of evidence that for the Romans 'most "reading" of poetry or other special speech (such as "song") involved some degree of oralization'. At the time of writing, there are various online versions of people singing Catullus 8; at <> [accessed 10 June 2010], for example.

(24) For example, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to one of his friends about a haunted house, saying that he would tell the story as he had heard it, exponam ut accept (7.27.4). R. Wachter, '"Oral Poetry" in ungewohntem Kontext: Hinweise auf mundliche Dichtungstechnik in der pomepejanischen "wandinschriften', Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 121 (1998), 73-89, discusses elements of oral composition in written Latin poems, with particular attention to poems found in graffiti at Pompeii and their influence on Roman literary poetry.

(25) Lines 3-7, for example, contain a good deal of subordination. Catullus 8 in general combines various spoken and written elements, but the lack of subordination in lines 15-18 is particularly striking. For these and other characteristics of oral versus literary style, such as the reduced frequency of enjambement in oral tradition, see David C. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 69, 194.

(26) Peter Dronke, 'Learned Lyric and Popular Ballad in the Early Middle Ages', Studi Medievali, 1 (1976), 1-40, which argues strongly against the view that ballad poetry as a genre did not arise before the later Middle Ages.

(27) For example, the translation of John Nott, The Poems of Caius Valerius Catullus, in English verse, with the Latin text revised, and classical notes (London: J. Johnson, 1795), p. 27 (nearly contemporary with the earliest known copy of Child 76):
How wilt thou grieve, when not a creature
Shall ask thee for a single night?
How wilt thou live? Who now support thee?
Who now be with thy charms inflamed?
What youth shall now with bliss transport thee?
Whose now, alas! Shalt thou be named?
Who shall thy wanton kisses smother?
Whose lips thy trembling bite indent?

(28) If the 'shoe my foot' lines constitute a literary motif, it has not been identified as such. There is no reference to anything resembling either Catullus's particular lines or the 'shoe my foot' stanzas in Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature or in other motif indexes such as Gerald Martin Bordman, Motif-Index of the English Metrical Romances, FF Communications, 190 (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1963); Tom Peete Cross, Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1952); Natascha Wurzbach and Simone M. Salz, Motif Index of the Child Corpus, trans. by Gayna Walls (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1995).

(29) For some recent analyses of classical analogues for modern urban legends, see Camilla Asplund, 'The Octopus in the Sewers: An Ancient Legend Analogue', Journal of Folklore Research, 45 (2008), 145-70; Bill Ellis, '"De Legendis Urbis" Modern Legends in Ancient Rome', Journal of American Folklore, 96 (1983), 200-08; William Hansen, 'The Stuck Couple in Ancient Greece', FOAFTale News, 36 (1995), 2-3; Adrienne Mayor, Ambiguous Guardians: The "Omen of the Wolves" (A.D. 402) and the "Choking Doberman" (1980s)', Journal of Folklore Research, 29 (1992), 253-68.
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Title Annotation:Notes
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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