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Caedmon (fl.c. 657-684): Hymn

[Introduction] Cædmon fl. c. AD 657–684) is the earliest English (Northumbrian) poet whose name is known. An Anglo-Saxon who cared for the animals at the double monastery of Streonæshalch (Whitby Abbey) during the abbacy (657–680) of St. Hilda (614–680), he was originally ignorant of "the art of song" but learned to compose one night in the course of a dream, according to the 8th-century historian Bede. He later became a zealous monk and an accomplished and inspirational Christian poet. Cædmon is one of twelve Anglo-Saxon poets identified in medieval sources, and one of only three of these for whom both roughly contemporary biographical information and examples of literary output have survived. His story is related in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ("Ecclesiastical History of the English People") by Bede who wrote, "[t]here was in the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in Old English, which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven." [Wikipedia]

Caedmon's Hymn

Now must we hymn the Master of heaven,
The might of the Maker, the deeds of the Father,
The thought of His heart. He, Lord everlasting,
Established of old the source of all wonders:
Creator all-holy, He hung the bright heaven,
A roof high upreared, o'er the children of men;
The King of mankind then created for mortals
The world in its beauty, the earth spread beneath them,
He, Lord everlasting, omnipotent God.

[Translation by Albert S. Cook]

Bede's Account of Caedmon's Life,
from Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

There was in the monastery of this abbess a certain brother. How especially distinguished by the grace of God, since he was wont to make poems breathing of piety and religion. What- a poet ever he learned of sacred Scripture by the mouth of interpreters, he in a little time gave forth in poetical language composed with the greatest sweetness and depth of feeling, in English, his native tongue; and the effect of his poems was ever and anon to incite the souls of many to despise the world and long for the heavenly life. Not but that there were others after him among the people of the Angles who sought to compose religious poetry ; but none there was who could equal him, for he did not learn the art of song from men, nor through the means of any man ; rather did he receive it as a free gift from God. Hence it came to pass that he never was able to compose poetry of a frivolous or idle sort; none but such as pertained to religion suited a tongue so religious as his. Living always the life of a layman until well advanced in years, he had never learned the least thing about poetry. In fact, so little did he Singing at a understand of it that when at a feast it would be ruled that feast every one present should, for the entertainment of the others, sing in turn, he would, as soon as he saw the harp coming anywhere near him, jump up from the table in the midst of the banqueting, leave the place, and make the best of his way home. This he had done at a certain time, and, leaving the house where the feast was in progress, had gone out to the stable where the care of the cattle had been assigned to him for that night. There, when it was time to go to sleep, he had lain down for that purpose. But while he slept some one stood by him in a dream, greeted him, called him by name, and said,"Caedmon, sing me something." To this he replied, "I know not how to sing, and that is the very reason why I left a feast and came here, because I could not sing." But the one who was talking with him answered," No matter, you are to sing for me." "Well, then," said he, "what is it that I must sing?"" Sing," said the other, "the beginning of created things." At this reply he immediately began to sing verses in praise of God the Creator, verses that he had never heard, and whose meaning was as follows: " Now should we praise the Keeper of the heavenly kingdom, the might of the Creator and His counsel, the works of the Father of glory; how He, though God eternal, became the Author of all marvels. He, the almighty Guardian of mankind, first created for the sons of men heaven as a roof, and afterwards the earth." This is the meaning, but not the precise order, of the words which he sang in his sleep ; for no songs, however well they may be composed, can be rendered from one language into another without loss of grace and dignity. When he rose from sleep he remembered all that he had sung while in that state, and shortly after added, in the same strain, many more words of a hymn befitting the majesty of God.

In the morning he went to the steward who was set over him, and showed him what gift he had acquired. Being led to the abbess Hilda, he was bidden to make known his dream and repeat his poem to the many learned men who were present, that they all might give their judgment concerning fhe thing which he related, and whence it was ; and they were unanimously of the opinion that heavenly grace had been bestowed upon him by the Lord. They then set about expounding to him a piece of sacred history or teaching, bidding him, if he could, to turn it into the rhythm of poetry. This he undertook to do, and departed. In the morning he returned and delivered the passage assigned to him, converted into an excellent poem.

The abbess, honoring the grace of God as displayed in the man, shortly afterward instructed him to forsake the condition of a layman and take upon himself the vows of a monk. She thereupon received him into the monastery with his whole family, and made him one of the company of the brethren, commanding that he should be taught the whole course and succession of biblical history. He in turn, calling to mind what he was able to learn by the hearing of the ear, and,, as it were, like a clean animal chewing upon it as a cud, transformed it all into most agreeable poetry ; and, by echoing it back in ' a more harmonious form, made his teachers in turn listen to him. Thus he rehearsed the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the story of Genesis ; the departure of Israel from Egypt and their entry into the Promised Land, together with many other histories from Holy Writ ; the incarnation of our Lord, his passion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven ; the coming of the Holy Ghost and the teaching of the apostles ; moreover he made many poems about the terror of the future judgment, the awfulness of the pains of hell, and the joy of the heavenly kingdom, besides a great number about the mercies and judgments of God. In all these he exerted himself to allure men from the love of wickedness, and to impel them to the love and practice of righteous living ; for he was a very devout man, humbly submissive to the monastic rule, but full of consuming zeal against those who were disposed to act otherwise.

Source. Translation of hymn from A. S. Cook and C. B. Tinker.Select Translations from Old' English Poetry. (Boston: Ginn and Co. 1902, p 76.

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