Caedmon, The First Known English Poet
Created Around The Same Time as Caedmon's Hymn -The Lindisfarne Gospels (8th century)
Caedmon - An Introduction
The earliest known text of an English poem is Caedmon's Hymn, a short religious work created by a man who lived and worked as a simple herdsman at Whitby Abbey in the north east of England, in the late 7th century. If you write poetry in English, or like to read poems, then this is where it all started.
The poem, written in Old English, was recorded by the theologian Bede, who included it in his book The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written in the year 730.
According to Bede this poem came about due to a dream Caedmon had following a celebration at the abbey. Custom had it that all who were at the celebration should contribute a song or poem in turn. Caedmon however found himself unable to join in when it was his turn to sing so he up and left and went back to his home or stable.
It was whilst sleeping that he had a dream in which a voice spoke -
Caedmon, sing me something.
I can sing nothing; and for that reason I went out from this banquet and came hither, because I did not know how to sing anything.
However you can sing for me.
What shall I sing?
Sing me creation.
Caedmon was a different man after the dream. No longer shy and embarrassed by his lack of musicality and learning, he began to compose holy songs and poems and was said to be inspired each time he created. You can read his short poem below.
Many ancient texts were written on vellum - calf skin - which is a parchment. This material was prepared by specialists. Stiff, flat and durable, vellum parchment became popular with writers and illustrators working in both black and coloured inks and dyes.
An Emerging New Language
From roughly 55 BC when the Romans invaded, up to the year 1066 when the Norman French took over after killing Harold at the Battle of Hastings, England was subject to wave after wave of invasion. Most native Celts and Picts continued their lives on the fringes - in Cornwall, Ireland, Wales and Scotland - but were still heavily influenced by the Romans. Paganism was still strong and the new religion of Christianity struggled to overcome the power of the old gods.
When the Romans left Britain in the 5th century more invaders came - Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings - all adding their culture and language to the now partly Latinised Britons.
Gradually the English language began to take shape. Germanic words and structures entered the mix and dialects we recognise today were beginning to form. Anglo-Saxon was the result, which we label as Old English (5th century up to 1100).
As you can see when written down it looks very strange to our modern eyes but the fact that educated scribes were working away with their quills and vellum (mostly in abbeys) recording events, means we can clearly see the language growing and changing.
Caedmon's Hymn in Anglo Saxon and Modern English
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard Now we must praise heaven kingdom's Guardian Meotodes mahte and his modgepanc the Measurer's might and his mind plans weore Wuldor-Faeder swa he wundra gehwaes the work of the Glory Father when he of wonders of everyone ece Drihten or unstealde eternal Lord the beginning established. He aerest sceop ielda bearnum He first created for men's sons heofon to hrofe halig Scyppend heaven as a roof holy Creator da middangeard moneynnes Weard then middle earth mankind's Guardian ece Drihten aefter teode eternal Lord afterwards made firum foldan Frea aelmihtig. for men earth Master almighty. ____________________________________________________________
Old English Poetry
Caedmon's Hymn has a special form:
- the lines are split in two, each with two stressed and two (or more) unstressed syllables.
- each line has alliteration - words in each half line beginning with the same vowel or consonant. For example -
Meotodes mahte.......... modgepanc
heofon hrofe................ halig
firum foldan.................. Frea
This is typical of Old English poetry. Stressed alliterative words help to strengthen the overall structure of the poem and the line break - the caesura - gives it rhythm. Many historians believe that this form of poem was originally only spoken and passed on from poet to poet aurally. Poems were never written down so giving a poem stress and alliteration made it easier to remember.
A strong regular beat and similar sounding words are what today's rap artists rely on!!
What Happened To Caedmon?
Following his visionary dream Caedmon, divinely guided, became a composer of religious songs and poems. He was accepted into the abbey as a lay brother and went on to form a Christian school of poetry. It is said that he predicted the exact hour of his death.
Little is known of Caedmon's life. All we have to go on are the writings of Bede and he states that Caedmon composed his songs at Whitby during Saint Hilda's time as abbess, 658-680.
Caedmon's Hymn is the only poem that has survived, something of a minor miracle in itself.
Spoken In The Original Anglo Saxon
Other Old English Texts
A long narrative poem telling the story of the Danish hero Beowulf of the Geats. Features Grendel the grim demon and Shield Sheafson.
The Dream of the Rood
A dream the author has about the Cross on which Christ died. Interestingly the poem is written from the tree's perspective.
An elegy about a man destined to travel 'the paths of exile'.
A poem about a sailor's hardships whilst journeying 'deprived of my kinsmen.....the salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.'
The Exeter Riddles
Serious,puzzling and bawdy riddles. Everyday objects and things given metaphoric disguise.
Text and Illumination from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation
Bede - Monk and Historian
Bede, also known as the Venerable Bede, is a major figure in early English history. He it was who wrote Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, the first book, historians agree, to chronicle events and give shape to an emerging nation.
Bede was born in the year 672 in Northumbria and died in 735. During his lifetime he influenced many scholars and was known for his thorough approach to his work. Without his endeavours we probably wouldn't have heard about Caedmon and his visionary calling.
The Venerable Bede's tomb is in Durham Cathedral, a few miles up the coast from where he was born.
7th century Northumbria - Bede Lived At Monkwearmouth Abbey
Whitby Abbey on the East Coast of England
The Stories of English, David Crystal, Penguin, 2005
The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Norton, 2005
Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford, 2003
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© 2013 Andrew Spacey