Pangur Bán … a cat poem for Isobel (and cat)

This is from the eighth century; an anonymous Irish monk wrote it in the margin of a manuscript he was transcribing. It’s translated from the Irish. The cat was white; its name was Pangur (‘bán’ means ‘white’ in Irish).

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

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 task 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 task we ply,
Pangur Bán, 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.



Filed under Poems

24 responses to “Pangur Bán … a cat poem for Isobel (and cat)

  1. jaimeatdnmyt

    This is one of my all time favorite art songs by Samuel Barber. Different translation.

    Which goes:

    Pangur, white Pangur,
    how happy we are,
    alone together,
    scholar and cat.

    Each has his own work
    to do daily;
    for you it is hunting,
    for me study.

    Your shining eye
    watches the wall;
    my feeble eye
    is fixed on a book.

    You rejoice when your claws
    entrap a mouse;
    I rejoice when my mind
    fathoms a problem

    Each with his own art
    neither hinders the other.
    Thus we live ever
    without tedium or envy

    Pangur, white Pangur,
    how happy we are,
    alone together,
    scholar and cat.

  2. jaimeatdnmyt

    Actually, listening to it, I don’t really like the singer. Here’s another!

  3. Thanks, Jaime … that’s a surprise! I had no idea the song existed.

  4. claire2

    Good poem!
    ALthough ‘mouses’ is a touchy subject chez moi… just ask half of MyT!
    Christopher Smart, I think it was, once wrote a famous cat poem, beginning with ‘For I will consider my cat Geoffery…’ all about the cat being the servant of the lord and so on.
    And Robert Burns, I think, wrote about cats and mice. Called the mouse a ‘wee timorous beastie…’ if I recall. Don’t bandy that one around on MyT please! RIck whatsisname would have a field day.
    Anyway, have good weekend luv 😉

  5. When we were watching the kittens playing the other day it was obvious that one of them in particular was practising its hunting skills. Quite alarmingly proficient for an animal less than two months old. There’s a Seamus Heaney one I’ll post on my page soon that I have been thinking about recently.

  6. jaimeatdnmyt

    Part of the poem by Christopher Smart to his cat, Jubilate Agno, has also been made into a song but I’m having trouble finding it because I can’t remember the composer. Benjamin Britten, possibly. I’ll work on it. It’s lovely.

  7. I just realised my comment sounded a bit abrupt. I’ll try to post the poem here and there. It’s just that it has made me think of some particular things that I want to put with it.

  8. jaimeatdnmyt

    OK it was Britten, a part of his choral piece, Rejoice in the Lamb.

    Here are the lyrics:
    For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.
    For he is the servant of the living God.
    Duly and daily serving him.

    For at the first glance
    Of the glory of God in the East
    He worships in his way.
    For this is done by wreathing his body
    Seven times round with elegant quickness.
    For he knows that God is his saviour.
    For God has bless’d him
    In the variety of his movements.
    For there is nothing sweeter
    Than his peace when at rest.

    For I am possessed of a cat,
    Surpassing in beauty,
    From whom I take occasion
    To bless Almighty God.

  9. Jaime that is wonderful. I love it.
    Did Britten have cats too?

  10. This is rather a bleak poem. I’d love to know if Heaney is being ironic in the last lines. As I said earlier, I’m posting it on my page too, because there’s a story it reminds me of.
    The Early Purges
    was six when I first saw kittens drown.
    Dan Taggart pitched them, ‘the scraggy wee shits’,
    Into a bucket; a frail metal sound,

    Soft paws scraping like mad. But their tiny din
    Was soon soused. They were slung on the snout
    Of the pump and the water pumped in.

    ‘Sure, isn’t it better for them now?’ Dan said.
    Like wet gloves they bobbed and shone till he sluiced
    Them out on the dunghill, glossy and dead.

    Suddenly frightened, for days I sadly hung
    Round the yard, watching the three sogged remains
    Turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung

    Until I forgot them. But the fear came back
    When Dan trapped big rats, snared rabbits, shot crows
    Or, with a sickening tug, pulled old hens’ necks.

    Still, living displaces false sentiments
    And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown
    I just shrug, ‘Bloody pups’. It makes sense:

    ‘Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town
    Where they consider death unnatural
    But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.

  11. Thanks for all the comments, and I’m particularly glad to see Tigerbrite. Welcome, Tigerbrite. 🙂

    Going to drink some wine now; will respond properly tomorrow.

  12. Thanks again for the cat poems/music (one more song below).

    Isobel, you might be interested in comments Heaney has made on this poem, which does end in an oddly unpoetic way.

    ‘One classroom favourite is “The Early Purges”, which describes drowning kittens on a farm. “It’s terrific because it sets off a debate,” says Heaney, “but I think the poem is flawed because the voice changes halfway through” – from sympathy with the kittens to an acceptance of their deaths. “‘Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town/Where they consider death unnatural/But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down,” he quotes. “Very heavy handed but a gift to an English class because you’re left with issues.” Heaney would rather a poem such as “Sunlight” (below) were given more attention. The vision of his Aunt Mary baking bread on Mossbawn farm has no issues to extract; instead, the poet shares his pleasure in physical details – the “sunlit absence” in the yard, the “whitened nails” of Mary’s fingers.’

  13. The cat she went a-hunting and found the barn a-blazing
    And back she’s come a-calling, a-calling, a-calling
    Wake up farm boys! The barn is burning down!

    Chorus (after each verse):
    And the cat she’s got to hide herself behind the rat she’s eating
    So as not to show a smirk and maybe get a beating
    The farmer slips on his dungarees and he falls down the stairs

    The rats came out in their hundreds and the cat she caught a-plenty
    She’s got the artful dodger, the dodger, the dodger
    She spied him in the burning hay the barn is burning down!

    The fire brigade is coming and frying chicken singing
    And we’ll be sitting on boiled eggs, on boiled eggs, on boiled eggs
    So open the cage and hose us down we may get a dozen a day

    The roof is starting to crumble, sparks fly up in the night sky
    The dogs are wearing their tails down, their tails down, their tails down
    The boys have made a chain in the yard and they’re passing the pails along

    The cat she went a-hunting and found the barn a-blazing
    And back she’s come a-calling, a-calling, a-calling
    Wake up farm boys! The barn is burning down!

  14. Thanks Brendan. I didn’t know Sunlight.
    If you look at my page you’ll see why I posted the Early Purges. I’m still not sure if Heaney means the last verses or if it is an opinion, an attitude of others he is quoting.

  15. I like dogs and cats, but my present cat, as I have mentioned before, is not very likeable.

    Yesterday she had to be (partly) shaved. Her long hair gets matted each winter and she won’t allow us to groom her.

  16. Ah well Cymbeline, it takes all sorts. I hadn’t had a pet since I had left the parental home until Cat moved in. He was a revelation. I thought of him as a furry thing with a leg at each corner, but he had his own agenda and a very strong character. It was a learning curve.
    And he adores being groomed.

  17. Maybe you could love elegance.

  18. Sounds like love to me!
    I know some people do not care for animals, though they would never deliberately be cruel to them, and thought perhaps you were one of that band.
    In my own family we are all animal lovers. Anyone who wasn’t would probably be regarded as a changeling.

  19. Did ytou swallow it politely then dial 999, or spit it out all over the floor?
    This sounds like a story to be written.

  20. Tummy upset? Sore mouth? No repercussions?

  21. Does it know?
    Has there been any documented research about the effects of Ajax drinking on oxen?
    I can just imagine them, hunched in the corner of a field, muttering about the yoke, and swigging it back. All adolescent male oxen obviously.

  22. I think you are starting to lose me now.
    The ox in you? Is it the same ox as the ox of Aix? Is that Aix-en Provence where I have spent many a happy day when I was living in Marseille. Without oxen or any animal other than cockroaches.

  23. ‘I know too that you know a lot about France and French.’
    You’re not MI5 are you?
    Time for bed.
    Sweet dreams.

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