Thursday, March 12, 2009

De Passere Catulli

So why go with a picture of a sparrow to represent the poems of Catullus over here? Well, Catullus, who lived during the first half of the first century B.C., wrote two quite famous poems (Catullus 2-2b and 3) about a pet sparrow who belonged to his girlfriend, the pseudonymous Lesbia (at least, we can assume that the bird was Lesbia's; she's never actually named in either poem). In the first of these poems, Catullus observes the bird as a source of comfort for Lesbia, and wishes that it could be the same for him (all three translations in this post are my own, and I take full responsibility for any hideous errors):

Catullus 2-2b:
Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare appetenti
et acris solet incitare morsus,
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid lubet iocari
et solaciolum sui doloris,
credo ut tum grauis acquiescat ardor:
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
et tristis animi leuare curas!
* * *
tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae
pernici aureolum fuisse malum,
quod zonam soluit diu ligatam.

Sparrow, darling of my girlfriend,
Whom she is accustomed to play with, and to hold to her breast,
To whom, as you strive passionately, she is accustomed to give her fingertip
And to incite sharp bites,
When it pleases the shining object of my longing
To make some dear jest
And a small solace for her grief
So that, I believe, her grave pain may then find respite:
Let me be able to play with you as she herself does,
And to lighten the sad cares of my heart.
This is as welcome to me as they say
The golden apple was to the swift girl,
The apple which loosened her girdle, bound for a long time.

There are some problems with the manuscripts of this poem, but it is generally accepted that the last three lines, which refer to the myth of Atalanta, belong to Catullus 2. There my also be lines missing immediately before the last three. The poem, by the way, is a real beast to get into workable English; it's a very good illustration of the concept that reading something is not the same as translating it!

Unfortunately, sparrows don't live very long, and so Catullus 3 is a lament for the bird's death. Here 'tis:

Catullus 3:
Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque,
et quantum est hominum uenustiorum!
passer mortuus est meae puellae,
passer, deliciae meae puellae,
Quem plus illa oculis suis amabat.
Nam mellitus erat suamque norat
ipsam tam bene quam puella matrem;
nec sese a gremio illius mouebat,
sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illuc
ad solam dominam usque pipiabat.
Qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc, unde negant redire quemquam.
At uobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella deuoratis;
tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis.
O factum male! o miselle passer!
Tua nunc opera meae puellae
flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.

Mourn, O Venuses and Cupids,
And all the more pleasant men there are!
My girlfriend's sparrow is dead,
The sparrow, my girlfriend's darling,
Whom she loved more than she loves her own eyes.
For he was as sweet as honey, and knew
His own mistress as well as a girl knows her mother;
Nor did he betake himself from her lap,
But, hopping around now hither, now thither,
Chirped continuously to his one mistress.
He now goes on a dark journey
To that place from which they deny that anyone returns.
And may it go badly for you, evil shades
Of Orcus, who devour all beautiful things;
You have taken from me such a beautiful sparrow.
O evil deed! O poor little sparrow!
Now thanks to you my girlfriend's
Poor swollen eyes are red with weeping.

Certain scholars have argued that the sparrow in these two poems is in fact a rather crude anatomical metaphor, and that its "death" is the end of the couple's relationship. Without going into too many details, suffice it to say that I, and most Catullus scholars, reject this notion. For one thing, Catullus was never that subtle when it came to matters sexual (a fair amount of our knowledge of Latin obscenities comes from him). Anyway, I am of the opinion that the poems are to be taken at face value; they're about a bird.

The sparrow of Catullus makes a cameo appearance more than 100 years after the poet's death, in a poem by the satirist Martial (Martial 1.109). The poem is about a puppy named Issa (literally, "Herself"), and it goes as follows:

Martial 1.109:
Issa est passere nequior Catulli,
Issa est purior osculo columbae,
Issa est blandior omnibus puellis,
Issa est carior Indicis lapillis,
Issa est deliciae catella Publi.
Hanc tu, si queritur, loqui putabis;
sentit tristitiamque gaudiumque.
Collo nixa cubat capitque somnos,
ut suspiria nulla sentiantur;
et desiderio coacta uentris
gutta pallia non fefellit ulla,
sed blando pede suscitat toroque
deponi monet et rogat leuari.
Castae tantus inest pudor catellae,
ignorat Venerem; nec inuenimus
dignum tam tenera uirum puella.
Hanc ne lux rapiat suprema totam,
picta Publius exprimit tabella,
in qua tam similem uidebis Issam,
ut sit tam similis sibi nec ipsa.
Issam denique pone cum tabella:
aut utramque putabis esse ueram,
aut utramque putabis esse pictam.

Issa is more mischievous than the sparrow of Catullus,
Issa is purer than the kiss of a dove,
Issa is more affectionate than all the girls,
Issa is dearer than the jewels of India,
Issa is the darling little puppy of Publius.
If she whines, you will think that she speaks;
She feels sorrow and joy.
She sleeps resting on his neck, and takes her naps
Such that no breaths are heard;
And compelled by the desire of her bladder,
Not a single drop has befouled the coverlet,
But she awakens him with a caressing paw, and advises
That she be put down from the couch, and asks to be picked up.
There is such great modesty in the little puppy;
She does not know Venus, nor do we find
A mate worthy of such a delicate girl.
So that her last day does not snatch her away entirely,
Publius is portraying her on a painted tablet
On which you will see an Issa so lifelike
That not even she herself is so similar to herself.
And so put Issa down beside the tablet;
Either you will think that each is real,
Or you will think that each is painted.

You know that thing one does with dogs, when one ruffles the dog's ears and utters endearments to it ("Who's a good dog? Who's a good dog? Yes, she's a good dog!"), and the dog basically goes berserk with joy? Well, I think, I think, that Martial is consciously imitating that in the first five lines of the poem.

And there you have the sparrow of Catullus (also the puppy of Martial)!


Crimson Rambler said...

query re "deliciae meae puellae" -- is that perchance a double dative?

Chunklets said...

Actually, it's a nominative plural (agreeing in case with "passer") followed by two genitive singulars! "Deliciae, -arum" is one of those Latin words that is plural grammatically, but has a singular meaning. So it's literally "the darling of my girl!"

Crimson Rambler said...

aha, I thank you!