Sunday, December 12, 2004


Catullus' Dirge for a Pet Sparrow

Below are three modern poems inspired by Catullus' dirge for his girlfriend's pet sparrow. But first here is Catullus' original poem (3) with a translation by F.W. Cornish:
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
illuc, 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, ye Graces and Loves, and all you whom the Graces love. My lady's sparrow is dead, the sparrow my lady's pet, whom she loved more than her very eyes; for honey-sweet he was, and knew his mistress as well as a girl knows her own mother. Nor would he stir from her lap, but hopping now here, now there, would still chirp to his mistress alone. Now he goes along the dark road, thither whence they say no one returns. But curse upon you, cursed shades of Orcus, which devour all pretty things! My pretty sparrow, you have taken away. Ah, cruel! Ah, poor little bird! All because of you my lady's darling eyes are heavy and red with weeping.

Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925), The Sparrow:
O pertest, most self-satisfied
  Of aught that breathes or moves,
See where you sit, with head aside,
  To chirp your vulgar loves:
Or raking in the uncleanly street
  You bolt your ugly meal,
Undaunted by the approaching feet,
  The heedless splashing wheel.

Old poets in your praise were stirred --
  I fear you must forget --
Catullus loved you, shameless bird,
  You were his lady's pet.
You heard her dainty breathing, perched
  Beside her when she slept;
You died: -- her pretty cheeks were smirched; --
  And 'twas for you she wept.

The imperious Bustard strides no more
  Across the grassy waste;
The gallant Ruff deserts the shore
  He trampled into paste;
The Oriole falls, a flaming sprite,
  Before the unsparing gun;
Whilst thou by some diviner right
  Dost wanton in the sun.

When prey is scarce, when tempests fret
  And freeze the stiffening loam,
The worm has tunnelled deeper yet,
  The beetle sits at home,
You shake your chilly limbs, and puff
  Your crest in mild surprise,
And peep, a ball of downy fluff,
  With bright and beaded eyes.

No secret raptures thrill your throat
  On fragrant moonlit nights;
You never had the mind to note
  Indignities or slights;
The soul that craves, but rarely finds
  The vague, the high, the true,
The weaknesses of noble minds, --
  They never troubled you.

Your selfish purpose never swerves
  From its appointed end;
Your sturdy bonhomie deserves
  Success, but ne'er a friend.
Where sweetness languishes, and grace,
  You multiply and thrive; --
It proves you, of the feathered race,
  The fittest to survive.

Contentment and equality
  Are pleasing names enough;
But we prefer, we know not why,
  A more ethereal stuff.
Ignoble welfare, -- doubtful good --
  We see with clouded eyes;
We did not make the world, -- yet would
  To God 'twere otherwise!

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), Passer Mortuus Est:
Death devours all lovely things;
Lesbia with her sparrow
Shares the darkness, -- presently
Every bed is narrow.

Unremembered as old rain
Dries the sheer libation,
And the little petulant hand
Is an annotation.

After all, my erstwhile dear,
My no longer cherished,
Need we say it was not love,
Now that love is perished?

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), From A Letter From Lesbia:
... So, praise the gods, Catullus is away!
And let me tend you this advice, my dear:
Take any lover that you will, or may,
Except a poet. All of them are queer.

It's just the same -- a quarrel or a kiss
Is but a tune to play upon his pipe.
He's always hymning that or wailing this;
Myself, I much prefer the business type.

That thing he wrote, the time the sparrow died --
(Oh, most unpleasant -- gloomy, tedious words!)
I called it sweet, and made believe I cried;
The stupid fool! I've always hated birds ...

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