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Poem 2 of the Liber Catullianus -- the first of the passer poems -- was probably the poet's most famous piece. The poem presents a charming and fascinating picture of a Roman matron who is said by the poet to divert her mind from her passion by playing with her pet bird. Of this seemingly innocent picture a peculiar esoteric interpretation was offered in the time of the Italian Renaissance. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, the Florentine scholar Angelo Poliziano suggested that Catullus had woven an obscene allegory into his poem, and he supported his argument by reference to the sixth epigram of Martial's eleventh book. This epigram is a vulgar poem that ends with the words `passerem Catulli'. It will figure prominently in our discussion below. Poliziano only hinted at an indecent meaning.(1) The Dutch scholar, Isaac Voss, in his Observations on Catullus published in 1684, makes the matter explicit. The Greeks, he alleges, often used the names of birds to refer to a man's penis, and similarly passer in poem 2 is ambiguous and at one level represents the poet's penis. By this obscene interpretation, the basic allegory of the poem would be something like this. Lesbia has great familiarity with the poet's male member. She delights in playing with it and in this way seems to satisfy her erotic impulses. The poet by means of similar play would like to take similar satisfaction for himself. He cannot because masturbation gives him no pleasure. According to Voss, this allegory continues in poem 3, the famous dirge for the dead passer. Here, he declares, we should suppose that the poet wishes to represent himself as `confectum et exhaustum lucta Venerea et funerata ... ea parte quae virum facit'(2) (`worn out and exhausted by a physical exertion erotic and deadly in regard to that part which makes a person a man').

The obscene interpretation of the passer poems has never been generally accepted. Most scholars have seen it as an example of learned silliness and its proponents have been the butt of hearty ridicule. Modem students of Catullus have been spared knowledge of the interpretation since familiar annotated editions make no mention of it. Reference is omitted, deliberately we think, by Robinson Ellis, Elmer T. Merrill, Gustav Friedrich, Wilhelm Kroll, C. J. Fordyce, Kenneth Quinn, and F. Della Corte. In 1974 and 1975, however, there appeared two lengthy restatements of the allegorical interpretation by E. N. Genovese(3) and Giuseppe Giangrande.(4) These restatements inspired, it would seem, the study by H. D. Jocelyn entitled `On Some Unnecessarily Indecent Interpretations of Catullus 2 and 3'.(5) This was published in 1980. Jocelyn's article is remarkable for the thoroughness of its documentation, and for a time it appeared that he had succeeded in laying to rest once and for all the ghost of obscene interpretation. Then, in 1985 appeared a lengthy reassertion by Richard W. Hooper of the probability of intentional obscene meaning.(6) It is to certain major points in Hooper's argument that I wish to respond in this study. To me, the traditional interpretation of poem 2 reflects correctly the poet's intention and the passer is simply a passer in the usual sense.

At the outset we would freely admit that poem 2 is alive with erotic suggestion and that the passer is an obvious part of the picture. Even the Victorian Robinson Ellis noted that the verb appetere (cf. line 3 appetenti) is peculiarly applied to seizing a person's hand for the purpose of kissing it.(7) `Deliciae' (line 1) is a common part of the sermo amatorius of the time and, as applied to males or females, may be synonymous with amores and mean sweetheart or darling (so in poem 32.2). Aemilius Baehrens observed that the passer is a surrogate for Lesbia's absent lover: verba autem in sinu tenere porroque acris incitare morsus facile in animum vocant imaginem amatoris puellae suae iocis blanditiisque in fervida oscula acrisque lusus incitati, passer igitur absentis amasii partes apud Lesbiam explet(8) (`Now the words in sinu tenere and acris incitare morsus easily call to mind the image of the lover excited by the wit and charm of his girl to fervid kisses and spirited play. The passer therefore fulfills with Lesbia the role of the absent lover'). Not to notice the sexual role of the passer is not to appreciate poem 2. We only object to the efforts of those who, like Hooper, would by means of allegory reduce a full fledged bird to a human membrum virile. If my own mind ran to the bizarre, I might, with as much justification, label the passer a little feathered sexual pervert and Lesbia a conscious or unconscious zoophilist.

In a classical Latin poet, we expect something in the context to signal the point if allegory is intended.(9) To Hooper there is something amiss in Catullus' picture of his mistress at play with her pet and the picture is explainable only if an allegorical meaning is assumed. A sparrow, he notes (page 162), is a most improbable pet, and prior to Callus there is no evidence of anyone's trying to keep one as such. Hooper cites Fordyce, who labels the sparrow `notoriously dowdy and stiff feathered', a practically untrainable creature having none of the qualities of a pet. Fordyce is describing the common English sparrow. To this it may be replied that we must not be too restrictive in the way we translate `passer'. The name was probably applied in antiquity to a variety of small birds just as are its derivatives in the Romance languages. The Oxford Latin Dictionary (sv) now confidently identifies Catullus' passer as the blue thrush, a physically attractive bird that is easily tamed and tends to become attached to its owner.(10) At the same time poem 3.1 reminds us that Catullus associates Lesbia's pet with Venus and Cupid. He probably did not separate it in his own thought from the strouthoi (sparrows) that pull Venus' chariot.

Hooper also finds (p. 163) Lesbia's handling of her pet unnatural. This, too, suggests to him that allegory, must be intended. He regards the picture in lines 2-4 as most strange:
   quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
   cui primum digitum dare appetenti
   et acris solet incitare morsus.

Hooper presents Merrill's translation as a literal interpretation of these lines:
   pressing the sparrow to her bosom
   with one hand, she holds him
   confined while teasing him with,
   and provoking him to peck at
   the extended forefinger of the other

If Catullus really means to suggest here that Lesbia confines her pet and presses him to her body, then we shall freely admit that allegory is needed and that the poet must be talking about something other than a bird. It does not take an ornithologist to realize that even a pet bird would not submit to such handling. Merrill is at fault. In this case his imagination has not painted for him a realistic picture and consequently his notion of the poet's meaning misses the mark.(12) There are other -- we would say more correct -- ways to read `in sinu tenere'. As Quinn observes, sinus denotes a fold or curve in the body or in one's dress.(13) Thus, `in sinu tenere' probably means little more than that Lesbia holds (supports) the bird on her lap (cf. 3.8: `nec sese a gremio illius movebat'). Robert Ormsby translates `in sinu' here as `between her thighs'.(14) Of course, the passer obviously enjoyed the freedom of Lesbia's body. In poem 3.9, he is said to leap around now here, now there. In his curious wanderings he may have found himself at times momentarily trapped in a confined space. Father Owen Lee has him hiding in Lesbia's bosom.(15) Sinus in poem 2 suggests to some translators the lap; to others the bosom. Peter Whigham refuses to choose between the two possibilities. He begins his translation of poem 2 this way: `Lesbia's sparrow! Lesbia's plaything! in her lap or at her breast.'(16)

To Hooper's insistence that the expression `in sinu tenere' requires an allegorical interpretation must be opposed a statement in poem 3 that surely forbids such interpretation. In poem 3.5-6, Catullus declares that the passer `knew [norat] its mistress as well as a girl knows her mother'. Words of knowing in Latin may refer to carnal knowledge, and Hooper (p. 164) assumes that norat is `sexually charged' here. That, however, cannot be the case. As J. N. Adams observes, if norat is given an obscene sense, the comparison quam puella matrem becomes grotesquely inappropriate.(17)

Who or what was Lesbia's passer in essence or by character and disposition? To some he was a very naughty bird (cf. Man. 1.109.1 and 7.14.4). We recognize him as the spiritual ancestor of Philip the Sparrow, pet of one of the Black Nuns of Carrowe in Norfolk, who was immortalized in a long poem by John Skelton, written sometime before the year 1508. Here are some lines. The nun is speaking:
   For it would come and go, and fly so to and fro;
   And on me it would leap when I was asleep
   And his feathers shake, wherewith he would make
   Me often for to wake, and for to take him in
   Upon my naked skin. God wot, we thought no sin:
   What though he crept so low? It was no hurt, I trow,
   He did nothing, perde, but sit upon my knee!
   Philip, though he were nice, in him it was no vice!
   Philip might be bold and do what he would:
   Philip would seek and take all the fleas black
   That he could there espy with his wanton eye.(18)

Proponents of obscene allegorical interpretation of poem 2 have, beginning with Poliziano, believed that their views were confirmed by Martial 11.6, particularly the last eight lines of that poem.(19) To epigram 11.6 we must now turn. The occasion is the Saturnalia, a time of absolute relaxation and licence. Martial addresses his cupbearer and homosexual companion Dindymus:
   misce dimidios, puer trientes,
   quales Pythagoras dabat Neroni
   misce, Dindyme, sed frequentiores:
   possum nil ego sobrius; bibenti
   succurrent mihi quindecim poetae.
   Da nunc basia, sed Catulliana:
   quae si tot fuerint quod ille dixit,
   donabo tibi passerem Catulli.

   Mix my cups, boy, half and half,
   Like those Pythagoras gave to Nero
   Mix them, Dindymus, but make them more frequent:
   I can accomplish nothing when I am sober;
   When I am drinking, fifteen poets will come to my aid.
   Give me now kisses, but Catullan kisses:
   If they will be as many as Catullus said,
   My gift to you will be the sparrow of Catullus.

Poliziano perceived a gross double entendre in Martial's `passerem Catulli', and took this as confirming an obscene meaning of Catullus, poems 2 and 3. We would agree that Martial is simple and flat unless there is some double meaning. Indeed, this is the strongest argument in favour of an alternate obscene sense: Martial's epigrams are the antithesis of flatness! But we must carefully define the double entendre. According to Jocelyn, there is no Latin evidence that passer ever denoted the penis.(20) However, the Greek strouthos could have this meaning, and the common translation of strouthos is passer as an entry in Pompeius Festus shows.(21) It is not unreasonable to suppose that a learned poet like Martial knew the obscene denotation of strouthos and that he applied this denotation to the Latin equivalent.(22) Martial's epigrams show us that he had good familiarity with Greek. We believe that Martial's epigram depends for its point on the existence of parallel `decent' and `indecent' meanings of passer. We further contend that if Martial's poem is a typical Martialian epigram with a sting in its tail (as we suspect), this poem is supportive of the traditional rather than the allegorical interpretation of Catullus. In 11.6, Martial is composing verses. For inspiration he asks Dindymus for wine and for kisses in Catullan measure. In return for these favours Dindymus may expect a reward. What reward? Hooper rejects the obvious. He writes: `What? A book of poetry? A pet bird in a gilded cage? If that's all the boy can expect then the seduction is certainly working backwards.' `Of course', we reply `that is exactly what is happening!' Martial loves to surprise. Passer, if our supposition is correct, may mean either sparrow or penis, but Passer Catulli can only mean a collection of poems. In antiquity there circulated a libellus of Catullus' poems that began with poem 2 and was known commonly as file Passer.(23) Elsewhere (4.14) Martial unmistakably uses the title Passer for such a collection. Martial's epigram has a punch and it's the final word -- `Catulli'.(24) The poet teases and plays a little joke on his companion. He will give Dindymus a passer, but it will be a Passer Catulli. Dindymus expects a mentula; he is promised metrica!(25)


(1.) Poliziano's interpretation appears as #6 in his first collection (Centuria) of Miscellanea. A translation of the full Latin text as it is printed in the Opera of Poliziano (Lyon, 1536), Volume 1, 520, is as follows:

In what sense Catullus' sparrow must be received and a place also indicated in Martial.

That sparrow of Catullus, I think, conceals allegorically some more obscene sense, which I am unable to declare if I wish to preserve my modesty. Martial persuades me to believe this through that epigram, of which these are the last verses:
   Da mihi basia, sed Catulliana:
   Quae si tot fuerint, quot ille dixit,
   Donabo tibi passerem Catulli.

For the poet would be excessively obtuse sexually [nimis ... insubidus] (and this is wrong to believe) if he should say in the final analysis that he is going to give a sparrow to the boy after kisses and not rather, as I suspect, something else. What this is, because of the modesty of my pen, I leave to each person to conjecture from the natural salaciousness of the sparrow.

(2.) See Cajus Valerius Catullus et in eum Isaaci Vossii Observationes (London, 1684), 5-9.

(3.) `Symbolism in the Passer Poems', Maia 26 (1974), 121-5.

(4.) `Catullus Lyrics on the Passer', Museum Philologum Londinense 1 (1975-76), 137-46.

(5.) AJP 101 (1980), 421-41.

(6.) `In Defence of Catullus' Dirty Sparrow', G&R 32 (1985), 162-78.

(7.) A Commentary on Catullus (Oxford, 1887), 7. Ellis cites Pliny, N.H. 11.103.250.

(8.) Catulli Veronensis Liber (Leipzig, 1885), Vol. 2, 75.

(9.) Sustained allegory is not a technique employed elsewhere by Catullus; therefore the burden of proof rests upon the individual who would behold it in poems 2 and 3.

(10.) On the blue thrush, or passer solitarius, see Fordyce, Catullus: a Commentary (Oxford, 1961), 88-9.

(11.) Merrill, Catullus (Cambridge, 1893), 4.

(12.) However, there comes to mind a gravestone from Paros now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The stone represents a standing female figure who `holds' two doves. One dove is perched on her left hand; the other she `clasps' to her breast with her right hand. The figure is described by Gisela Richter in the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum Vol. 22. no. 1 (Jan. 1927), 101-5.

(13.) Catullus, the Poems (London, 1970), 92.

(14.) Robert J. Ormsby and Reney Myers (trans.), Catullus: the Complete Poems for American Readers (New York, 1970), 3.

(15.) `Illustrative Elisions in Catullus', TAPA 93 (1962), 147. Cicero, in Thornton Wilder's Ides of March, reacting to the poetry of Catullus, writes: `The sparrow! We are told that it often perched in Clodia's bosom -- a much-traveled thoroughfare, only occasionally available to birds.'

(16.) The Poems of Catullus: a Bilingual Edition (Berkeley, 1969), 51.

(17.) The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (Baltimore, 1982), 32-3.

(18.) Skelton's poem leaves us asking questions. Was the nun's pet really a sparrow? If so, what kind? If it was not a sparrow, what species of bird was it? Was Skelton inspired by Catullus' poems and was he responsible for the practice of translating passer in Catullus' poems as `sparrow'?

(19.) Hooper, of course, attempts to support his views by reference to this poem. See 168-70 of his study (above n. 6).

(20.) Above n. 5, 427.

(21.) On strouthos meaning phallus, see Jeffrey Henderson, The Maculate Muse (New Haven, 1975), 129. On passer as translation of strouthos, see Sextus Pompeius Festus, De Verborum Significatu, ed. W. M. Lindsay (Leipzig, 1913), 411.

(22.) Association of bird and penis would in any case be easy for Martial since the winged phallus was a persistent motif of Greco-Roman art. On this motif see Genovese, above n. 3, 122.

(23.) On Passer as a title see A. E. Wheeler, Catullus and the Traditions of Ancient Poetry (Berkeley, 1934), 19.

(24.) N. M. Kay, Martial Book XI: a Commentary (Oxford, 1985), 75 rightly identifies `Catulli' as an example of para prosdokian. We imagine the poet as reciting his poem and pausing for a suspenseful moment after `passerem'.

(25.) The statement of Jocelyn (above n. 5,423) that `the pretty boys of antiquity did not welcome anal penetration' is at best a generalization. We take Dindymus to be a pathic eager for oral or anal sex. We should probably not imagine a `pretty boy' since he is compared to Pythagoras, the freedman eunuch whom Nero married (Tac. Ann. 15.37). See T. P. Wiseman, Catullus and His World: a Reappraisal (Cambridge, 1985), 12-13.
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Publication:Greece & Rome
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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