Friday 13 August 2021

Lesbia's Sparrow

  This post first appeared on The History Girls blog in April 2018
Gaius Valerius Catullus didn’t live long. Born into a wealthy family near Verona in around 84 BCE, he was dead by the age of thirty. But in this short space he made his mark as a lyric poet who, like Sappho perhaps, derived much of his extraordinary force from elements of his own life: he speaks so directly and so personally to the reader that we almost feel we know him. He wrote fiercely and wittily of both love and hatred. Many of his poems are savagely scatological (there’s a typical example here). He satirised Julius Caesar and was forgiven. His work survived in a single manuscript of 116 poems, so we’re lucky to have him. According to the Poetry Foundation website, Catullus' poetry addresses
...contradictory alternatives or tendencies: learning and passion; seriousness and frivolity; conservative values and revolutionary attitudes; ethical “piety” and vulgar obscenity; accounting and kissing; the great themes of Rome—love and betrayal, war and death; and lesser preoccupations with napkin stealing, urine, buggery, and bad breath.

Yes, well...  It was probably in Rome that Catullus fell in love with the woman he names ‘Lesbia’ in his poems. She is usually identified as Clodia Metellus, a married lady who – from what he says – seems to given him the run-around and to have had a number of other lovers besides him. Two of the best known of the poems he wrote to her, or for her, or about her, concern her pet sparrow. Known in the canon as Catullus II and Catullus III, the first poem is a delicate, lively and distinctly eroticized account of the poet watching Lesbia playing with the sparrow and offering it her finger to nip. The strength of the poem is the tension set up between the girl’s apparent absorption with her pet, and Catullus’ voyeuristic gaze. You can read it at this link.   

But it's the second poem I want to talk about. It's a lament: the sparrow is dead. Here’s the Latin:

Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque
et quantum est hominum venustiorum;
passer mortuus est meae puellae,
passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quem plus illa oculis suis amabat;
nam mellitus erat, suamque norat
ipsa tam bene quam puella matrem,
nec sese a gremio illius movebat,
sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illuc
ad solam dominam usque pipiabat.
qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc unde negant redire quemquam.
at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis;
tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis.
o factum male! o miselle passer!
tua nunc opera meae puellae
flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.

Here is a prose translation by Leonard C. Smithers, published in 1894: 

O mourn, you Loves and Cupids, and all men of gracious mind. Dead is the sparrow of my girl: sparrow, darling of my girl, which she loved more than her eyes; for it was sweet as honey, and its mistress knew it as well as a girl knows her own mother. Nor did it move from her lap, but hopping round first one side then the other, to its mistress alone it continually chirped. Now it fares along that path of shadows from where nothing may ever return. May evil befall you, savage glooms of Orcus, which swallow up all things of fairness: which have snatched away from me the comely sparrow. O wretched deed! O hapless sparrow! Now on your account my girl's sweet eyes, swollen, redden with tear-drops.

This little poem is so lovely, so tender - so playfully and deliberately conscious of the chiaroscuro created by sensuous physicality contrasted with death, it probably defies translation. So, I thought it would be interesting to look at a couple of different attempts. Put them together and maybe those of us who don’t read Latin (that includes me) can get an inkling of the original? Let’s start with Lord Byron who published his own translation at the age of nineteen in ‘Hours of Idleness’, 1807:


Ye Cupids, droop each little head,
Nor let your wings with joy be spread,
My Lesbia's favourite bird is dead,
Whom dearer than her eyes she lov'd:
For he was gentle, and so true,
Obedient to her call he flew,
No fear, no wild alarm he knew,
But lightly o'er her bosom mov'd:

And softly fluttering here and there,
He never sought to cleave the air,
He chirrup'd oft, and, free from care,
Tun'd to her ear his grateful strain.
Now having pass'd the gloomy bourn,
From whence he never can return,
His death, and Lesbia's grief I mourn,
Who sighs, alas! but sighs in vain.

Oh! curst be thou, devouring grave!
Whose jaws eternal victims crave,
From whom no earthly power can save,
For thou hast ta'en the bird away:
From thee my Lesbia's eyes o'erflow,
Her swollen cheeks with weeping glow;
Thou art the cause of all her woe,
Receptacle of life's decay.

Byron’s got the sweetness but misses the emotional strength. He apostrophises the Cupids but leaves out those more weighty ‘men of gracious mind’ from the first line, and the effect is to trivialise the poem. So does his omission of the line where Catullus says that Lesbia knows the sparrow as well as a girl knows her own mother – which speaks of a strong, tender, nurturing relationship. I’m not sure he’s hit off the playful mock-heroics either: Catullus portrays this sparrow almost as a sort of Aeneas descending into the underworld... Finally it would have made better poetry, and been truer to Catullus, to have changed the order of lines in the last verse, so:

Thou [ie: the grave] art the cause of all her woe,
Receptacle of life's decay:
From thee my Lesbia's eyes o'erflow,
Her swollen cheeks with weeping glow.

The poem ought to end with the girl’s swollen, tear-filled eyes – which you can feel Catullus is longing to kiss – but Byron can’t manage it because the form he’s chosen demands that each eight-line verse rhymes AAAB/CCCB: the eighth and final line must rhyme with the fourth. And so he ends on a vision of the grave straight from an 18th century tombstone, ‘Receptacle of life’s decay’ – rather than leaving us with Catullus's erotically charged and tactile close-up of Lesbia’s face. 

Sir Richard Burton does better. Here’s his translation, published in the same year as Smithers’ prose version, 1894:


Weep every Venus, and all Cupids wail,
And men whose gentler spirits still prevail.
Dead is the Sparrow of my girl, the joy,
Sparrow, my sweeting's most delicious toy,
Whom loved she dearer than her very eyes;
For he was honeyed-pet and anywise
Knew her, as even she her mother knew;
Ne'er from her bosom's harbourage he flew
But 'round her hopping here, there, everywhere,
Piped he to none but her his lady fair.
Now must he wander o'er the darkling way
Thither, whence life-return the Fates denay.
But ah! beshrew you, evil Shadows low'ring
In Orcus ever loveliest things devouring:
Who bore so pretty a Sparrow fro' her ta'en.
(Oh hapless birdie and Oh deed of bane!)
Now by your wanton work my girl appears
With turgid eyelids tinted rose by tears.

He’s got the sweetness, the eroticism and the darkness too: he almost succeeds in the mock-heroics (‘evil Shadows low’ring/In Orcus ever loveliest things devouring/ ...Oh hapless birdie and Oh deed of bane...’) His choice of poetic diction is an interesting blend of the archaic and stiff – ‘Thither, whence life-return the fates denay’ – and the vernacular – ‘my girl’. I think it just about works in its own right, but it’s very mannered and doesn’t sound like somebody chatting to us.  

The same cannot be said of Dorothy Parker’s wonderful riff on the poem (included in ‘The Original Portable’, 1944) – which gives Lesbia herself a voice, and some very distinct opinions!

From A Letter From Lesbia

... So, praise the gods, Catullus is away!
And let me tend you this advice, my dear:
Take any lover that you will, or may,
Except a poet. All of them are queer.

It's just the same – a quarrel or a kiss
Is but a tune to play upon his pipe.
He's always hymning that or wailing this;
Myself, I much prefer the business type.

That thing he wrote, the time the sparrow died –
(Oh, most unpleasant – gloomy, tedious words!)
I called it sweet, and made believe I cried;
The stupid fool! I've always hated birds...

It’s not, of course, a translation at all. But I reckon Catullus would have loved it.

Picture credits

Lesbia and her Sparrow by Sir Edward John Poynter 
Lesbia weeping over her sparrow by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1866
Catullus comforting Lesbia on the death of her sparrow by Antonio Zucchi (1726-1796)
Dead Sparrow by E. Sloane Stanley, 19th c.


Tuesday 3 August 2021

The Fairy Flag and the Paths of the Dead


'To The Stone of Erech' by Inger Edelfeldt

You remember the episode in JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Return of the King’ in which Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas dare to enter the Dwimorberg or Haunted Mountain, with the aim of gathering a host of the Dead to prevent the Corsairs of Umbar from coming to the aid of Mordor during the siege of Gondor? But which version do you remember – Tolkien’s or Peter Jackson’s? For the usually excellent Peter Jackson film goes full-on Indiana Jones  at this point, with cathedral-vast caverns glowing in eerie green light, smoking dry ice and grimacing skeletal phantoms, climaxing in an avalanche of skulls which almost buries our heroes as they struggle out of the mountain.

For me, Tolkien’s far more restrained treatment is more effective (and it’s easy to forget that in the book, Aragorn and his friends are also accompanied by a troop of the Dunedain, and Elladan and Elrohir, the two sons of Elrond). And the bargain between Aragorn and the Dead doesn't occur underground. The company passes through the dark tunnels under the mountain with the invisible, menacing host following at their heels; they emerge on the other side into a blue dusk and then ride for another whole day all the way up through Morthond Vale to the ancient Stone of Erech, where prophecy has decreed the oath-breaking dead must one day come. Here is a lightly abridged version of what happens next:

Long had the terror of the Dead lain upon that hill and upon the empty fields about it. For upon the top stood a black stone, round as a great globe, the height of a man, though its half was buried in the ground. … None of the people of the valley dared to approach it … for they said it was a trysting place of the Shadow-men, and there they would gather in times of fear, thronging round the Stone and whispering.

          To that Stone the Company came and halted in the dead of night. Then Elrohir gave to Aragorn a silver horn, and he blew upon it; and … they were aware of a great host gathered all about the hill on which they stood; and a chill wind like the breath of ghosts came down from the mountains. But Aragorn dismounted, and standing by the Stone he cried in a great voice:

          ‘Oathbreakers, why have ye come?’

          And a voice was heard out of the night that answered him, as if from far away:

          ‘To fulfil our oath, and have peace.’

          Then Aragorn said, ‘The hour is come at last. Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me. And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron … ye shall have peace and depart for ever. For I am Elessar, Isildur’s heir of Gondor.’

          And with that he bade Halbarad unfurl the great standard which he had brought, and behold! it was black, and if there was any device upon it, it was hidden in the darkness. Then there was silence, and not a whisper nor a sigh was heard again all the long night. The Company camped beside the Stone, but they slept little, because of the dread of the Shadows that hedged them around. […] But the next day there came no dawn, and the Grey Company passed on into the darkness of the Storm of Mordor and were lost to mortal sight; but the Dead followed them.


We hear the sequel from Legolas and Gimli: how, coming to Anduin, the Shadow Host swept over the Corsairs’ ships like a grey tide, till mad with terror they leapt overboard and, ‘reckless we rode among our fleeing foes, driving them like leaves’. 



Now, ghostly armies are not uncommon in British folklore. Roman soldiers are glimpsed steadily marching along old roads, or even through the cellars of the Treasurer's House in York (pictured above), and Civil War battalions are seen fighting in the sky over Edgehill, Marston Moor and Naseby, but in all these cases the phantoms re-enact old battles rather than join new ones. The story of ‘The Angels of Mons’ is an exception, but that was based upon Arthur Machen’s short story ‘The Bowmen’, published in September 1914, in which the ghostly bowmen of Agincourt come to the aid of British troops. To Machen’s dismay his tale was mistaken by some to be a factual account, and swiftly morphed into an unstoppable legend.

Most phantom armies are visions or memories of past conflicts. But an unusual story from Skye has me wondering whether Tolkien knew of it, and if it influenced his account of Aragorn’s mustering the Hosts of the Dead. It is the tale of the Fairy Flag of the Macleods. 


The flag really exists. It is a rectangle of very old silk, much tattered and worn, said once to have been bordered with red crosses which have now faded from sight, and spotted with red ‘elf-marks’. Experts at the ‘South Kensington Museum’ – as the V&A was known until 1899 – who examined it in the late 19th century thought it might be of Syrian origin, with a date sometime between the 4th and 7th centuries. It is still treasured in the Macleod stronghold of Dunvegan Castle on Skye. 


How it came into the Macleods’ possession is lost to history, but legend says it was a fairy gift. There are various versions of the story, but the gist is that one of the early Dunvegan chieftains took a fairy bride. The couple were happy together until their son was born, but then ‘the call to return to her own people came to her. Against this order there was never, for her or for others, any appeal.’ At the Fairy Bridge – again, a real bridge, where the road south from Dunvegan Castle forks east towards Edinbane – they parted, never to meet again. In one version, the fairy gives him the Flag at their parting; in another, she comes invisibly to cover her child with it when he wakes cold and lonely in his cradle while a feast is held in his honour downstairs. In all versions, the Flag is given to the Macleods with the promise of immediate and powerful supernatural assistance, if it is waved in peril or trouble. There is one condition: only three times may it be used in this way. So far it is said to have been used twice.   

One occasion was in 1578, when the Macleods’ hereditary enemies the Macdonalds landed eight boats at Trumpan on the Waternish peninsula of Skye while most of the inhabitants were at church, and set it alight. Those inside died in the fire, or were cut down as they tried to escape, but one person managed to raise the alarm: and the flames were also seen by the Macleod watchman from the top of Dunvegan Castle. Here’s what happened next: the account is from ‘Skye: The Island and its Legends’ by Otta Swire (1952):

The Macleods came with what strength they could muster close at hand. The Macdonalds had been delayed by a force of old people and boys whose strength they could not estimate. By the time they reached the shore the tide had gone down, and their galleys lay high and dry, while hidden from them the Macleod forces, which had crossed the loch, were already landing. A terrible battle ensued, in which it is said that the Macleods, much outnumbered, had recourse to waving the Fairy Flag, and that the Macdonalds immediately saw a great host approaching (which in fact was not of this world) and fled. Be that as it may, the Macleods were victorious, the Macdonalds being almost annihilated.

So, the Flag was given to the Macleods by a woman of the Sithe, an elf-woman who loved a mortal man but had to part from him. Now, Aragorn’s standard is also the gift of an elf-woman, Arwen Undomiel whom he has long loved and been parted from. It is brought to him by his kinsman Halbarad the DĂșnadan, with the message:

‘She wrought it in secret, and long was its making. But she also sends word to you: The days now are short. Either our hope comes, or all hope’s end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!’

In both stories, possession of the Flag or the standard identifies the carrier: the Fairy Flag can only be borne and wielded by the Macleods. And though the Dead follow Aragorn to the Stone of Erech, they seem a threat not wholly tamed until the unfurling of the black elf-wrought standard sets the seal upon Aragorn’s claim to be Elessar, heir of Isildur to whom the original oath was sworn, and rightfully able to command them to fulfil their vow. And in both stories the one who wields the flag can, in extremis, call up supernatural reinforcements in the form of a terrifying phantom army. 


Picture credits:

The Paths of the Dead: Inger Edelfeldt 

Roman ghosts at the Treasurer's House: artist unknown: source website Imperium Romanum 

The Fairy Flag, close-up: courtesy of the Dunvegan Castle website

The Fairy Flag in situ: courtesy of the Dunvegan Castle website