Article abstract: An unlettered monk of the seventh century, Cædmon is recognized as the first named English poet.
Cædmon has the distinction of being the first English poet identified by name from whom a work has survived. Of his two significant seventh century contemporaries, Aldhelm perhaps preceded him, but his English verses have not survived. The second, Cynewulf, signed four religious poems with runic letters indicating his authorship, but he probably lived slightly later than Cædmon. The sole source of information on Cædmon’s life is the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (731; Ecclesiastical History of the English People) by Saint Bede the Venerable (c. 673-735). Bede, a monk living in the monastery at Jarrow, sought to account for the development of Christianity in England from Roman times to his own day. He was particularly concerned with tracing the divisions existing within the two main branches of English Christendom. Thus all that he wrote—though much was historically correct—had an overriding religious intent.
The story of Cædmon is presented as the origin of religious poetry in the English vernacular. According to Bede, Cædmon was a simple, unlettered herdsman, probably employed on a monastic landed estate. During celebrations or feasts, it was the custom to pass the harp round the table in order that each celebrant might sing in turn. Lacking the ability to sing or accompany himself, Cædmon often felt inadequate and habitually left the table before the harp reached him. One evening, he was assigned to watch over the domestic animals while the others celebrated, and on this occasion he fell asleep at the cattle pens. In a dream, a stranger appeared to him and said, “Cædmon, sing me something.” At first, Cædmon protested that he was unable, but he was told that he had to sing. When he inquired what he should sing, the stranger replied, “Sing about the Creation.”
Cædmon then began to recite verses, producing a nine-line hymn in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. Translated literally, it reads as follows:
Now we must praise the Keeper of Heaven’s Kingdom,
The Maker’s might and His mind-thoughts,
Work of the Glory-Father, as He each of wonders,
Eternal Lord, established in the beginning.
He first shaped for bairns of men
Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;
Then the middle-yard Guardian of mankind,
Eternal Lord afterward made—
Earth for men, Lord almighty.
After Cædmon recited his poem to his superior, he was taken to the Abbess Hilda, who was in charge of a combined convent and monastery at Whitby. After hearing his poem, she concluded that Cædmon was truly inspired, and she urged him to become a monk, even though he was beyond the normal age for entry into the monastic life. He entered the monastery at Whitby and devoted the remainder of his life to poetry and monastic discipline.
As a monk, Cædmon produced divine poems based on biblical texts. According to Bede, he listened to others reading biblical passages aloud and then formed the lines into Old English verses. Apart from Cædmon’s work as a poet, Bede narrates little about his life, but Bede includes a detailed account of Cædmon’s death in a passage designed to inculcate piety. Bede reports that Cædmon had a premonition of his death at a time when his companions thought he was in good health. Bede records that, to the surprise of his fellows, Cædmon in a mood of mirth asked for the sacraments to be administered to him; after receiving the Eucharist, he ended his life by falling peacefully asleep.
A just assessment of Cædmon’s contribution to English literature is difficult to achieve owing to the lack of sources. Bede reports that Cædmon limited his entire poetic output to sacred themes, avoiding secular subjects altogether. He translated large portions of the biblical books into Old English alliterative verse, including “all the history of Genesis; . . . the Exodus of Israel out of Egypt and entrance into the promised land; and many other stories of sacred scripture, about the Lord’s incarnation, and his passion, resurrection and ascension into heaven; about the advent of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of the apostles.” In addition, he wrote about the horrible punishments of hell, the heavenly kingdom, and divine love and justice.
This passage led scholars to conclude that the poems found in the Old English Junius Manuscript, located in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, were by Cædmon. The four poems, totalling about five thousand lines, are Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and...
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