A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The month of March is mentally green on my calendar and sprinkled with little shamrocks, as if St. Patrick’s Day lasted all four weeks. So I’m pleased to start off the month with a very old Irish poem. When I say old, I mean from the late 8th or early 9th century. It was written by a monk, whose name is lost now, in circumstances that have also faded, though some of the theories are entertaining. There’s many translations, but I’m using the one by Robin Flowers, which can be found here.
There are numerous works of literature celebrating dogs, their loyalty and trust. But cats get short shrift as furry pals, they’re always walking by themselves or tiptoeing through fog or something to emphasize their independent reputation. But anyone who has had a cat knows that they can be wonderful companions and this is what the poem celebrates.
The monk, who has a sense of humor compares his studying with the hunting that his cat does. The words are as skittery as mice, but occasionally he is able to catch the meaning of them. The cat is much better at his job, in some translations, reference is made to the monk’s weary eyes, so he was probably not a young man and he feels settled, without being resigned, which is an enviable state. Pangur was a common name for cats at that place and time and the word “Ban” means white in Gaelic, though the poem is sometimes illustrated with black or grey cats.
In the Flowers version, the last line, “turning Darkness into light” is a subtle reminder of the religious house the monk and his cat live in, harking back to Jesus being the Light of the World. It can also be a historical note, at the time the poem was written, Ireland was considered the beacon of learning in Europe, the flame of literature and learning was kept alive there through the Dark Ages.
Unlike much of Irish verse and song, this poem has no yearning or sorrow. There’s not even regret over missed sleep as the monk stays up late chasing words. It’s a poem purely of contentment. If that seems too light and fluffy, think of the last time you felt utterly at peace and how rare that is, then you’ll understand why this poem has lasted through the centuries.
Lovely ink drawing of cat is from a piece on this poem on cantofabule blog
Jackie wishes everyone a very happy St. Patrick’s Day!