A Turkish Angora Cat in Paris: An insight into Catullus’ ‘Sparrow Poem’ (c. 2) arising from a Modern Greek Song

This response has been inspired by Gregory Nagy’s discussion of Catullus’ famous ‘Sparrow Poem’ (c. 2) in Classical Inquiries 2018.12.13. According to Nagy, Catullus’ model was Sappho’s ‘Sparrow Song’, lost to us but not to Catullus, in which the Lesbian poet expressed her affection for her little sparrow. Taking my lead from a Modern Greek pet song, I shall explore a slightly different path, the possibility that the ‘Sparrow Poem’ is not a poetic exercise on a Sapphic song, but Catullus’ imaginative reconstruction of Sappho’s relationship with Aphrodite’s winged charioteer.

Good cat Lucretius_Resident of DC_1280
Lucretius Bloch of Georgetown, DC
Lucia and her cat, Tony

A young woman and her cat in Paris

The Modern Greek song that I present here is entitled ‘Ένας Τούρκος στο Παρίσι’ or alternatively ‘Γάτος τούρκος στο Παρίσι’, not an easily translatable title. I have discussed various renderings with Ewen Bowie and after deliberation I have finally opted for ‘A Turkish Angora Cat in Paris’ in an effort to retain a recurring pun in the lyrics. This song has known a great success in Greece. The music was composed by Lavrentis Machairitsas (Λαυρέντης Μαχαιρίτσας) who also sang the song; Isaac Sousis (Ισαάκ Σούσης) composed the lyrics. Ever since I first heard the song in 1997, I have been certain that the composers were influenced by Catullus. Many of my students shared this conviction. Meanwhile my certainty has been shattered, but there are similarities and analogies between the Latin poem and the Greek song that make comparison worthwhile and, as I shall argue, productive.

1.  Μου γράφεις δε θα ‘ρθεις για διακοπές
2.  χρωστάς μαθήματα μου λες
3.  φωτογραφίες στέλνεις απ’ το Λούβρο
4.  και άλλες με τον γάτο σου τον Τούρκο
5.  ο Τούρκος να πηδάει στα σκαλιά
6.  και ύστερα παιχνίδια να σου κάνει
7.  στη γάμπα σου να τρέμει μια ουρά
8.  αυτός ο Τούρκος Τούρκο θα με κάνει
9.  στη γάμπα σου να τρέμει μια ουρά
10. αυτός ο Τούρκος Τούρκο θα με κάνει

11. Ζηλεύω το μικρό σου το γατί
12. στα πόδια σου κοιμάται όταν διαβάζεις
13. δεν ξέρω αν κοιμάστε και μαζί
14. ή μ’ άλλον στο κρεβάτι τον αλλάζεις
15. δεν ξέρω αν κοιμάστε και μαζί
16. ή μ’ άλλον στο κρεβάτι τον αλλάζεις

17. Μου γράφεις πως σου έλειψα πολύ
18. μου στέλνεις χάρτινο φιλί
19. το χρόνο σου μετράς για το πτυχίο
20. το γράμμα μου σου φάνηκε αστείο
21. κι ο Τούρκος στη μοκέτα αραχτός
22. φιλίες με τους Γάλλους σου να πιάνει
23. να πίνει και να τρώει ό,τι τρως
24. αυτός ο Τούρκος Τούρκο θα με κάνει
25. να πίνει και να τρώει ό,τι τρως
26. αυτός ο Τούρκος Τούρκο θα με κάνει

27. Ζηλεύω το μικρό σου το γατί
28. στα πόδια σου κοιμάται όταν διαβάζεις
29. δεν ξέρω αν κοιμάστε και μαζί
30. ή μ’ άλλον στο κρεβάτι τον αλλάζεις
31. δεν ξέρω αν κοιμάστε και μαζί
32. ή μ’ άλλον στο κρεβάτι τον αλλάζεις

33. Συγχώρα με που γίνομαι μικρός
34. μα η ανάγκη να σε νιώσω είναι μεγάλη
35. μακριά σου νιαουρίζω μοναχός
36. μαc’estlavieπου λένε και οι Γάλλοι
37. μακριά σου νιαουρίζω μοναχός
38. μαc’estlavieπου λένε και οι Γάλλοι

39. Ζηλεύω το μικρό σου το γατί
40. στα πόδια σου κοιμάται όταν διαβάζεις
41. δεν ξέρω αν κοιμάστε και μαζί
42. ή μ’ άλλον στο κρεβάτι τον αλλάζεις
43. δεν ξέρω αν κοιμάστε και μαζί
44. ή μ’ άλλον στο κρεβάτι τον αλλάζεις

1.  You write me you won’t come for holidays
2.  You owe exams you tell me
3.  You sent me pictures from the Louvre
4.  And others with your cat the Turkish Angora:
5.  the Angora jumping on the stairs
6.  and then playing games with you
7.  a tail trembling at your leg
8.  this Angora will make me very angry
9.  a tail trembling at your leg
10. this Angora will make me very angry

11. I’m jealous of the little cat of yours
12. at your feet he sleeps when you study
13. I don’t know if you sleep together too
14. Or if you swap him in bed for someone else.
15. I don’t know if you sleep together too
16. Or if you swap him in bed for someone else.

17. You write me you missed me much
18. you send me a paper kiss:
19. you count your days for the degree
20. My letter sounded witty to you
21. And the Angora lounging on the carpet
22. striking friendships with your Frenchmen
23. drinking and eating whatever you eat
24. This Angora will make me a very angry
25. drinking and eating whatever you eat
26. This Angora will make me very angry

27. I am jealous of the little cat of yours
28. at your feet he sleeps when you study
29. I don’t know if you sleep together too
30. Or if you swap him in bed for someone else.
31. I don’t know if you sleep together too
32. or if you swap him in bed for someone else.

33. Forgive me that I’m becoming so little
34. But the need to feel you is great
35. Far from you I meow alone
36. But c’est la vie as the French say
37. Far from you I meow alone
38. But c’est la vie as the French say

39. I am jealous of the little cat of yours
40. at your feet he sleeps when you study
41. I don’t know if you sleep together too
42. or if you swap him in bed for someone else.
43. I don’t know if you sleep together too
44. Or if you swap him in bed for someone else.

There are three main characters in this song: a male speaker presumably somewhere in Greece, a female addressee and her male Turkish cat, both in Paris. The choice of a Turkish cat was made with an eye to a pun: κάνω κάποιον Τούρκο means ‘I make somebody very angry’. But this particular choice of species has other advantages as well. Angoras or Ankara cats, as they are known in Greek (γάτες Αγκύρας), are famously friendly. Our Angora is no exception. He plays games with his mistress, but is also imagined to be super friendly with her male French friends.

Like the Catullan poem, the Greek song offers a number of vivid images. In the opening the speaker looks at some pictures that his beloved girl has sent him from Paris: (a) the Angora jumping up and down the stairs (b) the Angora engaging in playful games with his mistress and (c) the Angora settling on his mistress’ lap—his tail trembling on her leg (lines 4–7). Unlike Catullus, however, our speaker does not express any affection for the pet. He is very angry, suspicious, and jealous. He is jealous because the Angora enjoys the company of his girlfriend. But he is also jealous because he suspects that his girl either sleeps with the cat or sleeps with another man. There is a moment when the suspicion is dispelled: our speaker remembers that the girl writes to him that she has missed him and that she has sent him a kiss, alas…a paper kiss (lines 17–18). She writes that she counts the days till graduation, she writes that she found his letter entertaining (lines 19–20). Is it enough to dispel suspicion for good? Of course not. Our friend remembers the …cat, once again. This time he imagines the cat lounging on the carpet and inviting the friendship of the girl’s French friends. Not only that, the cat eats and drinks whatever the girl eats and drinks, that Angora makes him so very angry… Then a moment of clear thinking: he apologizes for falling so low, it’s because he needs to touch her, so far away from the girl he’s a lonely meowing cat (lines 35–37). The song ends with yet another reiteration of jealousy and suspicion, which is the refrain of this song (11–16, 27–32, 39–44).

The overt expression of suspicion and anger towards the beloved’s pet is a crucial difference between Catullus’ poem and the modern song. I was initially tempted to think that the modern composer expresses openly feelings that the Latin poet suppresses. But I have changed my mind. I now think that Catullus’ sympathy for the sparrow is sincere. I shall explain the reasons a little later.

As I have already said, my initial certainty that the modern song was an exercise on the pet poetic lore has been shattered. After I read Nagy’s interpretation of Catullus 2, I did an internet search and I found an interview with Isaac Sousis in the newspaper ΤΑ ΝΕΑ. I quote the relevant passage and my English translation:

ΙΣΑΑΚ ΣΟΥΣΗΣ, ‘Eνας Τούρκος στο Παρίσι’
(Παυσίλυπον, Λαυρέντης Μαχαιρίτσας, 1997) Εγραψα το τραγούδι το 1994, μια χρονιά που αισθανόμουν φρικτή μοναξιά γιατί έλειπαν όλοι οι φίλοι μου στο εξωτερικό. Ενα απόγευμα καθώς γύριζα από τη δουλειά, βαρεμένος και με την αίσθηση μιας απίστευτης στασιμότητας, κάθησα σε ένα παγκάκι. Είχα μια πρώτη μορφή του τραγουδιού στα χέρια μου, έλεγα δηλαδή για το Παρίσι αλλά αυτό που με απασχολούσε ήταν να μιλήσω για τη μοναξιά μου, όχι με μίζερο τρόπο. Εκείνη τη στιγμή πέρασε από μπροστά μου ένας γάτος και επειδή τους έχω αδυναμία έφαγα ‘φλασιά’ κι άρχισα να γράφω επιτόπου. Τον βάφτισα Τούρκο και ήταν ο γάτος που απολάμβανε ό,τι εγώ δεν είχα…

ISAAC SOUSIS, ‘A Turk in Paris’
(Album: Sorrow Quenching, Music Lavrentis Machairitsas, 1997) I wrote the song in 1994, a year that I felt horrible loneliness, because all my friends had gone abroad. An afternoon as I was coming back from work, burdened by the feeling of incredible stagnation, I sat on a bench. I had an initial draft of the song in my hands, I was talking about Paris, but what was on my mind was to talk about my loneliness, but not in a miserable manner. That moment a cat passed in front of me. Because I have a very soft spot for cats, I was struck by a flash of inspiration and I started writing then and there. I gave the cat the name ‘Turk’ and it was the Turk that enjoyed what I did not have…

This interview makes clear that the cat is the imaginary speaker’s double, who enjoys what our speaker longs for: the Angora is the focus of the girl’s attention and affection. It is an invented story that gives the composer the opportunity to give expression to his feelings without falling into the trap of misery. The trap of misery is avoided thanks to a series of beautiful images featuring a cat playing with a young woman. There is jealousy and frustration in this song, but its target, the cat and its coushy arrangements, makes us smile. It is not an accident that the song has been popular for more than two decades now.

A young woman and her sparrow on Lesbos

I am convinced by Nagy that in c. 2 Catullus is primarily thinking of his Lesbian Muse Sappho and secondarily of his friend, usually identified with Clodia Metelli, the queen of style in Republican Rome. This is the second poem in the collection of the most famous poet of the first Neoteric generation. I shall argue that the evocation of Sappho right after the dedication of his nugae to Cornelius Nepos gives Catullus’ Neoteric coordinates and prepares the reader for the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic feast awaiting her/him. But what kind of signpost does Sappho and her sparrow had to offer?

Nagy has suggested that Catullus 2 is modeled after a now lost poem of Sappho which Catullus knew. Given how little has survived, Nagy may very well be right, but I wish to explore a different possibility. I suggest that Sappho 1, the famous Hymn to Aphrodite, had all the necessary elements that could enable Catullus to paint the picture of his Lesbian Muse playing with her little sparrow.

If Catullus looked at Sappho 1 through a Callimachean lens, as I assume he did, he must have found the opening startling:

1.  ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθανάτ’ Ἀφρόδιτα,
2.  παῖΔίοςδολόπλοκε, λίσσομαίσε,
3.  μήμ’ ἄσαισιμηδ’ ὀνίαισιδάμνα,
4.  πότνια, θῦμον,

5.  ἀλλὰ τυίδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα
6.  τὰς ἔμας αὔδας ἀίοισα πήλοι
7.  ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
8.  χρύσιον ἦλθες

9.  ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ἆγον
10. ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
11. πύκνα δίννεντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνω ἴθε-
12. ρος διὰ μέσσω·

1–4. Immortal Aphrodite sitting on a richly-worked throne, child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I pray to you: revered Goddess do not crush my heart with pains and sorrows.

5–8. But come here—if ever before you heard my cry from far away, left your father’s palace, yoked your golden

9–12. chariot and came; beautiful swift sparrows led you round the black earth flapping their wings rapidly from the heaven through to the middle of the sky.

Ever since Callimachus borrowed Pindar’s metaphor of the chariot cutting through untrodden paths (Pindar, Paean 7b, 11–14) and made it the emblem of his own trail-breaking poetics (Callimachus Aitia, fr. 1, 25–28) his followers would find it difficult to overlook the potential of chariot images. This would be especially true for poets intent on otium like Catullus. I suggest that Catullus looked at Aphrodite’s golden vehicle from a Callimachean perspective. From a Callimachean perspective one could not but admire Aphrodite’s charioteers: they were beautiful, they were small and they were musical. The fact that they were less known singers than nightingales and other big names in the bird singing business would only increase their uniqueness and therefore their appeal: they could be an emblem of Sappho and a reminder of her sparrow-chariot.

To go back for a moment to Isaac Sousis and his Angora cat, we have seen that a passing cat gave him the idea how to focus his story and express his frustration and sorrow gracefully, because he had a soft spot for cats, as he said in his interview with TA NEA. Mutatis mutandis I propose a similar scenario for Catullus ‘Sparrow Poem’: Catullus wished to introduce his Muse, Sappho, as early as possible in his collection. Her introduction had to be learned and subtle, but recognizable. Having admired the elegance and subtlety of the Sapphic chariot of sparrows and thinking that his learned friends would catch the allusion, he introduced Sappho by alluding to her Sparrow Poem in Fragment 1.

Sure enough readers of Catullus have long thought of Sappho 1 as a model for Catullus’ passer poems and have identified a number of intertextual allusions to Sappho 1 in Catullus c. 2 and 3, most recently Olivier Thévenaz (‘Sapphic Echoes in Catullus 1–14’ in T. S. Thorsen and S. Harrison, editors, Roman Receptions of Sappho, Oxford 2019, pp. 119–36). But if I am right in thinking that Catullus, under the influence of Callimachus, saw the potential of Aphrodite’s winged little charioteers as an appropriate metaphor for Neoteric poetics, the portrait of the puella with the pretty little sparrow is the portrait of his Muse, Sappho, cast in a Neoteric setting. The ethnic Lesbia, introduced in c. 5 (Vivamus mea Lesbia), reinforces the allusion.

In theory Catullus could portray Sappho on a chariot drawn by sparrows, but opted for the image of a puella holding a sparrow and, like Isaac Sousis, he developed a series of vignettes depicting Sappho’s affection and playful relationship with her pet sparrow, which are described in vivid detail by Nagy. If we take into account c. 3, where Catullus laments the death of the sparrow, our poet paints in c. 2 and 3 a portrait of Sappho that was perhaps more Hellenistic than Archaic—our evidence shows that epigrams for pets, and especially dead pets, was a popular Hellenistic theme (Greek Anthology 7.190–216). The Hellenistic touch in the portrayal of Sappho’s was not of course a problem. In the long tradition of their reception, Archaic poets acquired the aesthetic characteristics of different societies.

We have seen that the Angora cat enjoys the attention and affection that the poet would have loved to have. Unlike the Modern Greek composer, Catullus does not opt for an openly adversarial relationship with the sparrow, because he has a double poetic agenda:

(a) Qua poet he admired the Sapphic chariot and decided to make it an emblem of his Lesbian Muse. In terms of poetics then there is synergy between poet and sparrow.

(b) Qua Neoteric lover he probably saw a further advantage. I would like to illustrate this point by taking a brief look at another Modern Greek Song that I have been discussing with Nagy whose English translation I use with one modification at l. 5 and 23:

1.  Βλέπω ένα σπουργίτη έρημο κι αλήτη,
2.  μόνο του στη λύσσα του βοριά,
3.  είναι ξεπουπουλιασμένος κι είναι ζαρωμένος,
4.  στης φτωχιάς αυλής τη μουριά.

5.  Τσίου, τσίου, τσίου, ο σολίστ του κρύου
6.  τρέμει και τινάζει τα φτερά,
7.  μέσα απ’ το παράθυρό μου βλέπω το μικρό μου,
8.  το σπουργίτη, το φουκαρά.

9.  Σπουργιτάκι, καθώς σε κοιτάζω
10. να σπαρταράς στο κακό του χιονιά,
11. βρίσκω πως κάτι λίγο σου μοιάζω,
12. νιώθω την ίδια, μ’ εσέ, παγωνιά.

13. Μικρό σπουργιτάκι μου, έλα
14. να ανοίξουμε οι δυο τα φτερά
15. εγώ είμαι για σένα η κοπέλα
16. κι εσύ είσαι για μένα η χαρά.

17. Σπουργιτάκι, καθώς σε κοιτάζω
18. να σπαρταράς στο κακό του χιονιά,
19. βρίσκω πως κάτι λίγο σου μοιάζω,
20. νιώθω την ίδια, μ’ εσέ, παγωνιά.

21. Μα τώρα η άνοιξη φτάνει
22. γεμάτη από φως και χαρά,
23. μικρό σπουργιτάκι μου, έλα
24. να ανοίξουμε οι δυο τα φτερά.

25. Τσίου, τσίου, τσίου, ο σολίστ του κρύου
26. τρέμει και τινάζει τα φτερά,
27. μέσα απ’ το παράθυρό μου βλέπω το μικρό μου,
28. το σπουργίτη, το φουκαρά.

1.  I see a sparrow, solitary little wanderer.
2.  There he is, all by himself, right in the middle of a raging north wind.
3.  He’s disheveled and he’s all bunched up
4.  in the lowly courtyard, perched on the mulberry tree.

5.  Tsiou tsiou tsiou sings the soloist of the cold.
6.  He trembles and ruffles his feathers.
7.  Through my window I see my little one,
8.  the sparrow, the poor thing.

9.  Little sparrow, the moment I take just one look at you,
10. as you’re all shrunken up there in the nastiness of the snow,
11. I find that, just a little bit, I’m like you.
12. I’m feeling, with you, the same freezing cold.

13. My tiny little sparrow, c’mon,
14. let’s spread, the two of us, our wings.
15. I’m for you the girl,
16. and you’re for me the joy.

17. Little sparrow, the moment I take just one look at you,
18. as you’re all shrunken up there in the nastiness of the snow,
19. I find that, just a little bit, I’m like you.
20. I’m feeling, with you, the same freezing cold.

21. But now spring is here,
22. filled with light and joy.
23. My tiny little sparrow, c’mon,
24. let’s spread, the two of us, our wings,

25. Tsiou tsiou tsiou sings the soloist of the cold.
26. He trembles and ruffles his feathers.
27. Through my window I see my little one,
28. the sparrow, the poor thing.

This song was part of a very famous film, To κλωτσοσκούφι, produced by Finos Films in 1960 and featuring two great stars, Aliki Vougiouklaki and Alekos Alexandrakis. The music was composed by Manos Chadjidakisand the lyrics of our ‘Little Sparrow’ (το σπουργιτάκι) by Alekos Sakellarios and Christos Giannakopoulos. The setting of the song is a poor neighborhood in the winter. A young woman looks out of her window and sees a little sparrow singing in the freezing cold in the courtyard. She immediately identifies with him and invites him to be her friend: she will be his girl, he will be her joy!—for the young woman’s relation with the sparrow see Nagy’s analysis in Classical Inquiries 2019.03.15.

If we look at the sparrow as a poor little singer, we get another insight into the appeal the sparrow would have for Catullus who adopts the persona of the poor poet, composer of nugae, who has no riches, but only his talent to offer to his Lesbia.

The identity of Lesbia has been much debated: is she Sappho? Is she Clodia Metelli, one of her sisters or someone else? Or is she entirely fictional?—for the debate see most recently Lars Morten Gram (‘Odi et amo. On Lesbia’s Name in Catullus’, in T. S. Thorsen and S. Harrison, editors, Roman Receptions of Sappho, Oxford 2019, pp. 95-117). My reading of Catullus’ 2 presupposes that sometimes the puella resembles more the poet Sappho and at other times she acquires the characteristics of a Roman lady, Clodia Metelli or whoever was the historical figure that was Catullus’ Roman Muse. If my picture of Clodia Metelli is anywhere near to her modus vivendi, I think that after hearing the Catullan recital, she would make sure to be seen in public holding a little sparrow on her palm.



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