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Washington, United States
loves: you win if you guessed "pets" and "museums". Also books, art history, travel, British punk, Korean kimchi, bindis, martinis, and other things TBD. I will always make it very clear if a post is sponsored in any way. Drop me a line at thepetmuseum AT gmail.com !

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

catullus on the death of his girlfriend's sparrow

The Roman poet Catullus (dates thought to be 84 - 54 BC) has gone in and out of fashion, depending on the fashion's tolerance for broad sexual references and poking of fun. For example, you won't be any more surprised than I was at this Victorian commentary on his poems:

They exhibit the sensual grossness which is imbibed from depraved habits and loose imaginations, in singular contrast with gleams of sentiment and taste, and the polish of intellectual cultivation. Many of his amatory trifles are quite unrivalled in the elegancy of their playfulness, and no author has excelled him in the purity and neatness of his style, the delightful ease and racy simplicity of his manner, and his graceful turns of thought and happiness of expression. But many of his poems are stained by gross coarseness and sensuality, which will forever be a bar to their being generally read.
Not true. People still read Catullus, and not least the poems he wrote for a lover he called "Lesbia." She had a pet sparrow, and when it died, he wrote a tender "Elegy" which not only celebrates the little bird, but reminds us to feel with a girl's grief.

Translated by Francis Fawkes in the 1770's, with the immediate and honest styling of that era:

All ye gentle powers above,
Venus, and thou god of love;
All ye gentle souls below,
That can melt at others' woe,
Lesbia's loss with tears deplore,
Lesbia's sparrow is no more:
Late she wont her bird to prize
Dearer than her own bright eyes.
Sweet it was, and lovely too,
And its mistress well it knew.
Nectar from her lips it sipt,
Here it hopt, and there it skipt:
Oft it wanton'd in the air,
Chirping only to the fair:
Oft it lull'd its head to rest
On the pillow of her breast.
Now, alas! it chirps no more;
All its blandishments are o'er:
Death has summon'd it to go
Pensive to the shades below;
Dismal regions! from whose bourn
No pale travellers return.
Death! relentless to destroy
All that's form'd for love or joy.
Joy is vanished, love is fled,
For my Lesbia's sparrow's dead.
Lo, the beauteous nymph appears
Languishingly drown'd in tears!

(And here I cannot resist adding the super-snarky commentary of the Victorian writer above: "The lady-love who is the theme of the greater number of Catullus' amatory effusions is styled Lesbia, but her real name was Clodia, of whom nothing in praise could be said but that she possessed beauty and accomplishments.")


parlance said...

I attended a very proper girls' college in my schooldays. I studied German, and my friends studied Latin. They used to cast out hints about the titillating nature of what they were reading when they studied Catullus. Given that the course was taught by the nuns, I suspect it was highly expurgated, though.

I had a two pet birds who died when I was a young adult. I can still recall the depth of my grief when I came out one morning and found them dead. They were blackbirds, I think.

curator said...

Parlance, I love that story about your friends and their Latin studies. And I am so sorry about you pet birds. At one point in my shildhood we had a white finch, and when it died I cried bitterly - I was so lonely for its happy chirping.