Catullus 3 Translation

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In Catullus 3, the poet shares that his girl’s sparrow has died. This is a reference to his lover, Lesbia, who had a pet sparrow. And, according to Catullus, she loved this sparrow more than she loved her own eyes. This sparrow seemed to have loved her, too. It would sit in her lap and only chirp to her. 

Catullus also wrote that the bird loved Lesbia like a girl lover her mother. The bird never moved from her lap, it loved her so much. As someone else who loved Lesbia, he might be jealous of the bird as he would have loved to occupy Lesbia’s lap as much as the bird did. Now that the bird is gone, Catullus is expecting to be the object of Lesbia’s love – or at least he hopes he is. 

Catullus seems to be mourning the death of the sparrow, especially in lines 11 through 14. Catullus wrote about how the bird is alone on his journey into the gloomy darkness. No one returns from the place the sparrow is going and bad things might happen to the little bird. 

The death of the bird is even more problematic for the poet because Lesbia is weeping and brokenhearted over it. He is so upset that he asks Cupids and Venuses to mourn, too. Venus is the Roman goddess of love and Cupid is her son. 

It is interesting that Catullus refers to them in plural form as proper nouns. There was only one Roman Venus and Cupid, but Catullus is referring to several of them. He may be addressing several gods and goddesses of love because he is unable to enjoy Lesbia’s gifts while she is mourning the bird. 

In line two, Catullus writes “and whatever there is of rather pleasing men:” which shows he might not truly take the death of the bird too serious. The sparrow’s death might only interfere with enjoying Lesbia, who would please him in her looks and her ability to love him. 

Catullus also mentions Orcus, who is the Roman god of the underworld; the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Hades. But, where Hades was a forgiving god who was merely involved in managing the underworld, not punishing the residents, Orcus was the opposite. Orcus preferred to punish those who had died. 

Overtime, Orcus became associated with ogres, demons, and creates who devour human flesh. It is unlikely that Catullus thought that Orcus would literally eat the bird. But, the underworld did ironically “devour” or swallow the bird, that just happened to be a swallow. You can be sure that Catullus was well aware of this play on words. 

Catullus also knew that the Romans did not believe that animals went to the underworld. The Greeks believed that souls had to pay to cross the River Styx to enter the underworld. Roman beliefs were often borrowed from the Greeks. Since animals could not pay to enter the underworld, they did not enter the maw of Orcus’s lair.  

Catullus seems to be disguising his disdain in faux sorrow for Lesbia. By invoking Orcus’s name and dwelling on Lesbia’s sad “little eyes,” Catullus shows some mocking of this bird and how much it meant to Lesbia. Now that the bird is gone, maybe Venus and Cupid can help him win over Lesbia’s love. 

Catullus wrote the poem using the grand hendecasyllabic pattern. It is difficult to replicate the meter and feet in the English translation, but the pattern is evident in Latin. The form gives the poem a seriousness is often dedicated to poems about death. But, this is about the death of a sparrow. They are everywhere and easy to replace. 


Carmen 3

LineLatin textEnglish translation
1LVGETE, o Veneres Cupidinesque,Mourn, ye Graces and Loves, 
2et quantum est hominum uenustiorum:and all you whom the Graces love. 
3passer mortuus est meae puellaeMy lady’s sparrow is dead, 
4passer, deliciae meae puellae,the sparrow my lady’s pet, 
5quem plus illa oculis suis amabat.whom she loved more than her very eyes; 
6nam mellitus erat suamque noratfor honey-sweet he was, and knew his mistress 
7ipsam tam bene quam puella matrem,as well as a girl knows her own mother. 
8nec sese a gremio illius mouebat,Nor would he stir from her lap, 
9sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illucbut hopping now here, now there, 
10ad solam dominam usque pipiabat. would still chirp to his mistress alone. 
11qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum Now he goes along the dark road, 
12illuc, unde negant redire quemquam. thither whence they say no one returns. 
13at uobis male sit, malae tenebraeBut curse upon you, cursed shades 
14Orci, quae omnia bella deuoratis: of Orcus, which devour all pretty things! 
15tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis My pretty sparrow, you have taken him away. 
16o factum male! o miselle passer! Ah, cruel! Ah, poor little bird! 
17tua nunc opera meae puellae All because of you my lady’s darling eyes 
18flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.are heavy and red with weeping.

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