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Pangur Ban -- Anonymous

Proxying for DeMello...
(Poem #167) Pangur Ban
I and Pangur Ban 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 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.
-- Anonymous
Written by a student of the monastery of Carinthia on a copy of St
Paul's Epistles.
Translated by Robin Flower.

I guess I like this poem more for the context than for the words
themselves... somehow, the image of the apprentice monk, toiling over
his precious manuscripts, while Europe slept through the Dark Ages,
seems particularly poignant. Nothing much more to say.


PS. You can find the original Irish text of this poem (and a nice
commentary on the intricacies of translation) at

PPS. Our dearly-beloved Martin will be back on Saturday... apparently
there's been a network outage of some sort at Brookhaven [1], so he's
temporarily offline.

[1] Scary thought, innit?

42 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

john.kissane1 said...

You only have to look at other clumsy translations of this poem (e.g. by Frank O'Connor and Eavan Boland) - literal, prosaic, and frankly boring - to appreciate how well Robin Flower has captured the charm of the poem, as well as its music. Robert Frost once famously said that poetry is what gets lost in the translation. In this translation Robin Flower managed to hold on to the poetry - it is a rare achievement.

John Kissane

Thompson Richard said...

This poem is quoted at Trinity, Dublin alongside the Book of Kells. It is
attributed to a monk living in Switzerland. So who's right?

B OMeadhra said...

In response to Richard Thompson's query:I think there has been contraction of several elements of the provenance which do not belong together. As far as I know, an Irish monk somewhere, who could have been studying abroad in any of several places of learning, including Switzerland, or could have been at home in Ireland, wrote this poem in the margins of a manuscript he was copying or reading, and that manuscript two hundred years later ended up in the Carinthia monastery library. Or, this poem was copied onto a manuscript in Carinthia by a monk who is not supposed to be the 8th or 9th Century author.

After all, the monastery of St. Paul's in Carinthia was not founded till 1091. It had a famous and extensive library of manuscripts collected and copied from far and wide.

B.O Meadhra

Marcia Brim said...


I am self publishing a small companion study guide for a book of
historical fiction that overviews Western Civilization for 5th to 8th
graders. I would like to include a copy of the Pangur Ban poem in my
study guide. Do you know from whom I could obtain permission to reprint
this poem. I especially like this translation. Thank you for providing
it on the web.

I am actually trying to have my study guide to the printer by next
month, so your prompt reply is much appreciated.


Marcia Brim

Marcus Loidolt said...

Greetings, I am Br. Marcus Loidolt,
There is a goodly amount of study concerning Irish
monks on the contintent of Europe from the 6th to the
10th centuries. The book 'How the Irish saved
comments on how many Irish monks came to the
continent, into middle and eastern Europe bringing
texts that had been earlier taken to Ireland and now
were coming back to refurbish Christendom.
So an Irish monk in Switzerland is no strange thing!

We have only to look at some of the older monasteries
in Switzerland, Austria, Italy and France to find
foundations made by Irish monks in the early middle
and 'dark' ages.


"Let Charity be your hallmark and model for all you do,
if it is not loving, don't do it, it it is loving,
let nothing stop you from doing whatever is needed!"
(St. John Neumann)
"Have no fear or doubt anything and everything you give in this life will be paid back ahundred fold in the next"

robby roberts said...

I first came cross this poem in a book by Helen Waddell, first published by Constable in 1927. The poem she produces there, (page57 of the Fontana Library edition of 1966), has only four stanzas. I wonder whether there is any acknowldgement of her
translation, considerably earlier than that of Robin Flowers, and why she did not include stanzas 2, 4, 6 and 8 ?



carol carlson said...

Hi Folks, I see that Pangur Ban is listed as anonymous. Guess so, but here's some data by Thomas Cahill in his book, "How the Irish Saved Civilization"............Leinsterman, an Irish monk in 800 A.D., put together a book of Columbanus's favorites, at the Monastery of Columbanus at Lake Constance. Best Regards, Carol Carlson

Anonymous said...

I love the lines "In our arts we find our bliss/I have mine and he has his." I reference them often to remind myself that my love of words and literature is not always my students' love, but that we each have our own arts worthy of pursuit. I love the juxtaposition of the monk hunting meaning in the words he studied and the cat seeking its prey. When it came time for this English teacher to find a name for the feral kitten rescued by the neighbors, what else could I call it but Pangur Ban. It was the only name to which she actually responded. Pangur Ban she has been ever since baffling and sometimes frustrating the personnel in vet's offices with its rarity and its spelling. Her current vet finally researched the name (they always ignored the explanation of the poem I gave them). It turns out that Pangur Ban means white cat. This still baffles the vet because my Pangur Ban is pitch black.

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Anonymous said...

what does the last line i get wisdom day an dnight, turning darkness into light mean?

Anonymous said...

....what does the last line i get wisdom day an dnight, turning darkness into light mean?

It means that as he learns his craft (gets wisdom, knowledge), he moves from ignorance (the darkness) to enlightenment (the light).

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