Precursor to the Parrot Sketch

26 06 2007

While we may all be familiar with John Cleese’s famous ex-parrot, many of us will not be aware of the tragedy of Lesbos’ poor, deceased sparrow. Catullus, in the wry vein for which he became famous, laments the death of his girlfriend’s pet in tones most dulcet and touching. The following is Catullus’ moving dirge in Latin, along with the highly paraphrastic (though nonetheless marvellous) translation of Byron.

Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque,
et quantum est hominum uenustiorum.
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 mouebat,
sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illuc
ad solam dominam usque pipilabat.
qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc, unde negant redire quemquam.
at uobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella deuoratis:
tam bellum mihi passeram abstulistis.
uae factum male! uae miselle passer!
tua nunc opera meae puellae
flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.

Translation from Catullus
Ye Cupids, droop each little head,
Nor let your wings with joy be spread;
My Lesbia’s favourite bird is dead,
Whom dearer than her eyes she loved:

For he was gentle, and so true,
Obedient to her call he flew,
No fear, nor wild alarm he knew,
But lightly o’er her bosom moved:

And softly fluttering here and there,
He never sought to cleave the air,
But chirrup’d oft, and, free from care,
Turned to her ear his grateful strain.

Now having pass’d the gloomy bourne
From whence he never can return,
His death and Lesbia’s grief I mourn,
Who sighs, alas! but sighs in vain.

Oh! curst be thou, devouring grave!
Whose jaws eternal victims crave,
From whom no earthly power can save,
For thou hast ta’en the bird away:

From thee my Lesbia’s eyes o’erflow,
Her swollen cheeks with weeping glow;
Thou art the cause of all her woe,
Receptacle of life’s decay.
Lord Byron

There is certainly no denying Byron’s skill as a poet, though he has failed to capture the humour of the original Latin. A more exacting translation can be found on the Catullus website, although the focus there is moreso on precision than on conveying the mood of the original. I have tried my hand at translating this a few times now, though sadly with no avail. I await the skilful response of Conrad H. Roth who, if he is willing to add this poem to his small collection of translations into English, will no doubt acquit himself of it with both precision and humour.

In the meantime, however, the Catullus website also provides a translation into Hebrew, which reminded me of the Biblical passage in 2 Samuel 12. Compare:

Catullus, lines 4-8:

… 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 mouebat…

… the sparrow, delight of my girl,
whom she loved more than her own eyes.
For it was honey-sweet and it had known its
mistress as well as a girl knew her mother,
nor did it move itself from her lap…
(- Walter Sullivan)

דרור, צפור ילדתי וגיל חייה
שאותו אהבה משתי עיניה
הן היה כה מתוק, וכה הכיר הוא
את גבירתו כהכר ילדה את אמא
מחיקה לא הרחיק עצמו עף פעם
( – Rachel Birnbaum and David Weissert)

2 Samuel 12:3

ולרש אין־כל כי אם־כבשה אחת קטנה אשר קנה ויחיה ותגדל עמו ועם־בניו יחדו מפתו תאכל ומכסו תשתה ובחיקו תשכב ותהי־לו כבת

Yet the poor man had naught save one single small lamb, which he had acquired and nourished and which grew up together with him and his sons.
Of his bread, it ate; from his cup, it drank; in his breast, it lay, and was as a daughter to him.

The humour in the Biblical text is almost undeniable. Despite the gravity of the moment, the metaphor that Nathan employs to wring remorse from David is one that never fails to raise a smile. There can be little purpose to a lamb save as food, and this is indeed the manner in which the lamb meets its demise. The tragedy, we are to assume, is that it is the rich man who consumes the lamb and not the poor, and this seems to be the reason as to why David is subsequently so incensed. The fact that the lamb is like a daughter to the poor man, eating from his table and lying in his breast, seems a rather foolish situation. So too, indeed, with Lesbia’s sparrow.

The dirge, as composed by Catullus, is one of several poems concerning a woman whom he sometimes loves and sometimes hates. We see here, perhaps, a certain jealousy for her affections (as is likewise shown in some of the others within the collection), although the creature dominating those affections is, this time, a small bird. Like the poor man in 2 Samuel, Lesbia seems rather foolish for her devotions and, in the same way that the humour in the Bible is conveyed by the seriousness of Nathan’s expression, the foolhardiness of Lesbia is indicated by the gravity of Catullus’ song.

A final point. The Hebrew word for sparrow is דרור (dror). This word, in the version as it exists on the website (and not here, due to typological constraints) is presented in inverted commas, raising the possibility that this is also the bird’s name. This is doubtless because of a semantic bivalency that occurs in the Hebrew and which, otherwise, may provoke confusion. דרור, in addition to meaning “sparrow”, also means “freedom”. A clever contrast is here developed, and one that is only subtly evident in the original: the bird, the very symbol of freedom, is now committed to that “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns” (Hamlet, III.1).

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One response

30 06 2007
Conrad

Ah! A challenge. I accept–will get back to you on this.

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