Two small comments on Catullus Two: an iconic effect and an expression of delight in what is beautiful

2018.12.13 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. As I contemplate the vast buildup of secondary bibliography documenting countless interpretations of “Catullus Two”—as Classicists normally call this poem—I struggle under the weight, looking for ways to break free by simply expressing the delight I experience whenever I re-read Catullus 2. The comments I offer here are merely two examples of such experiences. But I must already now highlight one thing that these examples have in common: they both have something to do with Sappho.

“Lesbia with her Sparrow” (1907). Edward Poynter (1836–1919).
“Lesbia with her Sparrow” (1907). Edward Poynter (1836–1919). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The poem: Catullus Two (2 and 2b), with working translation by GN

1.  passer, deliciae meae puellae,
2.  quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
3.  cui primum digitum dare appetenti,
4.  et acris solet incitare morsus
5.  cum desiderio meo nitenti,
6.  carum nescio quid lubet iocari,
7.  et solacium sui doloris,
8.  credo, ut tum gravis acquiescat ardor,
9.  tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem,
10. et tristis animi leuare curas
11. tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae,
12. pernici aureolum fuisse malum,
13. quod zonam soluit diu ligitam.

1.  You sparrow, delight for my girl…
2.  to play with you, to hold you in her lap,
3.  to offer for you the tip of her finger as you open wide for it
4.  —and to tease out from you those sharp peckings—that is her habit, to do those things
5.  whenever she, that glowing object of my desire,
6.  feels like having fun with—I don’t know—what is near-and-dear to her
7.  and is a comfort for her pain—
8.  I guess—so that, afterward, the heaviness of her burning passion can ease up.
9.  (… You sparrow,) to be playful with you the same way she is, if I could only be able,
10. and to lighten the sad cares of my heart.
11. It is just as much a-thing-of-beauty-and-pleasure [gratum] for me as they say it had been for the girl,
12. for that swift one—I mean, the way the golden apple had been for her.
13. It undid her waistband, which had been cinched around her for far too long.

Introduction: what does Catullus Two have to do with Sappho?

§0.1. Invoked at line 1 of Catullus 2—and then re-invoked at line 9 by way of ring composition—is a passer or ‘sparrow’, beloved pet of a puella ‘girl’. And this invocation of the sparrow by Catullus is an evocation of Sappho. As we see in Song 1 of Sappho, line 10, the chariot of Aphrodite is harnessed to strouthoi ‘sparrows’. We see these randy little birds bringing the goddess of erotic desire to Sappho, whose words at line 1 of Song 1 had invoked Aphrodite, asking the divinity to make her presence felt. I offer a working translation of Sappho’s Song 1 at text number 5 in Nagy 2015.10.22.

§0.2. The sparrow in Catullus Two belongs to a girl whose name we know from the poet’s related poems. She is Lesbia. The name of the girl, like her playful relationship with a sparrow, evokes Sappho, that woman from Lesbos. Or, for the moment, let us think of Sappho as the girl from Lesbos, to match the puella of Catullus.

§0.3. A most telling context for this girl named Lesbia is Poem 51 of Catullus, which matches closely Song 31 of Sappho in both form and content—so much so that his Poem 51 has at times been viewed as a “translation” of her Song 31. For a working translation of Sappho’s Song 31, I refer to text number 4 in Nagy 2015.10.22.

§0.4. To say that Poem 51 of Catullus is a “translation” of Song 31 of Sappho would be misleading, however. That is because we can see in the poem of Catullus a radical rearrangement of the roles that had played out in the corresponding song of Sappho. Here is what I mean. When the ‘I’ in Poem 51 of Catullus invokes at line 7 the girl in that song as Lesbia, what happens is that the subjectivity of Catullus in his Poem 51 becomes interchangeable with the subjectivity of Sappho in her Song 31. And this interchangeability leads to a change in roles: by contrast with the subjective female ‘I’ of Song 31, who is attracted to a female ‘you’ as a love-object in that song, the subjective male ‘I’ of Poem 51 is attracted not to that same female ‘you’ of Song 31 but rather to the subjective female ‘I’ who is Sappho herself. The girl to whom Catullus is attracted in Poem 51 is not the girl to whom Sappho is attracted in Song 31. Rather, the girl has now become Sappho herself. That girl is Lesbia, for now. But Catullus is ultimately in love not with Sappho but with the songs of Sappho. This is how he can supposedly feel the same feelings that Sappho feels. This is how he can love things that a girl loves—while loving the girl as well.

§0.5. In terms of the formulation I have just presented in my brief overview of Catullus 51, the life of Lesbia—as the girl from Lesbos—derives primarily from the songs of Sappho and of her imitators, and only secondarily from love affairs experienced in the “real” world of the poet himself. Whatever happens in “real life” between the poet and his would-be girl-friend is subordinated to whatever happens in the poetic life of girl-Sappho as channeled by her would-be boy-friend Catullus.

§0.6. What we see happening in Catullus 51 happens also, I argue, in Catullus 2. Here too, I propose, we see a “translation” from an original song of Sappho. Here too, the subjective male ‘I’ of Catullus becomes interchangeable with the subjective female ‘I’ of Sappho herself. Here too, in Catullus 2 just as in Catullus 51, the poet is saying that he feels the same feelings that the girl feels. He can love the same things that the girl loves—while loving the girl as well. This is why, when he sees the girl playing with a randy little bird that gives her such delight—though this delight comes with some measure of pain—the ‘I’ of Catullus yearns to have the same playful relationship with that same source of delight. But such a relationship, in terms of my argument, could work only if there had already existed for Catullus a song by Sappho picturing Sappho herself in a tender moment shared with her own little pet of a sparrow. In Catullus 2, we see the girl extending a teasing finger toward her skittish little bird, coaxing him to hop on—but first the sparrow pecks at her, somewhat hurtfully. So, for my argument to work, I need to posit the pre-existence of a song by Sappho herself about her own pet sparrow. In this hypothetical song, lost to us, we would see her too in the act of coaxing her peckish little bird into perching on her delicate finger. Such a song, I argue, would still have existed in the era of the Roman poet Catullus, for whom the sparrow of Lesbia in Poem 2 would have been modeled on a sparrow that belonged once upon a time to the poetic world of Sappho herself. And, I further argue, the dead sparrow that we see being mourned later, in Poem 3 of Catullus, belongs to that same poetic world of Sappho’s own songs. There too, I see the possibility of a “translation” from an original song of Sappho.

“Lesbia with her Sparrow” (1916). John William Godward (1861–1922).
“Lesbia with her Sparrow” (1916). John William Godward (1861–1922). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Lesbia and sparrow” (1866). Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912).
“Lesbia and sparrow” (1866). Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

1. A small comment on an iconic effect

§1.1. If I am right that Catullus Two is based on a song of Sappho, now lost, then we should expect to see in this poem of Catullus other features that are typical of Sappho’s poetics. One such feature, as I will argue here, is what I call iconicity, that is, the creation of an iconic effect. The terminology stems ultimately from the linguist Roman Jakobson (1960).

§1.2. The first place where I said something in print about the subject of iconicity was at p. 45 in Nagy 1974, Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter, with reference to the expression ἀλλὰ κὰμ μὲν γλῶσσα ἔαγε ‘but my tongue has broken down’ at line 9 of Song 31 of Sappho. There is an iconic effect, I argued, in the hiatus between glōssa (γλῶσσα) ‘tongue’ and eāge (ἔαγε) ‘has broken down’. Again I refer to my working translation of Sappho’s Song 31 at text number 4 in Nagy 2015.10.22. For further analysis of the iconic effect here, I refer to my comments at p. 58 notes 67 and 68 in Nagy 1996 and at pp. 71–72 in Nagy 2009. For now, however, I offer simply a short epitome from the second of these comments:

The term hiatus, in the original Latin, conveys the idea of gagging. In the original Greek at line 9 of Sappho’s Song 31, the wording glōssa eāge (γλῶσσα ἔαγε) ‘(my) tongue has broken down’ contains a hiatus: the sequencing of the short final vowel -a of glōssa ‘tongue’ followed by the short initial vowel e- of eāge ‘has broken down’ produces a negative acoustic effect. Technically, this effect is a hiatus, that is, a gagging. The sequencing has produced a non-sequencing. The negative acoustic effect of gagging has produced an interruption in the flow of language, in the flow of the music of the language. Such an interruption, such a hiatus, is ordinarily avoided in traditional Greek songmaking and poetry. But this is no ordinary hiatus here. That is because the breaking of regularity by way of interrupting the flow of the music is an intended effect. The sensation of a break is actually intended in the music of the language. The music has a breakdown, and the language expresses that breakdown with a word that actually means ‘break’ or ‘break down’. In the song of Sappho, then, what you see in your imagination when you hear the word that means ‘break down’ is what you hear as the music actually breaks down. The effect is onomatopoetic. Or, to say it again by way of the term used by Roman Jakobson (1960), an iconic effect is being created here by the language. And such an effect is not only linguistic. It is also musical.

§1.3. I now propose that there exists a comparable example of iconicity in Catullus 2. It happens near the beginning of the poem, where the pet sparrow is pictured in the act of pecking at the finger of the girl. At line 3, we read primum digitum dare appetenti, which I translated above as ‘to offer the tip of her finger [to you] as you open wide for it’. My translation ‘open wide’ with reference to the pecking beak of the bird is an attempt to convey the iconic effect that we see being created here, I think. The prospect of an open beak that is ready to close down and bite the tip of the girl’s finger is conveyed by the word-initial vowel a of appetenti. The vowel a is the most open of all vowels, and here it is followed by a bilabial consonant p, which requires the closure of the upper and lower lips. As linguists have shown, such a combination of open vowel followed by a bilabial consonant is often used in languages, whether they are related or unrelated to each other, as an onomatopoetic representation of an open orifice that will close down and thus bite on or ingest or even swallow something edible. Examples include Danish haps, Dutch hap, German hamm or mampf, Hungarian hamm, Romanian hap, Latvian am, Estonian amps, Turkish ham, Thai ngap or ngam, and so on. Another parallel is yum in English, once we consider the actual pronunciation of the vowel in that expression. In the combination primum digitum dare appetenti, it is the final vowel –e of dare that gets swallowed by the initial vowel a– of appetenti in a process known to grammarians as elision, which is of course a mechanism that cancels hiatus. So, I propose that the Latin “appetite verb” appetere, which can mean ‘seek to ingest’, is being used here iconically—but also playfully, since the beak of a little bird will of course not swallow but will merely peck at the teasing fingertip of the girl from Lesbos.

(The following two paragraphs are additions, dating from 2019.03.03.)

§1.4. I see a comparable iconic effect at line 6 in Poem 5 of Catullus, where we read:

nox est perpetua una dormienda

‘there is one single continuous night for us to sleep through’.

The eliding of the final –of perpetua ‘continuous’ into the initial u– of una ‘one single’ is a re-enactment of the meaning that is being expressed here: that one single eternal night is perpetuuna, where the sequence –uu– re-enacts the continuity of the sound u, bridging any interruption between the two words perpetua and una.

§1.5. Another example of iconicity in the poetry of Catullus can be found in his Poem 51. Here the poet is imitating the iconic effect of hiatus at line 5 in Song 31 of Sappho (both the Latin and the Greek texts, with translations, can be viewed together at §71.1 and §71.2 in Nagy 2019.01.31). In Song 31 of Sappho, as we have already seen, a breakdown of the tongue is signaled by way of a hiatus between the short final vowel of glōssa ‘tongue’ and the short initial vowel of eāge ‘has broken down’, creating a gap in the flow of the song. In Poem 51 of Catullus, by contrast, the poet has invented another kind of iconicity. In place of a hiatus between two short vowels, he creates a wider gap: where we expect to find line 8 in his poem, he omits this line altogether, so that the second stanza of his Poem 51 is deprived of any rhythmical closure. (The rhythm we are expecting at line 8, – uu –x, is known to metricians as the Adonic clausula.) Modern editors generally assume that the omission of line 8 in the transmitted text is a scribal corruption, but I think that the gap here was created by the poet himself. After the speaker says at lines 6–7 nam simul te, | Lesbia, aspexi ‘for as soon as you, | Lesbia, have come into my view…’, he follows up with this wording: nihil est super mi | … ‘there is nothing left for me to | …’. We were expecting ‘there is nothing left for me to | say…’, but there is nothing for him to say. He is speechless, numbed into silence. The next line, which is line 9, explains: lingua sed torpet ‘but my tongue is numb’.

2. A small comment on an expression of delight in what is beautiful

§2.1. Many who have written about Catullus 2 think that the last three lines, 11–13, do not belong to the poem. That is the idea behind the nomenclature “Catullus 2b” for these three lines. But I agree with those like Stephen Harrison (2003) who argue for the unity of all 13 lines—though my interpretation is different.

§2.2. The linchpin, I think, for the unity of Poem 2 is the expression gratum est at line 11, which I translate this way: ‘it is a-thing-of-beauty-and-pleasure’. I propose that the precedent for such an expression is the Greek adjective kharíeis/kharíen, as used for example at line 3 in Song 112 of Sappho. The song there is addressing the bridegroom at a wedding: σοὶ χάριεν μὲν εἶδος. I interpret the wording this way: ‘the way you look is a-thing-of-beauty-and-pleasure [kharíen]’. Comparable is the wording in Iliad 3.169, where Priam is praising the looks of Agamemnon as seen from afar: καλὸν δ’ οὕτω ἐγὼν οὔ πω ἴδον ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ‘something so beautiful I have never yet seen with my eyes’. Such a substantivized usage of the adjective is also evident at line 3 in song 16 of Sappho, where κάλλιστον refers to ‘the most beautiful thing in the world’—which is neither the sight of massed charioteers driving their chariots or of infantry in battle array, line 1, nor the sight of proud ships sailing over the seas, line 2, but, rather, it is that one single thing, κῆν(ο), that you happen to love passionately, line 4. I offer a working translation of Sappho’s Song 16 at text number 6 in Nagy 2015.10.22. It is that kind of love, I think, that we see in play at line 11 of Catullus 2. Once again, the poet senses the same kind of beauty and pleasure that was sensed by Sappho, that girl from Lesbos.


Harrison, S. J. 2003. “Sparrows and Apples: The Unity of Catullus 2.” Scripta Classica Israelica 22:85–92.

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Nagy, G. 2018.11.30. “Homeric problems and bibliographical challenges, Part 2: More on the performances of rhapsodes at the festival of the Panathenaia.” Classical Inquiries.

Thomas, R. F. 1993. “Sparrows, Hares, and Doves: A Catullan Metaphor and its Tradition.” Helios 20:131–142. See also Wray 2001:68.

Wray, D. 2001. Catullus and the Poetics of Roman Manhood. Cambridge.

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