Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Monk and His Cat - adapted by W. H. Auden from an 8th or 9th century anonymous Irish text

Pangur, white Pangur,
How happy we are
Alone together, Scholar and cat.
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me, study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art
Neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever
Without tedium and envy.
Pangur, white Pangur,
How happy we are,
Alone together, Scholar and cat.

This poem, perhaps most famous for its setting in Samuel Barber's "Hermit Songs" which I have attached, creates a lovely and warm image of a monk and his cat.  The poem itself was scribbled in the margins of a text the anonymous monk author was either copying or illuminating.  It's the product of a moment's inspiration, likely dashed off and soon forgotten, only to be rediscovered nearly a thousand years later.  It's remarkable how little our lives have changed, really.  This could be any college student admiring his cat.  I know I certainly think of my cat, Yoda, and how he would curl up on my lap as I read.

The phrase "alone together" is strangely comforting to me.  Being alone does not mean one must be lonely, and though a cat and a person may never truly connect, we can co-exist in great happiness.  The monk is happy to watch the cat go about his business, and in some ways, he notes the similarities between the two of them.  They both rejoice in their small daily victories and they both find happiness in their simple lives.  Just like that, alone together, in happiness.

The famous musical setting of this piece by Samuel Barber, taken from his hermit songs, seems so natural, lilting along with the bizarre grace of a cat's leaps, mimicked by the wide leaps of 6ths in the vocal line.  Also, and it may just be my imagination here, the ascending 2nds in the piano part are almost like a cat walking gingerly across the keys.  Barber is one of my favorite composers to sing because of how natural his vocal lines sound.

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