Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Ninth-century Irish poem embodies deep connection between people and their animals

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published March 23, 2017

It is happening again.

Indeed, it happens nearly every year: my wife wants a dog.

We have had experiences with dogs. We have had bad experiences with dogs. Yet my wife still believes that we need another one. The year before last, she wanted a Scottie dog. Last year, it was a Westie. This year, it’s some sort of collie.

This, too, shall pass I am hoping yet again. After all, we have two cats, and they adore my wife. She also loves them; in fact, she is never really happier than when she has one of our cats curled up at her side.

The two cats—Pancake and Waffles—can’t curl up at the same time. If they were to do so, one of them would die. Pancake is a tabby and Waffles is a Cheetoh cat. As their names suggest, there is a great rivalry between them. Pancake was a rescue cat, a mother’s day gift for my wife. Waffles appeared in the deep of night in the North Georgia woods while our family communed around a campfire.

“A fox!” I exclaimed.

No, it turned out, it wasn’t a fox. It was an abandoned Cheetoh cat, and before I knew it, she was taken into our cabin, and bundled up the next day to ride in my wife’s lap to the vet where she quickly cost me $1,500.

My wife so loves those two cats that I know the annual dog obsession will soon fade. I, too, love cats and since I am writing this on St. Patrick’s Day, I wanted to share with you this Irish poem, “Pangur Bán”:

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 tasks 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.

Now at first glance, this poem seems a sweet and simple tribute to a faithful cat, yet when you know more about the context of the poem and how we came to have it, I think you will find it even more compelling, even if you do not like cats.

The poem was discovered in a ninth-century manuscript in St. Paul Monastery in Austria; apparently, the scholastic who was supposed to be transcribing became distracted from his task and wrote on his page not the text he was translating but instead the poem. The cat’s name, by the way, literally means “white fuller,” as in fuller’s earth, which is a decontaminant and cleanser. Ironically, fuller’s earth is commonly found in cat litter.

“Pangur Bán,” also sometimes titled “The Scholar Monk and His Cat,” was written in Irish and has frequently been transcribed by neo-medievalists and modern poets. In the 20th century the text was translated by poets as well known as W. H. Auden, and in the 21st century, the Nobel Prize–winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney translated and published in Poetry magazine his own transcription. I had the pleasure of hearing Heaney read his version at one of his last appearances at Emory before his death. The poem has even been featured in a recent film, “The Secret of Kells,” and served as the basis for the 2016 children’s book “The White Cat and the Monk.”

Yet the version best known by readers throughout the 20th century and up to today is that composed by Robin Flower, an English scholar and translator, who died in 1946. The poem I have provided here is Flower’s famous translation. Following the popular version by Flower, translation of “Pangur Bán” has become almost a rite of passage for those studying the Celtic languages, yet no one—not even Heaney—has ever quite captured the universal appeal of Flower’s text.

This may be because the anonymous monk who wrote the poem was actually trying to escape an academic exercise; translation efforts that eschew the whimsy—and the metaphor—in favor of the literal seem to me to miss the point.

There are many reasons why “Pangur Bán” continues to engage readers. For one, the image of a scholar shirking his responsibilities to seek pleasure in his own composition is universal. Who among us hasn’t doodled or written love notes when we were supposed to be following a lecture? It delights us to imagine a monk, 1,200 years ago, engaged in a kind of mischief of which we too are often guilty.

And there is the wonderful appeal of the ageless love between human beings and animals, particularly in the suggestion that even though both the man and the cat are each involved in work, the animal seems perhaps to know something the monk doesn’t.

Further, the monk recognizes himself as an idealist required to complete a pragmatic task. If he doesn’t transcribe correctly, then no text will exist. Yet still, he wants to go beyond being a mere copyist or scribe. After all, he insists that his work means “turning darkness into light.”

In my introductory English studies course, the first course that all our English majors take in their degree program, I always recite this poem on the last day of class. I use it as a final reminder to my students that language is transcendent, that it places us in the presence of mystery and allows us to understand the extraordinary even within ordinary experience.

These two qualities in the poem—its persistent idealism and its awareness of mystery—embody the essence of vocation. Both monk and cat have a task to perform. If the monk fails, there’s no book. If the cat is lazy, it doesn’t eat. Yet the monk allows the work of each to extend beyond sustenance. Their minds are entertained. Their needs are met. They are merry, blissful and at peace. Each has found a way to unite mind, body and spirit to arrive at a full understanding of their purpose. Each understands in full his vocation.

It is impossible in thinking about “Pangur Bán” not to recall Christopher Smart’s “Jeoffry” section of his long poem “Jubilate Agno”: “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him. … For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.”

Smart’s tribute to his cat Jeoffry is I think the greatest poem ever written about cats, never mind T.S. Eliot or Robin Flower, but “Pangur Bán” endures because of the underlying connection between the human and the animal and the sheer mystery that surrounds the act of creation.

Smart concludes that perhaps the greatest attribute of Jeoffry is that “For he can creep,” and that simplicity is at the heart of “Pangur Bán.” Too often, we look at our vocations as complex and even burdensome. “Pangur Bán” reminds us to be content with who we are and what we have.

Finally, “Pangur Ban” speaks to us of communion. The monk and the cat are together. It’s unlikely that either of them chose the other. They can’t speak to each other. Yet they belong together; they are meant to be together. Merton might say of them that they have the deepest level of communion we can ever have, communion beyond communication.

I expect the dog talk at our house will subside. This past week, our entire household was struck with strep throat and flu, so we spent a good deal of time resting. It was quiet for once. The cats got along as the humans did, taking turns on the couch and lending comfort to all of us.

And not once did they need walking.




David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.