By: Louise van Oel
Photo Credit: Louise van Oel (isn't Louise's cat in Brussels the absolute cutest?!)
I and Pangur Bán, my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
I have this eight-stanza poem by a ninth-century Irish monk up on the wall in my room. It hangs about at my eye level, a little to the left of my desk. I bought the small poster at Trinity College (which was one of the highlights of my visit to Ireland last summer), and it was one of the first things I put up in my new apartment upon my return to Montreal.
I spend an unfortunate amount of time at my desk—being somewhat of a monk in temperament if not in practice—so this poem and I are in each other’s company a lot. Like Pangur Bán and his monk once were. I am grateful for the amazing fluke of fortune that has allowed this simple, utterly unique little poem to survive for over 1200 years.
Pangur Bán, in Old Irish, translates to “white Pangur,” so we know the name and colour of this little fellow as well as his favourite hobby. We know that his owner was a hard-working scholarly monk, but not much else about either of them.
I have a white cat who likes to hunt, too. His name is Snorri. Sadly, he’s not here with me: he lives at my parents’ house in Belgium. The (half-)dead mice he drags into the house to proudly show us are much more of a nuisance than a help, though, so I haven’t written him a poem for it.
Pangur’s hunting prowess was evidently appreciated. Snorri would be jealous.
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.
These days, for scholars “to sit with book and pen” is more often for us to stare at monitor and tap at keyboard. Mourn the aesthetics, love the convenience. Still, in effect, this unknown monk and I are at the same thing, 1200 years apart. Hunting words we sit all night, indeed. (Finals season for English majors.)
Pangur Bán was found in a manuscript which seems to have served the purpose of a private notebook, used by the monk as an outlet for his sundry scholarly interests. The poem is accompanied by "notes from a commentary of the Aeneid, some hymns, a brief glossary of Greek words, some Greek declension, notes on biblical places, a tract on the nature of angels, and some astronomy." This diverse manuscript was rediscovered at the monastery of St Paul’s in Carinthia, a region of modern-day Austria.
A very dear friend of mine, whom I have known since we were thirteen and plan to continue to know for the rest of my life, is Austrian and half Carinthian. One of my favourite things about ancient literature, particularly when it’s this small and personal, is that it allows me to feel a tenuous but real connection to someone who experienced a whole life in a completely different, irrevocably lost world. As well as the coincidental geographical connection to my friend, I too like plying the same “simple skills” of reading and writing that this monk once did (though, as much as it shames my Classics-loving soul to admit, I have yet to get to the Aeneid).
'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
There is another thing that draws me to this poem: the Irish monk wrote this “at home,” but at his new home in an Alpine monastery.
The Alps are not close to Ireland. Certainly not by medieval standards. What led this person to travel over the sea from his country, across a great deal of land, up and through a mountain range, to become a monk in central Europe? Why go so far? Why go there? Were the departure and the location his own choice, or not?
Did he bring his cat all that way? Probably not, but it’s fun to imagine Pangur in the medieval basket version of a cat carrier, in the arms of a traveling monk.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
Like Aeneas, the little “hero Pangur” got his own poem for his exploits. I don’t think the monastery mice would have seen the cat as a hero, but it’s endearing that his owner did. The monk was probably grateful that he didn’t have to get rid of the mice himself, so he could spend more time on his theology and Greek declensions.
Another wonderful reason for this poem to have survived: the feeling of catching a meaning in your mental net—finally understanding a conjugation, grasping an advanced argument in a scholarly paper, finding the perfect word for your essay title—is something students across time can understand. The thousands who came before this monk and the millions after.
I love thinking about the little people in history; how they studied, which books they might have loved, what they thought about. I think poetry about them (and their cats) is the most moving kind.
'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.
Often I feel like just a little person too, with what amounts to my little wisdom, going about the world with only the most tenuous clue as to what I’m doing.
Human knowledge is a big intimidating wall which in many ways has only become harder to scale since the monk’s time. As an English and history student, I throw essay after essay at that wall while the world seems to care mainly for progress in STEM, not whether I can think of a new interpretation for a passage in a medieval poem.
Sure, the world may never notice or feel most of what literary scholars do. There may be no practical benefit to the rediscovery and translation of this or that obscure medieval text. But I care! We care! Practical benefit is not the only thing life is about; else, why would so much philosophy, art, and literature exist in the first place? It’s all there to be cared about.
So yes, I will keep trying all my little wisdom ‘gainst this wall I’ve chosen.
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.
Still, even when you have a credo to motivate your studies, confidence is not so easily attained as that. Doubts: finals season always gives me so many of them. Can I pull off this essay in time? Does my argument hold up? Am I even capable of having interesting original thoughts anymore?
Think of the monk, and try to frame these as doubts you can love—and solve. After all, the flip side to the anxieties of being a student is that there is also so much gladness to discover in this kind of life. Like when you find a fascinating text while researching, come up with a thesis you know you’ll be passionate about defending, finish an essay right on time… all those good things.
When December deadlines start looking like signposts spelling your doom, try to remember a medieval monk and his cat working alongside each other at the tasks they were made for, and take a breath.
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.
This poem on my wall has become an academic anchor of mine, in a way. Despite it all—doubts, difficulties, despairing times—at the end of the day, I remember I study the things I do because I love them. Simple as that.
In the arts of literature and historiography is where I find my bliss, and I couldn’t be doing anything else. I am so glad I was born in a time when women at large can get an advanced education (unlike the times of our dear monk), so I can spend these years of my life with other people who sometimes get unreasonably attached to ninth-century cat poems. While plying my task is not always peaceful when there are grades to think about, I know that no one can convince me that my efforts aren’t important.
I know the monk whose words are on my wall would agree with that. I’ll leave you with this last stanza, which is probably my most favourite.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night,
Turning darkness into light.
English Translation by Robin Flower (1912, The Poem-Book of the Gael)
Toner, Gregory (2009). "'Messe ocus Pangur Bán': Structure and Cosmology". Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies. 57: 1–22.