"Lesbia's Pet Bird"

Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quocum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare adpetenti
et acres solet incitare morsus,
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescioquid libet iocari,
et solaciolum sui doloris
credo, ut tum gravis acquiescat ardor.
tecum ludere, sicut ipsa, possem
et tristes animi levare curas!

(Catullus 2b)

tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae
pernici areolum fuisse malum
quod zonam soluit diu ligatam.

My translation:

Sparrow, my girl's little pet
with whom she plays and holds in her lap,
offering her little finger to your beak
and teasing sharp bites out of you,
when, weeping because I am not there,
she jokes some sweet thing, I do not know what,
and, I think, some small solace for her pain,
so that then, love's fire subsides.
If only I could play with you, as she does,
and relieve the sad cares of my heart!

(2b)

This is as pleasing to me as they say
the little golden apple was to the runner,
which loosened her long-fastened belt.


Analysis

This is, quite rightly, a very famous poem, and one that has been greatly discussed.

The traditional translation of 'passer' is 'sparrow', although that bird makes a very bad pet. Many scholars believe that the bird meant is more likely to be a mockingbird, although there is a very good case to be made that the 'pet' referred to is a metaphor, either for Catullus' penis, or for Lesbia's clitoris.

The former makes some sense if we take line 5 to mean 'when my radiant heart's desire'. However, the word 'desiderium' in Latin does not simply mean 'desire'. It is rather the desire felt for something one has lost. One cannot have desiderium for a Porsche unless one has previously owned one. It seems likely from Catullus' tone in this poem that he and Lesbia are together, and the situation described here is a temporary separation. In that case, the use of the word desiderium seems incorrect when applied to Lesbia in this line.

In contrast, if Catullus is the one for whom desiderium is felt, the line makes more sense - Lesbia, according to Catullus, is so in love with him that she cannot bear to be apart, even temporarily. It is this, along with the last two lines (why would Catullus yearn to play with himself in such a tormented way?) that leads me to conclude that if the bird is being used as a metaphor, it is more likely to be for Lesbia's sexual organs.

Line 6 appears to show a hint of envy ('I do not know what') that Catullus is not allowed in on these secrets between Lesbia and her pet. This thread is taken up again in Catullus 3, where the poet appears to mock the bird.

It is not clear whether 2b is meant to be a part of 2 or of some other poem. If it is to be a part of this poem, there are many lines missing from the manuscript. The legend referred to here is that of Atalanta, who did not wish to be married. She said that if any man could beat her in a foot race, she would marry him. A young man prayed to Venus, who distracted the girl with three golden apples, handing the victory to the boy. The reference to the belt is symbolic of her loss of virginity, much like the chastity belt in more recent history. The final line conveys some hint of force, a concept that was greatly played up during Roman weddings.

Whatever the significance of the bird, and whether or not poem 2b is supposed to be a part of this poem, (I do not believe it is) the images of a man and a woman who are very much in love, even in separation, are very clear. With a beginning to a love affair as happy as this appears to be, it is easy to understand why Catullus grows so bitter after it is over.


Sources:

F. Kinchin Smith & T. W. Melluish. Catullus - Selections from the Poems London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1942

Micha Elsner & Shauna Minning. Catullus 2. http://mail.rochester.edu/~me002k/catullus2.html. University of Rochester / Walter Johnson High School. 9th July, 2002.

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