In which we pursue poetry

So, one of my favorite poems is the little story of the late-working scholar and his cat.  In its native Irish, it goes like this:

Messe [ocus] Pangur bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindán;
bith a menma-sam fri seilgg.
mu menma céin im saincheirdd

…which I have been told comes into English like this:

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at,
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

It’s a pleasant poem, an amusing conceit, and supports the long shared history of writers and cats.  For a long time, I thought those four lines were the whole of the poem, said to have been written in the margin of whole ‘nother manuscript.  Four lines seemed about right for margin doodling, and I never pursued it further.

It therefore was a pleasant surprise to learn just recently that there is more — seven additional verses, in fact — to this poem, which argues for really generous margins.

Here’s the whole thing, translated from the Irish by Robin Flower.  You’re welcome.

The scholar and his cat, Pangur Bán

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.

3 thoughts on “In which we pursue poetry”

  1. I learned it in elementary school. Not, mind, because the school meant for me to learn it, but because I’m one who, if there were poems or stories in a textbook, I found & read them. I’m pretty sure it was not originally marginalia. But I didn’t know it was originally in Gaelic!! I actually gasped aloud just now! Thank you for that!

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