ENGLISH POETRY BEGAN with a vision. It started with the holy trance of a seventh-century figure called Caedmon, an illiterate herdsman, who now stands at the top of the English literary tradition as the initial Anglo-Saxon or Old English poet of record, the first to compose Christian poetry in his own language.
The story goes that Caedmon, who was employed by the monastery of Whitby, invariably fled when it was his turn to sing during a merry social feast. He was ashamed he had never had any songs to contribute. But one night a voice came to Caedmon in a dream and asked him to sing a song. When Caedmon responded that he had no idea how to sing, the voice commanded him to sing about the source of all created things (“Sing to me the beginning of all things”). “Thereupon,” as the monk known as the Venerable Bede tells it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731), “Caedmon began to sing verses which he had never heard before in praise of God the creator.”
Bede embedded a Latin translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem in his history. He probably translated it into Latin in order to make the poem available to an international audience of clerics, but it’s also possible that he was translating it from Latin. No one knows the priority of these texts—in manuscripts, the English version survives alongside Latin translations. Here is the Anglo-Saxon text, and then a modern English translation of the inspired poem called “Caedmon’s Hymn,” which was composed between 658 and 680.
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard
Meotodes meahte and his modgepanc,
weorc Wuldor-Fæder, swa he wundra gehwæs
ece Drihten or onstealde
He ærest sceop ielda bearnum
Heofon to hrofe halig Scyppend
ða middangeard moncynnes Weard,
ece Drihten æfter teode
firum foldan Frea ælmihtig
Now we must praise the protector of the heavenly kingdom
the might of the measurer and his mind’s purpose,
the work of the father of glory, as he for each of his wonders,
the eternal Lord, established a beginning.
He shaped first for the sons of the earth
heaven as a roof, the holy maker;
then the middle-world, mankind’s guardian,
the eternal Lord, made afterwards,
solid ground for men, the almighty Lord.
Caedmon’s dream was a sign he had become a poet. It was a signal of poetic vocation. A clumsy, unschooled peasant is suddenly gifted with the power of song. It is also possible, as later scholars have speculated, that Caedmon was actually trained as a Germanic bard or scop, but concealed his knowledge of pagan poetry from the monks, who would have disapproved of what Bede calls “vain and idle songs.” Caedmon took an oral form that was used to venerate royalty and refashioned it to praise the Lord, God the monarch. His hymn, his only surviving composition, is a praise poem to the almighty, like the Latin canticle Benedicte, omnia opera domini, which embraces all of creation (“O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: Praise him and magnify him forever”). It encapsulates the basic form of Old English or Germanic poetry: two half-lines, each containing two stressed and two or more unstressed syllables. Another way of describing this is as one four-stress line with a medial caesura. It stacks two or three alliterations per line and piles up the epithets for God, who is guardian (“Weard”), measurer (“Meotod”), glory-father (“Wuldor-Fæder”), eternal Lord (“ece Drihten”), creator or holy maker (“Scyppend”), and almighty master (“Frea ælmihtig”). What came to Caedmon in a dream was not just a story, which he would have known already, but also a new prosody.
Caedmon connects the energy of language with the power of divine spirit, and his religious poetry of praise inaugurates a tradition. It’s possible, too, that Bede was promoting that tradition via Caedmon. This way of connecting language to the divine looks backward to Genesis 1 and forward to Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan, and Christopher Smart, who sings of the transcendent virtue of praise itself. Here, for example, is stanza fifty of Smart’s eighteenth-century poem of benediction, “A Song to David”:
PRAISE above all—for praise prevails;
Heap up the measure, load the scales,
And good to goodness add:
The gen’rous soul her Savior aids,
But peevish obloquy degrades;
The Lord is great and glad.
Caedmon’s impulsive song looks forward to William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and even Walt Whitman, who embraces and challenges us to embrace all the works of creation: “Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from” (“Song of Myself”). It stands behind W.H. Auden’s radiant and intricate sonnet of instruction, “Anthem,” which begins: “Let us praise our Maker, with true passion extol Him.” And it inspired Denise Levertov’s poem “Caedmon,” which concludes with the vision of a clumsy untutored clodhopper suddenly flaming with inspiration: “nothing was burning,” Caedmon cries out, “nothing but I, as that hand of fire / touched my lips and scorched my tongue / and pulled my voice / into the ring of the dance.”
“Now we must praise,” Caedmon instructs us, and thus touches upon one of the primary and permanent impulses in poetry—a calling to more life, a form of blessing, a way of cherishing a world that shines out with radiant particularity.
Edward Hirsch has published nine books of poetry, including Gabriel: A Poem (Knopf), which won the National Jewish Book Award, and five books of prose, among them A Poet’s Glossary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
This essay and the eight that accompany it in our issue will appear as part of Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns and Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey Johnson and forthcoming this fall from Orison Books.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.