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Pangur Bán
From the ninth-century Irish poem
Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.
More than loud acclaim, I love
Books, silence, thought, my alcove.
Happy for me, Pangur Bán
Child-plays round some mouse’s den.
Truth to tell, just being here,
Housed alone, housed together,
Adds up to its own reward:
Concentration, stealthy art.
Next thing an unwary mouse
Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.
Next thing lines that held and held
Meaning back begin to yield.
All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.
With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.
So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.
Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,
Pangur Bán has learned his trade.
Day and night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.

This week’s we’re reading a poem by an anonymous Irish monk of the 9th century – “Pangur Ban.”
This wonderful poem was written by a monk, about his cat—probably a white cat, since the word “Ban” means white. The poem is found in only one manuscript, the Reichenau Primer, which dates to the early 800s. It was written by an Irish monk at Reichenau Abbey in Germany.
How did an Irish monk end up in Germany? Irish monks were everywhere—in the early Middle Ages, Irish monasteries sent missionaries and scholars all over Europe. Reichenau was a thriving center for the arts, perhaps best known for a book of Gospel readings called the Pericopes of Henry II, which contains magnificent illuminations.
The “primer” or notebook in which the poem is found gives us a glimpse into the wide range of interests of an Irish monk. It includes a glossary of Greek words, as well as notes on Homer’s Aeneid, on angels, on places mentioned in the Bible, and on astronomy, not to mention several poems written in old Irish.
In this poem, the monk works alone in his cell—well, not quite alone, because Pangur Ban, the cat, is there as well. The monk compares his own work with that of Pangur Ban. Monastery cats had work to do; their job was to control the monastery population of mice!
The poem cleverly juxtaposes the task of scholarship with the task of the cat. The cat hunts for mice; the monk hunts for meanings. Both of them work in silence; and sometimes they have to wait patiently for a long time. But eventually “an unwary mouse / Bares his flank” to Pangur, and in the same way the difficult texts the monk is working on gradually begin to yield up their meaning. The monk marvels at Pangur’s determination: “his round bright eye / Fixes on the wall,” waiting for any sign of a mouse, while the poet’s “less piercing gaze” is focused on “the challenge of the page.” The cat and the scholar are both exultant when the mouse is caught; when the meaning is captured.
This little poem opens a window on life in a 9th century monastery, giving us a glimpse of people like us: people who spend days working at a desk; people who delight in the company of their favorite animals. Pangur may be there because he has a job to do, but the affection the monk has for the cat is unmistakable. In fact, he seems to get along better with the cat than anyone else: they work in harmony with each other, “adepts, equals,” “no vying, no vexation.” They are “kindred spirits, veterans”—in other words, they are friends.
Pangur Ban is a celebration of the intellectual life, the joy that comes with discovery and understanding. It’s also a celebration of animals and the way they enrich our lives. Though it was written almost four hundred years before St. Francis of Assisi was born, these words about Saint Francis could be said of the anonymous poet as well: “He rejoices in all the works of the Lord’s hands, and through their delightful display he gazes on their life-giving reason and cause. In beautiful things he discerns Beauty Itself; all good things cry out to him: ‘The One who made us is the Best.’” (Thomas of Celano)



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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