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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

IV. Old English Christian Poetry

§ 3. Caedmon’s Hymn

Beyond the fact that his name seems to imply that he was of Celtic descent, we have no knowledge of the historical Caedmon other than that to be derived from the often-quoted passage in Bede:

  • In the monastery of this abbess [i.e. the abbess Hild at Streoneshalh] there was a certain brother specially distinguished and honoured by divine grace, for he was wont to make songs such as tended to religion and piety. Whatsoever he had learned from scholars concerning the Scriptures he forthwith decked out in poetic language with the greatest sweetness and fervour … Many others, also, in England, imitated him in the composition of religious songs. He had not, indeed, been taught of men, or through men, to practise the art of song, but he had received divine aid, and his power of song was the gift of God. Wherefore he could never compose any idle or false song, but only those which pertained to religion and which his pious tongue might fitly sing. The man had lived in the world till the time that he was of advanced age, and had never learnt any poetry. And as he was often at a feast when it was arranged, to promote mirth, that they should all in turn sing to the harp, whenever he saw the harp come near him he arose out of shame from the feast and went home to his house. Having done so on one occasion, he left the house of entertainment, and went out to the stables, the charge of the horses having been committed to him for that night. When, in due time, he strectched his limbs on the bed there and fell asleep, there stood by him in a dream a man who saluted him and greeted him, calling on him by name, “Caedmon, sing me something.” Then he answered and said, “I cannot sing anything, and therefore I came out from this entertainment and retired here, as I know not how to sing.” Again he who spoke to him said, “Yet you could sing.” Then said Caedmon, “What shall I sing?” He said, “Sing to me the beginning of all things.” On receiving this answer, Caedmon at once began to sing, in praise of God the Chreator, verses and words which he had never heard, the order of which is as follows [quorum iste est sensus; “Now let us praise the guardian of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and the counsel of His mind, the works of the Father of glory: how He, the eternal Lord, originated every marvel. He, the holy Creator, first created the heaven as a roof for the children of the earth, then the eternal Lord, guardian of the human race, the almighty Ruler, afterwards fashioned the world as a soil for men.” Then he arose from his sleep, and he had firmly in his memory all that he sang while asleep. And to these words he soon added many others, in the same style of song, worthy of God. Book IV, ch. 24. (Trans. Miller)
  • Bede goes on to narrate how, the matter having been made known to the abbess, she caused the best scholars to test the new poet’s powers, and how, when it was proved that a divine gift had, indeed, been bestowed upon the neat-herd, she urged him to abandon his worldly calling and become a monk. Which thing he did, and, progressing in his new vocation,
  • all that he could learn by listening he pondered in his heart and, ruminating like some clean beast, he turned it into the sweetest of songs. His song and his music were so delightful to hear, that even his teachers wrote down the words from his lips and learnt them. He sang first of the earth’s creation and the beginning of man and all the story of Genesis, which is the first book of Moses, and afterwards about the departure of the people of Israel from the land of Egypt and their entry into the land of promise; and about many other narratives in the books of the cannot of Scripture; and about Christ’s incarnation and His passion and His ascension into heaven; and about the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the teaching of the apostles; and again about the day of judgment to come, and about the terror of hell torment, and about the kingdom of heaven, he composed many a song. And he also composed many others about the divine blessings and judgments.
  • While making due allowance for a possible desire on Bede’s part to extol the fame of an earlier contemporary—Bede himself died in 735—we should remember that Bede is one of the most careful and trustworthy of historians, and that he lived not far from the scene of Caedmon’s life; it would, therefore, appear that we have not sufficient reason for rejecting as untrue the enumeration of Caedmon’s literary achievements as given in the above passage.

    The hymn as first published in its Northumbrian form by Wanley in his Catalogus historico-criticus (1705), p. 287, as Canticum illud Saxonicum Caedmonis a Baeda Memoratum; and from that day to this it has been regarded by the majority of scholars as the genuine work of Caedmon.

    Bede gives a Latin version of the lines, which corresponds very closely to the original, but which he introduces thus. Caedmon coepit cantare … versus quorum iste est sensus; and, in conclusion, he reiterates: Hic est sensus, non autem ordo ipse verborum, as if he had given a merely approximate rendering of his original. Much discussion has hinged upon the exact meaning to be attached to the words Sensus and ordo, though Bede is evidently alluding merely to the difficulty of reproducing poetry in prose, for he continues: neque enim possunt carmina quamvis optime composita, ex alia in aliam linguam ad verbum sine detrimento sui decoris ac dignitatis transferri. The West Saxon version of the lines is preserved in the English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, with the introductory comment: “para endebyrdnis pis is.” Now “endebyrdnis” simply means ordo, and it may be safe to assume that both Bede’s Latin version and the West Saxon version are attempts at translation from the original Northumbrian.

    Bede’s detailed enumeration of Caedmon’s other achievements must be held responsible for the attribution to Caedmon of a large number of religious poems of a similar character extant only in West Saxon form, in the Bodl. MS. Junius XI, an opinion which, in the light of modern critical scholarship, is no longer tenable. Indeed, no one would to-day seriously maintain even that these poems are all by one author; it is more likely, as we shall see, that more than one writer has had a hand in each. But the fact that it is impossible to claim these particular poems for Caedmon does not militate against the probability of his having composed similar, though, perhaps, shorter pieces, which may have been worked upon later by more scholarly hands. Religious poetry, sung to the harp as it passed from hand to hand, must have flourished in the monastery of the abbess Hild, and the kernel of Bede’s story concerning the birth of our earliest poet must be that the brethren and sisters on that bleak northern shore spoke “to each other in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”