This poem, together with Catullus' other poems, survived from antiquity in a single manuscript discovered c. 1300 AD in Verona, from which three copies survive. Fourteen centuries of copying from copies — the "corrupt manuscript tradition" mentioned above — left scholars in doubt as to the poem's original wording in a few places, although centuries of scholarship have led to a consensus critical version. Research on Catullus was the first application of the genealogical method of textual criticism.
Lines 1-10 represent the preserved core of the poem. Lines 11-13 are denoted as "Catullus 2b" and differ significantly in tone and subject from the first 10 lines. Hence, these latter three lines may belong to a different poem, although most scholars do not believe so. Rather, the prevailing hypothesis is that the two sets of lines (1-10 and 11-13) are fragments of a whole, and that lines bridging the transition between them have been lost. In the original manuscripts, this poem was combined with Catullus 3, which describes the death of Lesbia's sparrow, but the two poems were separated by scholars in the 16th century.
The following Latin text is taken from the 2003 critical edition of D. F. S. Thomson.
|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 nescioquid lubet iocari,|
|7||ut solaciolum sui doloris,|
|8||credo, ut tum gravis acquiescat ardor;|
|9||tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem|
|10||et tristis animi levare curas!|
The following lines 11-13 (Catullus 2b) refer to the Greek myth of Atalanta, a young princess who was remarkably swift of foot. To avoid marriage, she stipulated that she would marry only a man who could beat her in a footrace; suitors who failed to defeat her would be put to death. The hero Melanion (also known as Hippomenes) wooed Atalanta, who fell in love with him. During the race, Melanion threw a golden apple to distract her; stooping to pick it up, Atalanta lost the race, possibly deliberately so that she could marry him. The final line refers to undressing on the wedding night.
|11||tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae,|
|12||pernici aureolum fuisse malum,|
|13||quod zonam soluit diu ligitam.|
Catullus was renowned for his meticulous care in crafting poems, even those with seemingly trifling content. This poem is written in hendecasyllabic verse, a meter in which each line has eleven poetic feet. Consistent with other ancient Greek and Latin works, the feet are not defined by stressed and unstressed syllables as they are in English poetry. Rather, they are marked by long (L) and short (s) forms of the vowels. Thus, a typical hendecasyllabic line has the meter
However, there is some flexibility in this pattern, particularly in the first and last feet. An example of English hendecasyllabic verse has been provided by Tennyson
Other artful devices are woven into the text of Catullus 2. Lines 2-4 represent a tricolon crescendo, in which the three relative clauses become gradually longer in length: quem ludere, quem in sinu tenere, and cui primum digitum dare appetenti et acris solet incitare morsus. The repeated "eee" sounds (corresponding to the letter "i" in Latin) evoke the songbird's peeping (pipiabat in Catullus 3), e.g., (quicum ... in sinu ... cui primum ... appetenti ... acris ... nitenti ... iocari). The "a" sounds may also convey images: the poet's sighs of longing; an "ouch!" at being bitten sharply (appetenti, "pecking" and acris, "sharp"); and a comforting sound (solaciolum, "small comfort", and acquiescat, "calms").
This poem and the following Catullus 3 (a lament for Lesbia's sparrow) inspired a genre of poems about lovers' pets. One classical example include Ovid's elegy on the death of his mistress Corinna's parrot (Amores 2.6.). Another is Martial's epigram (Book I number CIX) on a lap dog, which refers to Catullus 2 specifically ("Issa est passere nequior Catulli", "Issa [the dog] is naughtier than Catullus's sparrow").
Following the printing of Catullus's works in 1472, Poems 2 and 3 gained new influence, as seen in John Skelton's long poem Phyllyp Sparrow (c. 1505). In modern times, Edna St. Vincent Millay refers to Catullus 2 and 3 in her poem, Passer Mortuus Est (The Sparrow has Died):
The sparrow carried erotic symbolism in the Classical world and may have erotic connotations in this poem. The bird has been connected with Aphrodite in Sappho (a poet much admired by Catullus), and Pliny remarked on the erotic connection. From the earliest days after the re-discovery of Catullus' poems, some scholars have suggested that the bird was a phallic symbol, particularly if sinu in line 2 is translated as "lap" rather than "bosom". However, most scholars have rejected this suggestion over the centuries, noting that Catullus is not coy about discussing sex, as shown by his many obscene poems such as Catullus 16.
Birds were common love-gifts in the Classical world, and several scholars have speculated that the narrator gave it to the woman; this might explain the poet's identification with the sparrow and his fond lament for the bird in Catullus 3. The biting it does in line 4 ties in with Catullus 8, line 18 (cui labella mordebis).
A key question concerns the unity of this poem. In the copies derived from the original V manuscript, poems 2 (lines 1-10 below), 2b (lines 11-13 below), and Catullus 3 appear as one poem under the title "Fletus passeris Lesbie" (Lament for Lesbia's Sparrow). Shortly before 1500, Catullus 3 (the lament) was separated from Catullus 2/2b by Marcantonio Sabellico, which has been supported by scholars ever since.
Scholars have argued over whether the last three lines (2b) belong to a different poem, and whether words are missing between poems 2 and 2b. Scholars have suggested that missing words (a lacuna), or a variant reading/rearrangement of the received text, would smooth the presently abrupt transition between lines 10 and 11. As noted above, there is some manuscript evidence for missing words after line 10. However, scholar S.J. Harrison, who believes the 13 lines are unified, has argued that "there seems to be no vital gap in content which short lacuna would supply" and if the missing words are many, then it is impossible to guess what they were and the poem must be accepted as simply broken into fragments.
Catullus 2 and 2b differ significantly in their tone and subject. Catullus 2 is addressed directly to the bird ("with you") and describes its loving, playful relationship with the poet's girlfriend. By contrast, Catullus 2b mentions neither bird nor girlfriend, introducing a simile to the story of Atalanta, and seems to be written in the third person ("it is as welcome to me"), although some scholars have suggested that the text was corrupted from the second person ("you are as welcome to me"). The disjunction between Catullus 2 and 2b was first noted by Aquiles Estaço (Achilles Statius) in 1566; however, the first printed edition to show a lacuna between poems 2 and 2b (by the editor Karl Lachmann) appeared quite late, in 1829. Lachmann's separation of 2 and 2b has been followed by many subsequent editors.
Although it is possible that Catullus 2 and 2b belong to separate poems, the prevailing hypothesis is that they represent the beginning and end, respectively, of a larger poem, and that some intervening lines smoothing the transition have gone lost. In support of this hypothesis, Alessandro Guardino wrote in 1521 that he had found in an old book that words were missing just after line 10. The O manuscript — which presents 2, 2b and 3 as one whole poem — has a critical sign (not datable) after line 10, indicating a reader noted the break between poems 2 and 2b; a similar sign separates 2b from the next poem, Catullus 3. Yet a similar sign occurs after line 7 in Catullus 2, a spot that is a "distinctly improbable point of poem-division."
Unity advocates have also suggested word changes in the first part of the poem that would make the shift in tone less abrupt. For example, it has been suggested to change possem ("Would that I were able") to posse ("to be able") in line 9, resulting in the variant translation "To be able to play with you as she does and to relieve the sad cares of my mind is as pleasant to me as ...". Heyworth calls that construction convoluted and undermining the theme that the speaker wishes he were in the position of the woman in lessening his own longings by playing with the bird.
Harrison suggests adopting a reading found in the second printed edition of Catullus (by Francesco Puteolano, Parma, 1473) in which the third-person phrase Tam gratum est mihi ("It is as welcome to me") is replaced by Tam gratum es mihi ("You are as welcome to me"). The change alleviates the abrupt transition from second person ("with you", addressing the bird) to third person ("It is"). Although "es" refers to a masculine subject (passer, the bird) and therefore should read Tam gratus es, Harrison asserts that gratum can be "perfectly acceptable" Latin grammar.
Advocates for the two-poem theory have noted that the first 10 lines, opening with the woman playing with the bird and closing with the narrator's wish to do so, form a thematic whole that is "both formally and psychologically satisfying." Similar "closing wishes" can be found in poems 1, 28, and 38. The poem's climax would be the poet's unfulfilled wish to relieve his own cares by playing with the sparrow as his love does (lines 9-10).
However, Harrison believes Catullus 2b also provides a suitable closure for the poem for the following reasons. First, Catullus 2b alludes to the myth of Atalanta, and classical poems sometimes end in mythic references, e.g., Catullus 51, lines 13-15 and Horace Odes 2.5.21-4. Second, Catullus' poems often end in extended comparisons, e.g., Catullus 11, 17, and 25, and Catullus 65 ends with a simile using an apple. Horace also closes poems in that way, e.g., Odes 3.5.53-6 and 3.20.15-16. Third, the image of undoing Atalanta's girdle is connected to marriage, an event that Massimo Fusillo has called a "strong closure force", and is used in Moschus' Europa, in Greek novels and in New Comedy. Nonmarital sexual consummation also closes some of Catullus' other poems, e.g., Catullus 56, lines 5-7, and Catullus 59, line 5.
As a love gift, the bird would provide a thematic link to 2b, where the apple is a love gift. Catullus makes it one apple, providing a stronger link to the single bird, although there were multiple apples in other versions of the Atalanta story (Ovid makes it three in Metamorphosis 10.649-80). In this interpretation, the poet may be suggesting that the bird connects the lovers (the poet and his girlfriend) in the same way that the apple connected Hippomenes and Atalanta. This interpretation has a slight transgendered aspect, since the male poet compares his solace from the sparrow's antics with the female Atalanta's pleasure in the apple. Harrison believes there is still a strong enough correspondence in these images to show a thematic unity and notes that Catullus adopts a transgendered perspective in other poems. Other scholars have noted that the gender roles of ancient Rome, especially as seen through Catullus' poetry, do not correspond exactly with our modern Western conceptions; the activity or passivity of the lover determined their role more than their biological sex.