(See Catullus 3:)
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 pipiabat;
qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illud, unde negant redire quemquam.
at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis:
tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis.
O factum male!O miselle passer!
tua nunc opera meae puellae
flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.

Mourn, O you Loves and Cupids
and such of you as love beauty:
my girl's sparrow is dead,
the sparrow, the girl's delight,
who she loved more than her own eyes.
For he was sweet as honey, and knew her
as well as the girl her own mother,
he never moved from her lap,
but, hopping about here and there,
chirped to his mistress alone.
Now he goes down the shadowy road
from which they say no one returns.
Now evil be yours, evil shadows of Orcus,
that devour everything of beauty:
you've stolen lovely sparrow from me.
O evil deed! O poor little sparrow!
Now, by your deeds, my girl's eyes
are swollen and red with weeping.

From Liebeslieder Waltzer by Johannes Brahms (1869)
Text by Georg Friedrich Daumer (1800-1875)

Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel
nahm den Flug
zum Garten hin,
da gab es Obst genug.
  Wenn ich ein hübscher,
  kleiner Vogel wär,
  ich säumte nicht,
  ich täte so wie der.

lauert an dem Ort;
der arme Vogel
konnte nicht mehr fort.
  Wenn ich ein hübscher,
  kleiner Vogel wär,
  ich säumte doch,
  ich täte nicht wie der.

Der Vogel kam
in eine schöne Hand,
da tat es ihm,
dem Glücklichen, nicht and.
  Wenn ich ein hübscher,
  kleiner Vogel wär,
  ich säumte nicht,
  ich täte doch wie der.

A little, pretty bird
took flight into the garden,
where there was plenty of fruit.
  If I were a pretty, little bird
  I wouldn't wait around,
  I'd do just the same.

Malicious lime-twigs
lurked around the place;
the poor bird could not get away.
  If I were a pretty, little bird,
  I would be more careful,
  I wouldn't do the same.

The bird reached a beautiful hand,
where he came to no harm,
the lucky thing.
  If I were a pretty, little bird,
  I wouldn't wait around,
  I'd do just the same.

What do these poems have in common? They both have birds as their main characters -- cute little birds that flutter endearingly around. And they both occur in sequences of poems mainly concerned with love.

My old Latin teacher (well, not that old) put a scurrilous suggestion into our young heads when we were studying Catullus for GCSE. The birdis not just a bird -- it is a symbol -- an allegory -- an innuendo. Specifically, one of these. Now go back and read the poem again and... well, somehow it all fits into place. On one level it is a mockery of overblown funereal perorations, applied to an insignificant little bird. But on another level, the poet is lamenting a much more serious and grievous loss (to him, at least) -- his manhood, whether temporarily or more permanently. Well, almost everything makes sense. It's a bit much for his girl to have cried so much -- over either the sparrow or the membrum virile -- that her eyes are red and swollen. Particularly a girl called Lesbia...

Now I don't know exactly how much classical scholarship was backing up this claim, but for me it makes the poem psychologically believable, whereas it seems overwritten when read just as a bird elegy, whether serious or parodic. It certainly made us sit up straight in class.

The German example comes from a set of "love songs" (Liebeslieder) by Daumel, set as waltzes for vocal quartet (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) and piano duet (two players at one keyboard). The other poems are all about men and women and boys and girls and that sort of thing, but right in the middle we have the adventures of a little bird. Cute, but what's it doing in a collection of love poems? Again, a spot of reinterpretation provides some, rather disgusting, enlightenment. The genders of the German words may (or may not) be significant here: der Vogel is masculine, die Rute and die Hand feminine. And the reference to fruit fits in nicely.

So should we look out for every little bird in an old poem to be something different and less innocent? The sexual symbolism of the little bird seems to have been quite enduring. But not always -- for example, if the poet talks about a flock of small birds taking off or an eagle swooping down to snatch a small bird in its claws (ouch!). And probably not if the poet seems really to care about the bird as a bird. Usually the clue that there is a hidden meaning is that the poem seems a little empty or pointless when interpreted more literally... and the bird is engaged in suitable activities. However, this is not an excuse for inventing semi-pornographic scenarios when discussing difficult examples of modern poetry that happen to include birds.