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Caedmon: The First Known English Poet

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Created around the same time as Caedmon's Hymn - the Lindisfarne Gospels (8th century).

Created around the same time as Caedmon's Hymn - the Lindisfarne Gospels (8th century).

Caedmon's Hymn: The First English Poem

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 to go 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.

Sunset at Whitby Abbey in north Yorkshire, England.

Sunset at Whitby Abbey in north Yorkshire, England.

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.

An Emerging New Language - English

From roughly 55 BC with the Roman invasion of England, up to the year 1066 when the Norman French took over after killing King 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 the scriptoria of priories and abbeys) recording events, means we can clearly see the language growing and changing.

Anglo Saxon text of Caedmon's Hymn

Anglo Saxon text of Caedmon's Hymn

Old English of Caedmon's Hymn

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 have survived up to modern times - think of today's rap artists and slam poets.

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, a fragment, is the only poem that has survived from those times, something of a minor miracle in itself.

Musician from The Vespasian Psalter, circa 825.

Musician from The Vespasian Psalter, circa 825.

Spoken In The Original Anglo Saxon

An example of Anglo Saxon writing - the start of Beowulf (from Nowell Codex)

An example of Anglo Saxon writing - the start of Beowulf (from Nowell Codex)

Text and Illumination from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation


The Venerable 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 of Caedmon, his poetry 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 East Towers.

Whitby Abbey East Towers.

Whitby Abbey on the East Coast of England

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.

The Wanderer

An elegy about a man destined to travel 'the paths of exile'.

The Seafarer

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.


The Stories of English, David Crystal, Penguin, 2005

The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Norton, 2005

Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford, 2003

© 2013 Andrew Spacey


Carolyn Emerick on June 28, 2013:

I'm ashamed to say I really didn't know much about Cædmon before reading this, thank you!

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on March 23, 2013:

This is amazingly well-written and well-illustrated. The pictures, the terrific video, the maps -- impressive and so interesting. I am a historian by profession, but I have never studied British history. Perhaps I shall now by dipping into your hubs from time to time. Sharing, of course. :)

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on March 07, 2013:

A welcome visit, much appreciated. Looking back occasionally is no bad thing - so glad you were reminded of your golden days of study! I'm quietly startled by the richness of history in these isles and long wanted to take a closer look at Caedmon.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on March 07, 2013:

Chef: what a great hub and well-researched. I love this - it brings back memories of British Lit class. This is well-done and I love the photos and visuals. I especially like how you did old English with the modern translation. This is why I love England/British Isles so much. All that great history and literature.