Caedmon


Caedmon
(seventh century)
   Caedmon, according to the Venerable BEDE, is the author of the first Christian poetry in English. In his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), Bede tells the story of Caedmon’s inspiration, which includes a nine-line poem known as “Caedmon’s Hymn.”The OLD ENGLISH version of this poem survives in an English translation of Bede, and demonstrates Caedmon’s adaptation of the form and structure of Old English ALLITERATIVE POETRY to a new Christian subject matter.While early scholars enthusiastically attributed a number of religious poems to Caedmon, including several in the JUNIUS MANUSCRIPT, serious modern scholarship doubts any of these attributions except for the nine lines of Caedmon’s original hymn.
   In Book IV, chapter 24 of his Ecclesia, Bede says that Caedmon, employed as a laborer at the monastery of Whitby, was at a feast one night while a harp was being passed from person to person, and the guests were sharing songs. Since Caedmon knew nothing about poetry, he left the party and went out to the stable to tend the cattle. Bede reports that as Caedmon slept, a heavenly figure appeared to him in a vision and told him to sing.When Caedmon complained that he had left the feast because he couldn’t sing, the heavenly visitor told him to sing a song of Creation. Caedmon responded with what is known as Caedmon’s Hymn. It begins
   Nu sculon herigean heofan-rices weard,
   Meotodes meahte and his mod-geloanc,
   That is, “now we must praise the kingdom of heaven’s warden, the Creator’s might, and the thoughts of his mind.” A glance at the style of the verse quickly reveals the use of the same style and meter common to Germanic heroic poetry. Each line of Caedmon’s Hymn contains two half-lines, or hemistiches. Each half-line contains two stressed syllables. The hemistiches are linked by alliteration: The first stressed syllable of the second halfline determines the alliteration for the line; that syllable alliterates either with the first, the second, or both stressed syllables of the first half-line. The lines contain a series of parallel attributes, as is common in all Anglo-Saxon poetry—here, only two parallel concepts are listed: heofan-rices weard and Meotodes meahte. Yet it is clear that Caedmon has followed a typical pattern of Germanic epic or heroic poetry, but substituted the subject matter of Latin Christianity.
   Bede’s story continues as Caedmon visits the abbess and a group of learned monks the following morning, and they agree that Caedmon has received a divine gift. The abbess convinces Caedmon to enter the monastery, and he devotes the rest of his life to composing Christian verse in the Germanic style. In the end, Bede describes Caedmon’s saintly passing.
   Bibliography
   ■ Fry, Donald K. “The Memory of Caedmon.” In Oral Traditional Literature: A Festschift for Albert Bates Lord, 282–293, Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1981.
   ■ Hieatt, Constance B. “Caedmon in Context: Transforming the Formula,” JEGP 84 (1985): 485–497.
   ■ O’Keefe, Katherine O’Brien. “Orality and the Developing Text of Caedmon’s Text,” Speculum 62 (1987): 1–20.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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