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Translator's Notes: Pangur Bán

by Seamus Heaney

This poem, found in a ninth-century manuscript belonging to the monastery of St. Paul in Carinthia (southern Austria), was written in Irish and has often been translated. For many years I have known by heart Robin Flower’s version, which keeps the rhymed and endstopped movement of the seven-syllable lines, but changes the packed, donnis/monkish style of the original into something more like a children’s poem, employing an idiom at once wily and wilfully faux-naif: “I and Pangur Bán, my cat,/’Tis a like task we are at...,” “’Tis a merry thing to see/At our tasks how glad are we/When we sit at home and find/Entertainment for our mind,” and so on.

Sometimes known as “Pangur Bán” (“white pangur”—“pangur” being an old spelling of the Welsh word for “fuller,” the man who works with white fuller’s earth), sometimes known as “The Scholar/Monk and his Cat,” the poem pads naturally out of Irish into the big-cat English of “The Tyger.” And since Blake’s meter acted as Flower’s tuning fork, and as Yeats’s when Yeats came to write his exhortations to Irish poets, I was glad to “keep the accent” and thereby instate the author of “Pangur Bán” at the head of the line of those Irish poets who are meant to have “learned their trade.”

Like many other early Irish lyrics—“The Blackbird of Belfast Lough,” “The Scribe in the Woods,” and various “season songs” by the hermit poets—“Pangur Bán” is a poem that Irish writers like to try their hand at, not in order to outdo the previous versions, but simply to get a more exact and intimate grip on the canonical goods. Nevertheless, had it not been for the editor’s invitation to contribute to this issue, it’s unlikely that I would ever have made bold to face the job: the tune of the Flower version is ineradicably lodged in my ear, and I just assumed that for me “Pangur Bán” would always be a no-go area.

A hangover helped. Not so much “tamed by Miltown” as dulled by Jameson, I applied myself to the glossary and parallel text in the most recent edition of Gerard Murphy’s Early Irish Lyrics (Four Courts Press, 1998) and was happy to find that I had enough Irish and enough insulation (thanks to Murphy’s prose and whiskey’s punch) to get started.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2006

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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