"The Bird Dies"

Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque,
et quantum est hominum venustiorum.
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 movebat,
sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illuc
ad solam dominam usque pipilabat.
qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc, unde negant redire quemquam.
at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis:
tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis.
vae factum male! vae miselle passer!
tua nunc opera meae puellae
flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.

My translation:

Weep, o Gods of Love and Passion,
and all the good men in the world!
My girl's pet sparrow is dead,
that sparrow, my girl's delight,
whom she loved more than her own eyes:
For he was honey-sweet and knew his
mistress as a girl knows her own mother.
Nor did he ever move from her lap,
but, hopping here and there,
he would always chirp to her alone.
That sparrow, who now journeys to
the darkness, whence none can return.
A curse on you, evil shadows of Hell,
you who devour everything beautiful:
You have stolen such a beautiful bird from me.
Oh evil deed! Oh wretched little bird!
Now my girl's eyes are red with
weeping for love of you.


This poem is very strongly related to Catullus 2, and cannot be fully appreciated without first reading that poem. Like its prequel, this elegy is written in hendecasyllabic metre. It is written in a traditional Hellenistic form to give it mock grandeur, although this form had been used before by the Greeks in a serious manner.1

In this poem, the hint of contempt and envy found in the last is taken up and expanded upon: Through his ironically serious tone, Catullus makes the bird an object of amusement. He seems glad that the bird is out of the picture, and hopes that Lesbia will now show the same devotion to him.

Lines 11 and 12 describe the bird going to the Underworld, even though the Romans did not believe that animals lived on after death. This gives us a further hint of Catullus' contempt. This is taken to its logical conclusion in the last three lines, when Catullus turns on the bird, blaming it for Lesbia's unhappiness. It is here that we see not only his envy for the pet, but also his love for Lesbia.

If the bird of Catullus 2 is to be taken as a metaphor for either Catullus' or Lesbia's genitalia, this is harder to see in this poem - it is hard for a part of one's anatomy to die independently of the rest of the body, and even more ridiculous for it to journey to the Underworld than the image of a little bird hopping into Charon's boat.

If, however, we are determined to take the bird as a metaphor, its death could symbolise a new stage in Catullus and Lesbia's relationship, where she no longer feels the need to masturbate - in short, the transition to a sexual liaison.

This is a very famous poem, and one that has been translated by many people. And so I leave you with what Kinchin Smith and Melluish describe as "perhaps the most successful translation of any poem of Catullus"2

Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all,
And ilka Man o' decent feelin':
My lassie's lost her wee, wee bird,
And that's a loss, ye'll ken, past healin'.

The lassie lo'ed him like her een:
The darling wee thing lo'ed the ither,
And knew and nestled to her breast,
As only bairnie to her mither.

Her bosom was his dear, dear haunt-
So dear,he cared na lang to leave it;
He'd nae but gang his ain sma' jaunt,
And flutter piping back bereavit.

The wee thing's gane the shadowy road
That's never travelled back by ony:
Out on ye, Shades! ye're greedy aye
To grab at aught that's brave and bonny.

Puir, foolish, fondling, bonnie bird,
Ye little ken what wark ye're leavin':
Ye've gar'd my lassie's een grow red,
Those bonnie een grow red wi' grievin'.

G S Davies


1. Micha Elsner. Catullus 3. http://mail.rochester.edu/~me002k/catullus3.html. University of Rochester / Walter Johnson High School. 10th July, 2002.

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

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