In this famous poem, the first of a pair, Catullus is flattering Lesbia by making a fuss of her pet sparrow. It is not clear whether he and Lesbia are supposed to be lovers, but he makes his interest very plain. As well as describing how cute the sparrow is, Catullus is saying he wishes that playing with it could distract him from his desire for Lesbia as effectively as it seems to distract her from her sensual side.
Being famous doesn’t make this poem problem-free. Something has gone wrong, probably because of copying mistakes, with the last four lines, and there are three lines (not shown here) which may belong to this poem or may have strayed in from a different one. If you need to get to grips with these complications, you will need a proper academic commentary!
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Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare appetenti
et acris solet incitare morsus,
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid lubet iocari,
et solaciolum sui doloris,
credo, ut tum gravis acquiescat ardor:
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem,
et tristis animi levare curas!
Sparrow, my lovely girl’s pet,
you that she’s always playing with, holding in her lap,
giving the end of her finger to as you chase it
and inciting your sharp pecks,
when you charm my gorgeous darling
into playing some favourite game or another,
and acting, I think, as a little remedy for her pain,
so that the strength of her ardour can abate:
If only I were able to play with you as she does,
And lift my sad cares from my spirit!