Pangur Bán
February 24, 2013 6:02 PM   Subscribe

I and Pangur Bán, my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
[...]
(spoken version, set to music)

Better far than praise of men
Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.


This poem seems to have been written by an anonymous Irish monk around twelve hundred years ago, perhaps at the Benedictine monastery of Reichenau. The poem was written at the bottom of the second page (page 1 verso) of the Reichenau Primer (about the primer). It may have been a collection of work the monk did for practise; we don't know. You can hear the poem read with text and translation at The Great Book of Gaelic and you can practise your own pronunciation here.

The first critical translation of this poem was by Whitley Stokes and John Strachan, but the most popular one (quoted above) is by Robin Flower. Translating Pangur Bán seems to be is a popular exercise for poets working from the Gaelic: here is Seamus Heaney's recent version (another link) and two translations by Frank O'Connor and Eavan Boland. A musical version was also written by W H Auden for Samuel Barber as part of his Hermit Songs.
posted by Joe in Australia (20 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Barber setting is just a delight to sing, and the accompaniment! With the kitty-stepping-on-the-keyboard motif! It makes me want to purr.

I'd never even seen the full poem before, so thanks for the kickass post!
posted by a hat out of hell at 6:09 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Have you seen the Secret of Kells? Go do that too.
posted by pantarei70 at 6:13 PM on February 24, 2013 [15 favorites]


The thing about the cat peeing on the book, in the first link, is also priceless, as are the other early commentaries on cats.
posted by gusandrews at 6:33 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


The thing about the cat peeing on the book, in the first link, is also priceless, as are the other early commentaries on cats.

Mischievous Cats in World History, Part 3
posted by homunculus at 6:46 PM on February 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Seriously. I have died of historian and cat lover squee... AGAIN. At least my cats have not ever destroyed any academic work of mine. They have had at a student paper or two, though.
posted by strixus at 6:47 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this post! I love this poem, it's one of the best cat poems ever!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:48 PM on February 24, 2013


A propos Secret of Kells, here is Aisling's haunting song to Pangur Ban.

You must go where I can not,
Pangur Bán, Pangur Bán
Nil sa saol seo ach ceo,
Is ni bheimid beo,
ach seal beag gearr.

Translation:
There is nothing in this world but mist,
And we will only be alive
For a short time.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:11 PM on February 24, 2013 [9 favorites]


An Irish lit prof of mine had a cat named Pangur. Naturally.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:51 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I haven't looked at all the links yet so I don't know if this is covered. One of my favorite things about Pangur Ban is the kitty's name. First of all, Ban means white. And Pangur means fuller - which is a job people don't tend to have anymore - in the sense of a fuller of wool. A fuller treads upon the wool repetitively, and rubs it, to turn it from fluffy clouds of fiber into dense flat felt. So I guess that kitty hundreds of years ago was a white-furred wool-kneader, and that just charms me to bits.
posted by Lou Stuells at 9:37 PM on February 24, 2013 [13 favorites]


I have a very fat tabby named Pangur Breac ("mottled Pangur," rather than Pangur Ban, "white Pangur"), and she has kept me company on many a long night of research and translation. Her known aliases include 胖姑 (Pànggū, "fat girl"), 斑姑 (Bǎngū, "stripey girl"), 胖胖 (Pàngpàng, "Fatty-fats"), and "Lunchbox."
posted by bokane at 10:37 PM on February 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


"Lunchbox" is kind of an awesome name for a cat in and of itself.

...And yes, I know you're in China and not Japan, but "Lunchbox" just made me think of "Bento", and that's an even more awesome name for a cat.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:37 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


At least my cats have not ever destroyed any academic work of mine. They have had at a student paper or two, though.

Once when I was reading through some entries to a contest I was judging, I'd just finished reading something hideous, and put it down on the floor beside me while I looked for my notebook and a pen to make a couple notes on it. And while I was digging for them, my cat walked into the room - he changed course, came over near me, and attacked the script as it lay on the ground beside me -- pounced on it and started scrabbling at the edges.

I rescued it (we needed to return it to the author) and then noted that incident in my notes and concluded that "I think that says everything we need to know about this play right there."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:43 AM on February 25, 2013


Huh, cool, my wife studied this at university recently. It's a fascinating bit of writing.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:16 AM on February 25, 2013


I've loved (and quoted) the poem ever since I studied it in Old Irish class around four decades ago.

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindan:
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg,
mu menma céin im saincheirdd.


Of course, you have to know Old Irish to understand why saindan is pronounced with h- rather than s- and menma with nasalized v- rather than m-, but that's part of the fun of learning this weird language (which started out looking perfectly reasonable, quite similar to Latin, before all the words got mushed together around 500 AD).

> You can hear the poem read with text and translation at The Great Book of Gaelic

Thanks much for that; I'd never heard it read by an actual Irish-speaker before! On the other hand, I had to back out of the (spoken version, set to music) when the idiot reading it said "'Tis like a task we are at." Like, does that make any, like, sense? Read the text and understand it before you start declaiming it for the world at large!
posted by languagehat at 10:51 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is great. I have wanted to name a cat Pangur for as long as I can remember. We are talking right now about the possibility of getting a cat, which my 5 year old has already named Sasha. I am lobbying hard to get her to change her mind.
posted by ElleElle at 10:53 AM on February 25, 2013


On the other hand, I had to back out of the (spoken version, set to music) when the idiot reading it said "'Tis like a task we are at." Like, does that make any, like, sense?

To me, a native speaker, knowing it's a translation and with that emphasis "tis like a task" means exactly the same as "tis a like task" actually. In fact it's the more natural translation to me. You often hear "it's adjective that noun" in Ireland. Or at least where I'm from you do.
posted by fshgrl at 11:29 AM on February 25, 2013


Really? To you, "like a task" means "a similar task"? I learn something every day. But the woman doing the reading was clearly American, not Irish, and she said "'Tis like a task we're at" precisely the way she'd say "It's like a jungle out there." I'd bet money she has no idea what the actual text means.
posted by languagehat at 11:36 AM on February 25, 2013


Yep it does. "It's late the bus" or "it's cold the house" would be considered perfectly cromulent sentences where I come from. There is a very subtle weighting/ pause thing that makes it clear. I'm not very fluent in Irish but I was raised around fluent speakers and the phrasing and order of words in English tends to be to be heavily influenced by it.
posted by fshgrl at 12:15 PM on February 25, 2013


To clarify "like a task" doesn't really mean anything "tis like a task" could mean similar tasks depending on context and pronunciation. In this case that's how I hear it, no question.
posted by fshgrl at 12:39 PM on February 25, 2013


Just saw Life of Pi and this reminds me of it (spoiler: he imagines he is a tiger).
posted by maiamaia at 3:27 PM on February 25, 2013


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