The history of Cædmon, the first voice in English poetry, is passed down through the cleric and historian Saint Bede the Venerable who, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731), tells the story of the humble layman to whom the gift of poetry was given one night in a dream. Bede lists many works composed by Cædmon; the only piece that can be identified with any certainty, however, is the nine-line “Hymn” fragment in praise of God the Creator.
Brief though it is, this poem defines and directs the course of English poetry, combining for the first time the meters of Nordic heroic poetry with the subject matter of the Scriptures, Christianizing the literary tradition and speaking for a culture. That the “Hymn” was held in great esteem is evidenced by the fact that versions of it exist in seventeen manuscripts ranging from the early eighth to the later fifteenth century; Cædmon’s “Hymn” is the only piece of early poetry to have been preserved in this manner. Cædmon is a figure of shadow and legend, with a single biographical source and no written records; his hymn is a rich and appropriate beginning for the English poetic tradition.
Bessinger, Jess B., Jr., and Stanley J. Kahrl, eds. Essential Articles for the Study of Old English Poetry. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968. A collection of twenty-six articles on Old English poetry. Offers general studies of stylistics, themes, oral influences, and metrics as well as studies of individual poets and works. The “Hymn” is mentioned numerous times, but the book is most valuable for C. L. Wrenn’s comprehensive analysis in “The Poetry of Cædmon.” Articles by Morton W. Bloomfield, Francis P. Magoun, Jr., and Robert D. Stevick also treat the “Hymn” in important ways.
Fry, Donald K. “Cædmon as a Formulaic Poet.” In Oral Literature: Seven Essays, edited by Joseph J. Duggan. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975. Drawing on Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Fry presents Cædmon’s “Hymn” as an oral composition and Cædmon as the founder of “Old English Christian vernacular poetry.” Fry accomplishes this by examining the Latin and Old English versions of the “Hymn” to determine the genesis of diction.
_______. “The Memory of Cædmon.” In Oral Traditional Literature: A Festschrift for Albert Bates Lord, edited by John Miles Foley. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1981. Fry proposes that Cædmon’s “Hymn” was written on a formulaic basis. He defines “formulaic” as the “typical traditionally expressed” and states that this type of poetry is easy to memorize and, therefore, is more easily disseminated to the nonliterate public.
Greenfield, Stanley B., and Daniel G. Calder. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1986. Although devoting only thirteen pages of text to Cædmon, this book provides excellent insight into Cædmon’s “Hymn” and problems that have confronted scholars for centuries. Useful for a broad overview of Old English literature.
Gurteen, Stephen Humphreys. The Epic Fall of Man: A...
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