With regard to the question of Pangur Ban:
I have a few thoughts on the poem, one I have regularly taught in an introduction to
Sometimes a hostile audience is just a hostile audience.
There are people who don't like Greek lyric, or Latin lyric. Are these readers of
"English language literature of later periods" readers of poetry at all? Or are they
readers of novels exclusively?
Frankly, I suspect these are not readers of poetry--many of my students have claimed
simply not to like poetry.
As to Pangur Ban, I'm not sure why it needs defense. It is an example of a lyric, perhaps
epigrammatic in its force, one that makes a parallel between two kinds of activities,
that of the scholar and his cat. Such analogies are typical of lyric in world literature,
cf. Homeric similes, and the "conceit" in European lyric. (I suspect your spoil-sports
might simply not like such poetic moves.) Ultimately the lyric gesture is philosophical,
and not really novelistic at all--this is irritating to the reader of "later
literatures," I have found. In the case of Pangur Ban, the gesture is delicate, but
serves the higher purpose of giving the scholar a chance to contemplate his or her own
activity: the focus is on the difference in their abilities and the distinctiveness of
their tasks. One can claim that the writer attempts to understand his work as a scholar
through an analogy with "hunting," in the typical lyrical manner of selecting the "small"
thing over the large. Just a kitty hunting the mice, going about business.
It should be emphasized to those who think such gestures are doggerel, that this motif,
comparing the poetic craft to "small things," is found widely in the literature of the
world. Cf., for example, Callimachus' aesthetic in Hellenistic Greece (3rd c. b.c.),
Sappho's contrasting of lyric with epic in archaic Greece (6th c. b.c.), and Catullus
lyric voice in Rome in the 1st c. b.c.--one can intelligently compare Pangur Ban, with
Catullus programmatic first poem (carmen 1.1), where he, consciously, like Sappho before
him, contrasts his task with that of the epic-historian. Love poets, e.g., the
troubadours, often have as their task the justification of a non-political, non-economic,
activity (essentially, of play), and proceed to do so by admitting the contrast between
work and play in order to show the propriety of play in certain (including *this*)
context, or by comparing their poetic activity to *play* in an appropriate context quite
different from poetry itself.
Here the scholar, engaged in non-profitable activity (not warfare, not money-making),
notes that his cat (engaged in a kind of war, for a kind of profit--mouse-hunting) is not
unlike himself, in many ways, each point gone over stanza by stanza, in the manner of,
e.g., archaic Greek monodic lyric.
Pangur Ban is delicate and perfect, like the best of lyrics. It also has an indentifiable
opening and a generalizing close in the last stanza.
I have hesitated to characterize the dismissive comments that prompted the question in
the first place, since I, too, am perplexed that anyone could dislike this piece, even
absent a full-blown analysis, which the above only sketches out. It is also all too easy
for scholars to blast those dismissive of our work. But let me say that I suspect these
readers of later English literature wouldn't have been dismissive of Catullus or Sappho,
even though the lyric motifs are common. (Lyric can be an easy target, sometimes shielded
by membership in the canon, as are the Greeks and Romans.) Early lyric--of many
cultures--is the least welcomed genre by moderns, so wrapped up are we in extensive
narrative (the novel) or in visual drek (film doggerel of various sorts). Indeed, the
resistance to lyric might account for why we have so little of early lyric, Greek, Irish,
etc. etc.: poetry is philosophical in part, as Aristotle knew (Poetics, Chapter 9), and
we live in an age hostile to the kind of thinking required to engage in such activity.
Unfortunately readers of literature are as prone as anyone to such resistance.
> I've recently begun a reading of the above poem (also known as The Scholar & His Cat,
> and several other names) on the Irish Literature discussion group. It was, to be
> honest, a dangerous move in that the focus of almost all group members is the English
> language literature of later periods, especially of the 18th, 19th and 20th
> centuries. Now, I've no problems with discussing the issues raised by the
> translations, the context of the poem on the 9th century, etc., but... well, perhaps
> examples of the type of comments the (translations) have provoked will make my point:
> "Just because it's old and it has survived for centuries doesn't mean it's worth
> anything! I feel that way about many supposedly "great" authors . . . On the other
> hand, I think it's possible that the poem was written for a child."
> "I look forward to other posts which will explain to me why 'Pangur Ban' is more than
> the doggerel it appears to be to this reader upon first reading . . . the poem--at
> least in TRANSLATION--seems utterly uninteresting"
> Now, PB is not exactly the finest example of the poetic arts ever produced on this
> planet, but there are things which translation cannot reproduce, use of words with
> second or allusive meanings which can't be carried over, metric patterns which only
> the original can support, and which require an understanding of the pronunciation of
> the original Old Irish to discern... Is it doggerel? Is it subtle? Why has it caught
> the attention of translators such as Flower and O'Connor?
> I'd be interested in any comments, suggestions etc. which will help open up these
> things for our English-language-oriented, written-poetry-oriented membership. I've
> attached a transcript of
> the poem below to make access easier for anyone interested in responding.
> Before I sign off, I should, perhaps, explain that the original purpose of using PB
> in this way was to show the problems that arise (and have arisen) for English
> language poets attempting to reproduce or emulate styles from the Irish, and
> especially the Old Irish; explore why this poem has received the attention of several
> translators; and to show something of the richness of style which lies within what is
> to most students and scholars of 'Irish Literature' the 'other' language...
> Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
> cechtar nathar fria saindan;
> bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg,
> mu menma céin im saincheirdd.
> Caraim-se fos, ferr cach clú,
> oc mu lebran leir ingnu.
> Ni foirmtech frimm Pangur Bán,
> caraid cesin a maccdán.
> O ru·biam (scél cen scís)
> innar tegdais ar n-oendís,
> taithiunn (dichrichide clius)
> ni fris·tarddam ar n-áthius.
> Gnáth huaraib ar gressaib gal
> glenaid luch inna lín-sam;
> os mé, du·fuit im lín chéin
> dliged ndoraid cu ndronchéill.
> Fuachaid-sem fri frega fál
> a rosc anglése comlán.
> Fuachaimm chein fri fegi fis
> mu rosc reil, cesu imdis.
> Faelid-sem cu ndene dul,
> hi·nglen luch inna gerchrub;
> hi·tucu cheist ndoraid ndil,
> os me chene am faelid.
> Cia beimmi amin nach ré,
> ni·derban cách a chele.
> maith la cechtar nár a dán,
> subaigthius a óenurán.
> He fesin as choimsid dáu
> in muid du·ngní cach oenláu.
> Du thabairt doraid du glé
> for mu mud cein am messe.