Cædmon is the earliest English poet whose name is known. An Anglo-Saxon herdsman attached to the monastery of Streonæshalch during the abbacy of St. Hilda (657–681), he was originally ignorant of "the art of song"; but, according to legend, he learned to compose one night in the course of a dream. He later became a zealous monk and an accomplished and inspirational religious poet.
Cædmon is one of twelve Anglo-Saxon poets identified in medieval sources, and one of only three for whom both roughly contemporary biographical information and examples of literary output have survived. His story is related in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ("Ecclesiastical History of the English People") by St. Bede who wrote, "There was in the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in English, which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven."
Cædmon's only known surviving work is Cædmon's Hymn, the nine-line alliterative praise poem in honor of God that he supposedly learned to sing in his initial dream. The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of the Old English language, and is also one earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic language. Although almost nothing of Caedmon's work has survived to the present day, his influence, as attested by both contemporary and medieval sources, appears to have been extraordinary. Although it is debatable whether Caedmon was the first true English poet, he is certainly the earliest English poet to be preserved in history. Although knowledge of the literature of Caedmon's time has all but vanished, along with almost all knowledge of English literature prior to 1066, he is indubitably a major influence on Old English literature. Much like Sappho, another poet of the ancient world whose works are almost entirely lost, Caedmon exists for us now almost more as a legend than as an actual writer; yet even so, his importance to English literary history cannot be denied.
The sole source of original information about Cædmon's life and work is Bede's Historia ecclesiastica. According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother who worked as a herdsman at the monastery Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey).
Whitby (shown at right) is a town on the North Sea, on the northeast coast of North Yorkshire. One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which "someone" (quidem) approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, "the beginning of created things." After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God as the creator of heaven and earth.
Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his foreman about his dream and gift and was taken immediately to see the abbess. The abbess and her counsellors asked Cædmon about his vision and, satisfied that it was a gift from God, gave him a new commission, this time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine,” by way of a test. When Cædmon returned the next morning with the requested poem, he was ordered to take monastic vows. The abbess ordered her scholars to teach Cædmon sacred history and doctrine, which after a night of thought, Bede records, Cædmon would turn into the most beautiful verse. According to Bede, Cædmon was responsible for a large oeuvre of splendid vernacular poetic texts on a variety of Christian topics.
After a long and zealously pious life, Cædmon died like a saint; receiving a premonition of death, he asked to be moved to the abbey’s hospice for the terminally ill where he gathered his friends around him and expired just before nocturns.
Bede gives no specific dates in his story. Cædmon is said to have taken holy orders at an advanced age and it is implied that he lived at Streonæshalch at least during part of Hilda’s abbacy (657–680). Book IV Chapter 25 of the Historia ecclesiastica appears to suggest that Cædmon’s death occurred sometime roughly around 679. The next datable event in the Historia ecclesiastica is King Ecgfrith’s raid on Ireland in 684 (Book IV, Chapter 26). Taken together, this evidence suggests an active period beginning between 657 and 680 and ending between 679 and 684.
A second, possibly pre-twelfth-century allusion to the Cædmon story is found in two Latin texts associated with the Old Saxon Heliand poem originating from present-day Germany. These texts, the Praefatio (Preface) and Versus de Poeta (Lines about the poet), explain the origins of an Old Saxon biblical translation (for which the Heliand is the only known candidate) in language strongly reminiscent of, and indeed at times identical to, Bede’s account of Cædmon’s career. According to the prose Praefatio, the Old Saxon poem was composed by a renowned vernacular poet at the command of the emperor Louis the Pious; the text adds that this poet had known nothing of vernacular composition until he was ordered to translate the precepts of sacred law into vernacular song in a dream. The Versus de Poeta contain an expanded account of the dream itself, adding that the poet had been a herdsman before his inspiration and that the inspiration itself had come through the medium of a heavenly voice when he fell asleep after pasturing his cattle. While our knowledge of these texts is based entirely on a sixteenth-century edition by Flacius Illyricus, both are usually assumed on semantic and grammatical grounds to be of medieval composition. This apparent debt to the Cædmon story agrees with semantic evidence attested to by Green demonstrating the influence of Anglo Saxon biblical poetry and terminology on early continental Germanic literatures.
Bede’s account indicates that Cædmon was responsible for the composition of a large oeuvre of vernacular religious poetry. In contrast to the contemporary poets Aldhelm and Dunstan, Cædmon’s poetry is said to have been exclusively religious. Bede reports that Cædmon “could never compose any foolish or trivial poem, but only those which were concerned with devotion” and his list of Cædmon’s output includes work on religious subjects only: accounts of creation, translations from the Old and New Testaments, and songs about the “terrors of future judgment, horrors of hell, … joys of the heavenly kingdom, … and divine mercies and judgments.” Of this corpus, only the opening lines of his first poem survive. While vernacular poems matching Bede’s description of several of Cædmon’s later works are found in the Junius manuscript, the older traditional attribution of these texts to Cædmon or Cædmon’s influence cannot stand. The poems show significant stylistic differences both internally and with Cædmon’s original Hymn, and, while some of the poems contained therein could have been written by Caedmon, the match is not exact enough to preclude independent composition.
The only known survivor from Cædmon’s oeuvre is his Hymn (audio version). The poem is known from twenty-one manuscript copies, making it the best-attested Old English poem after Bede’s Death Song and the best attested in the poetic corpus in manuscripts copied or owned in the British Isles during the Anglo-Saxon period. The Hymn also has by far the most complicated known textual history of any surviving Anglo-Saxon poem. It is one of the earliest attested examples of written Old English and one of the earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic language.
Text of the Poem
The oldest known version of the poem is the Northumbrian aelda recension. The following text has been transcribed from the M manuscript (mid-eighth century; Northumbria). The text has been normalized to show modern punctuation and line- and word-division:
- The twelve named Anglo-Saxon poets are Æduwen, Aldhelm, Alfred, Anlaf, Baldulf, Bede, Cædmon, Cnut, Cynewulf, Dunstan, Hereward, and Wulfstan. The three for whom biographical information and documented texts survive are Alfred, Bede, and Cædmon. Cædmon is the only Anglo-Saxon poet known primarily for his ability to compose vernacular verse. (No study appears to exist of the "named" Anglo-Saxon poets—the list here has been compiled from Frank 1993, Opland 1980, Sisam 1953 and Robinson 1990).
- Book IV, Chapter 24. The most recent edition is Colgrave and Mynors 1969.
- See Ireland 1986, pp. 228; Dumville 1981, p. 148.
- Andersson 1974, p. 278.
- Convenient accounts of the relevant portions of the Praefatio and Versus can be found in Smith 1978, pp. 13–14, and Plummer 1896 II pp. 255–258.
- Catalogus testium ueritatis 1562.
- See Andersson 1974 for a review of the evidence for and against the authenticity of the prefaces.
- See Green 1965, particularly pp. 286–294.
- On whose careers as vernacular poets in comparison to that of Cædmon, see Opland 1980, pp. 120–127 and 178–180.
- See Wrenn 1946
- The Norton Online Archive of English Literature, Caedmon's Hymn recorded by Prof. Robert D. Fulk (Indiana University) Online Retrieved April 26, 2006.
- Stanley 1995, p. 139.
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All links retrieved November 25, 2023.
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