In the introduction to this mini-series, we met Cædmon again. He was a worker, probably a herdsman, at the vast Whitby abbey complex led by Hilda. He would hide – or just leave – whenever it was his turn to recite verse or sing a song as part of the evening entertainment. He had a dream where, despite Cædmon’s protestations that he could not sing, a voice said, “But you shall sing to me!” He was also told that he would sing about everything beginning. Wisely, he sought Hilda for counsel (you will recall that she made herself available to anyone for discussion and counsel, no matter their station in life).
Hilda encouraged Cædmon and sure enough, Bede and other historians recount that Cædmon did indeed find a talent for verse and for singing. He did indeed sing ‘to’ the Lord for his songs and poems were ecclesiastical in nature, in praise of the Lord. And when he performed, it was said that he was not addressing the people or performing for them, but it was as if he were speaking (or singing) directly to God. Hilda encouraged him to study the scriptures and he was said to have built a catalogue of songs and poems especially regarding creation, taking holy orders and becoming an evangelising monk.
Only one work of Cædmon has been known to survive, composed between AD658 and AD680. Known simply as “Cædmon’s Poem” it is the oldest recorded poem in Old English. (Remember that Hilda was of Anglo-Saxon heritage but led Whitby Abbey in the way of Celtic Christians.)
Originally a sung item and passed on orally it was written up in Old English by AD730 and nearly 20 verifiable manuscript copies survive today. There we might have left it, with only copyright-protected modern English translations from those who know ancient Anglo-Saxon as our key to unlock lines such as ‘Thā middungeard moncynnæs uard.’ (One thing I do know is that ‘middungeard’ means ‘middle earth’ – clearly Tolkien was onto something!) But I was delighted when my world-wide search on the internet brought me to Colin Symes, a Christian in Edinburgh. Colin has kindly allowed me to reproduce his translation of Cædmon’s Poem and also of the ‘epic’ which is the subject of the fourth article of this mini-series. First, Cædmon’s Poem:
Now let us praise all heaven’s mighty Lord
For His great wisdom and creating Word.
The wonder-Father’s wondrous works abound;
Almighty God and our Creator
First created for His children
Heaven a roof, this holy Maker,
Then middle-earth to guard mankind,
Th’ Eternal Lord then provided
Men for earth, the Lord Almighty.
[This translation © Colin Symes. Reproduced by kind permission.]
Those lines, from these shores, were composed in Old English at least 1,340 years ago!
I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known
through all generations. (Psalm 89:1)
[from Timothy Pitt]
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