Although Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People details the composition of Cædmon’s “Hymn,” it does not reproduce it, giving instead a prose paraphrase. Bede, himself a fine stylist, remarks quite accurately that his Latin prose cannot reproduce a vernacular hymn; poetry, he points out, does not translate well. In most of the early manuscripts of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, however, the poem itself is included, often as a marginal gloss but occasionally in the body of the manuscript itself. There are seventeen of these manuscripts, both in Cædmon’s own Northumbrian and in West Saxon, with the majority in the latter.
In his Anglo-Saxon Poetry (1980), Jeff Opland terms Bede’s story of Cædmon “a source of unparalleled importance in any attempt to reconstruct the history of oral poetry in Anglo-Saxon times.” The claim is not extravagant. Cædmon’s fragment reaches back into the heroic tradition for meter and form, blends it with Christian myths for inspiration and story, and originates English poetry as it is now known. Histories of English literature rightly devote major sections to such great figures as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. Nearly eight hundred years before Chaucer burst into joyous couplets, Cædmon, the precursor, burst into praise.
The nine lines of the “Hymn” are given here in a modern English translation:
Now let us herald heaven-kingdom’s guardian,Maker of might and his mind-thoughts,The work of the wonder-Father when he of wonders, each oneEternal Lord established in the beginning.He first shaped for the sons of menHeaven as a roof the holy Creator;And then the middle-earth for mankind, the ProtectorEternal Lord, afterwards madeFor men, this firmament, Our Father almighty.
The “Hymn” is a kind of early English psalm; it sings the praises of God, invites the hearers to join in, details the specifics of creation, and moves to a realization that all life has been created not only for God’s glory but also for the “sons of man,” those who revere and love God. Although Cædmon had been instructed to sing of the “making of things,” he chooses—or is inspired to choose—lyric rather than narrative, praise rather than instruction.
It is not surprising to the contemporary reader that Cædmon would sing a song in praise of God in response to a dream vision, but it is significant in the history of English poetry that formal Christianity had been introduced in England less than a century before. The Romans who had occupied the island had been Christians, but without formal practice of the religion, Christianity had nearly died out, preserved only in small pockets. Not until Pope Gregory sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to the island in 597 did a formal mission begin; by Cædmon’s time, England had reverted to Christianity, and the...
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