Catullus IIa: Lesbia’s Sparrow

Here, Catullus considers Lesbia’s pet sparrow in a playful and charming poem. In true Catullan style, there is an acute corporeal focus at the start of the poem, with a decidedly erotic description of Lesbia’s play with her pet bird. Indeed, it has been suggested that passer (sparrow) might be directly representative of the genitalia of Catullus or even of Lesbia, but I’ll leave it to you to decide how explicit you think Catullus is being here!
The genre of discussing a lover’s pet was not uncommon in antiquity, and another notable example is Ovid’s elegy for his mistress’ parrot (amores 2.6). There are definitely some interesting comparisons to be made here…

James Green

Sparrow, my girlfriend’s delightful pet,
with whom she often plays or holds to her chest,
to whom she gives her fingertip as you peck away,
and whose sharp bites she is wont to provoke
whenever it pleases the object of my glistening desire
to play some dear little game
(it’s a small relief for her longing, I think,
so that her profound passion might quieten down).
Oh – if only I could play with you as she does,
and alleviate the troubles of my melancholy mind!

Translation by James Green

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Sir_Edward_John_Poynter_lesbia_and_her_sparrow.jpg

Passer, deliciae meae puellae quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare
et acris solet incitare morsus,
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid libet iocari
(et solaciolum sui doloris,
credo, ut tum gravis adquiescat ardor),
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
et tristis animi levare curas!

Lesbia and her sparrow, by Edward Poynter

The poem’s correct textual form is still up for debate, so I have chosen to use E. T. Merrill’s edition from the Perseus Digital Library. I have omitted lines 11-13 which are often labelled ‘Catullus IIb’, as the first ten lines seem to me to work as a coherent, if fragmentary, section of verse.

Teaching and Study Ideas
This is a short poem which is ideal for teaching the following topics, in my mind:
– Textual criticism: How many different versions of Catullus 2a can you find online? / What are the differences between the different versions? / -Why are these differences important? / How do you think these disparities come about?
– The relative pronoun: How many relative pronouns can you spot in the first few lines of the poem, and what case are they in?
– The role of lovers’ pets in Latin literature: Consider the role of lovers’ pets in Ovid amores 2.6, this poem, and Catullus 3.

You can read James’ blog here

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