National Poetry Month: A Charming Poem by Catullus

edward-john-poynter-lesbia-and-her-sparrow

“Lesbia and Her Sparrow,” by Edward John Poynter

Catullus, a brilliant Roman poet of the first century B.C., wrote lyric poetry,  epigrams,  elegaic poems, and an epyllion (a mini-epic).  He was a member of the “neoterics,” a group of young poets who rejected early Roman tradition and looked to Hellenistic models  for their poetry about modern life.   Perhaps most famous is his Lesbia cycle of poems, in which he  describes an affair from flirtation to break-up with a seductive woman who caresses him one day and is unfaithful the next.  He sometimes addresses her as puella (“girl”), other times as Lesbia (in honor of Sappho, the poet who lived on Lesbos; nothing to do with lesbianism).

Two of his most famous poems feature Lesbia’s pet sparrow.  Here is a brilliant translation of Catullus 2 by the scholar Gilbert Highet.

Tell me, sparrow, you darling of my darling
whom she plays with and fondles in her bosom,
you who peck when she offers you a finger
(beak outthrust in a counterfeit of biting),
when that radiant star of my aspiring
turns towards you, as a pleasant little playmate,
one small bird, to console her when she suffers,
by your love to relieve her burning passion—
could I possibly play with you as she does,
could I lighten the pain that still torments me?

8 thoughts on “National Poetry Month: A Charming Poem by Catullus

  1. Some years ago Penguin Books published “Catullus in English” an anthology which compared various translators. It was part of a series, including Virgil, Horace, Homer and others. They’re out of print now, I think…

    • I looked it up–it IS out of print–but it certainly is the kind of book I would like. It is very difficult to find good translations of Catullus, and an anthology of many translators sounds the way to go!

  2. I like the idea of finding poems for National Poetry Month. I so love good poetry. I cannot remember her name just now, but in the last few years there’s a been a woman poet who published extraordinary translations of Catullus (faithful and yet adapted) where she identifies due to the death of a beloved brother from whom she had been estranged, who died in poverty and mostly alone.

    • Oh, Anne Carson’s Nox! A very great book. She writes of the death of her brother and interweaves it with Catullus’s elegy to his dead brother. Yes, I love posting poems, but hate to type them up (as I did in this case)!

    • Catullus is wonderful! So funny,so charming, so modern. David Ferry has translated a few very well, but has not done a complete works. Again, Highet has translated a few, but not all. I read the Latin, but despair at finding a really good English translation for everyone to read!

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