Lesbia’s lively guest

hokusai-sparrows

(Hokusai, Sparrows)

Snow still on the ground from the falls of Thursday night, which produced enough to satisfy the Librarian’s appetite for such things and to allow for taking impressive photographs of a crow in the park. Nothing much since but the temperature hasn’t climbed enough to clear it. And still no sign of the robin – which, I gather, doesn’t do well in cold weather. I clear the water dish each morning of its solid disc of ice and refill it, and have scraped off the hillocks of snow from the seed tray and feeder, but I’ve noticed only one pigeon and one sparrow turn up so far.

The sparrow has been the more persistent: two visits on Friday and three on Saturday. Long ones too, perched in the seed tray for up to ten minutes. Apart from their inherent attractiveness, I’ve always felt particularly sympathetic towards sparrows since reading about how they were regarded as unusually lustful by earlier ages. Apparently, the Greek strouthos (sparrow) could mean ‘lewd fellow’ or ‘lecher’.[1] Sappho had Aphrodite’s chariot pulled by them:

In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth[2]

More famous is Catullus, first detailing the interaction between Lesbia — Clodia Metelli – and her pet sparrow. In Walter Savage Landor’s version:

Sparrow! Lesbia’s lively guest,
Cherish’d ever in her breast!
Whom with tantalizing jokes
Oft to peck her she provokes:
Thus in pretty playful wiles
Love and absence she beguiles.

Oft, like her, to ease my pain,
I thy little fondness gain.
Dear to me as, bards have told,
Was the apple’s orb of gold
To the Nymph whose long-tied zone
That could loose, and that alone.[3]

Bewick-Dunnock

(Thomas Bewick’s Dunnock, or Hedgesparrow)

In the following poem, Catullus responds to the sparrow’s death. It has ‘now hopped solitarily/ down that dark alleyway of no returns’, its loss ‘swelling my girl’s veiled eyes/ which redden with tears.’[4]

There’s a remarkable Scots version of Catullus 3 by G. S. Davies (1912):

Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all,
And ilka Man o’ decent feelin’:
My lassie’s lost her wee, wee bird,
And that’s a loss, ye’ll ken, past healin’.

The lassie lo’ed him like her een:
The darling wee thing lo’ed the ither,
And knew and nestled to her breast,
As only bairnie to her mither.

Her bosom was his dear, dear haunt—
So dear, he cared na lang to leave it;
He’d nae but gang his ain sma’ jaunt,
And flutter piping back bereavit.

The wee thing’s gane the shadowy road
That’s never traveled back by ony:
Out on ye, Shades! Ye’re greedy aye
To grab at aught that’s brave and bonny.

Puir, foolish, fondling, bonnie bird,
Ye little ken what wark ye’re leavin’:
Ye’ve bar’d my lassie’s een grow red,
Those bonnie een grow red wi’ grieving.[5]

I’ve just found it quoted too in a post by the poet and translator A. E. Stallings on the Poetry Foundation website, where she discusses several version of Catullus, including those of Louis and Celia Zukofsky:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/09/miss-her-catullus

Then again, there’s this post by Katherine Langrish:

http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2018/04/lesbias-sparrow-katherine-langrish.html

In short, once again, a small bird (or its equivalent in other contexts) expands into flocks, squadrons, gigantic murmurations, up and out into limitless stretches of space and light.

I’m still keeping an eye open for the robin.

 

References

[1] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 198.

[2] Sappho 1, in Guy Davenport, Seven Greeks (New York: New Directions, 1995), 69.

[3] Walter Savage Landor, ‘To the Sparrow of Lesbia’, in Charles Tomlinson, editor, Eros English’d: Classical Erotic Poetry in Translation: from Golding to Hardy (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992), 203.

[4] The Poems of Catullus, translated with an introduction by Peter Whigham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966), 52.

[5] The Oxford Book of Classical Verse, edited by Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 265-266.