Thursday, July 7, 2011

Pangur Bán--an eighth century poem written by an Irish monk

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 thing 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.

(Written by an eighth-century Irish monk--name unknown. English translation by Robin Flower)

I read this poem for the first time when we visited The Book of Kells exhibition at the Trinity College library. It spoke to me as a lot of poetry does. I could just see in my mind's eye, the monk toiling away in the darkness while his cat hunted mice. The monk could have been working on one of the books of Kells, transcribing or illustrating them. And then the symbolic last sentence, 'Turning darkness into light'. There is so much that he says in this one little sentence--isn't this the whole basis of religion and our belief in a supreme being? That if we accept God into our lives, that this God turns our darkness into light? But I also think about this monk's place and time in history--the medieval times. Dark times. Perhaps he understood his role in turning the minds of his fellowmen toward the light; he perhaps understood his small and simple role in history. It must have been a profound moment for him when he wrote this--a kind of simple divine inspiration. 

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