11 February 2019

Saint Cædmon of Whitby, the first English poet

Venerable Cædmon of Whitby

Now we must praise the Guardian of Heaven,
the might of the Lord and His purpose of mind,
the work of the Glorious Father; for He,
God Æternal, established each wonder,
He, Holy Creator, first fashioned
Heaven as a roof for the sons of men.
Then the Guardian of Mankind adorned
this middle-earth below, the world for men,
Everlasting Lord, Almighty King.

Nú scylun hergan  hefaenrícaes Uard,
metudæs maecti  end his módgidanc,
uerc Uuldurfadur,    sué hé uundra gihwaes,
éci dryctin  ór ástelidæ
hé ǽrist scóp  aelda barnum
heben til hrófe,    háleg scepen.
Thá middungeard  moncynnæs Uard,
eci Dryctin,    æfter tíadæ
firum foldu,    Fréa allmectig.
This nine-line poem is the earliest example of Old English poetry we have, to which we can reliably ascribe authorship. And the author happened, in fact, to be a common landless neatherd named Cædmon. Like his mythical cælestial counterpart from the Shijing 《詩經》, Cædmon was given to menial tasks – drawing carts and cutting firewood for the Abbey of Whitby where he served Saint Hilda. He had no natural or earthly talent for song or scop-craft, as Saint Bede tells us:
Although he followed a sæcular occupation until well advanced in years, he had never learned anything about poetry; indeed, whenever all those present at a feast took it in turns to sing and entertain the company, he would get up from the table and go home directly he saw the harp approaching him.

On one such occasion he had left the house in which the entertainment was being held and went out to the stable, where it was his duty to look after the beasts that night. He lay down there at the appointed time and fell asleep, and in a dream he saw a man standing beside him who called him by name. ‘
Cædmon,’ he said, ‘sing me a song.’ ‘I don’t know how to sing,’ he replied. ‘It is because I cannot sing that I left the feast and came here.’ The man who addressed him then said: ‘But you shall sing to me.’ ‘What should I sing about?’ he replied. ‘Sing about the Creation of all things,’ the other answered. And Cædmon immediately began to sing verses in praise of God the Creator that he had never heard before [in fact, the verses quoted above]. When Cædmon awoke, he remembered everything that he had sung in his dream, and soon added more verses in the same style to the glory of God.

Early in the morning he went to his superior the reeve, and told him about this gift that he had received. The reeve took him before the abbess, who ordered him to give an account of his dream and repeat the verses in the presence of many learned men, so that they might decide their quality and origin. All of them agreed that Cædmon’s gift had been given him by our Lord, and when they had explained to him a passage of Scriptural history or doctrine, they asked him to render it into verse if he could. He promised to do this, and returned next morning with excellent verses as they had ordered him.

The abbess was delighted that God had given such grace to the man, and advised him to abandon sæcular life and adopt the monastic state. And when she had admitted him into the Community as a brother, she ordered him to be instructed in the events of sacred history. So Cædmon stored up in his memory all that he had learned, and after meditating on it, turned it into such melodious verse that his delightful renderings turned his instructors into his audience.

He sang of the creation of the world, the origin of the human race, and the whole story of Genesis. He sang of Israel’s departure from Ægypt, their entry into the land of promise, and many other events of Scriptural history. He sang of the Lord’s Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension into heaven, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the teaching of the Apostles. He also made many poems on the terrors of the Last Judgement, the horrible pains of Hell, and the joys of the kingdom of heaven. In addition to these, he composed several others on the blessings and judgements of God, by which he sought to turn his hearers from delight in wickedness, and to inspire them to love and do good. For Cædmon was a deeply religious man, who humbly submitted to regular discipline, and firmly resisted all who tried to do evil, thus winning a happy death.
A number of verses are attributed to Saint Cædmon, including the Dream of the Rood which is inscribed on the Ruthwell Cross which bears Cædmon’s name. His fame among the forefathers of Old English poetry, along with the anonymous author of Beowulf, is thus well-deserved.

Cædmon’s death as well is related by Bede, and he places particular emphasis on the way in which he approached it. A fortnight before he had been taken ill with a ‘physical weakness’ that did not prevent him from walking or talking the whole time. He went to the hospital run by the Abbey at Whitby and entertained the sick who were housed there. He received the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy that was held within the house. He then asked the brothers whether any man had a complaint against him, and they answered him in the negative – and they asking him the same question, received the reply: ‘Dear sons, I am at peace with all the servants of God.’ He then asked the brethren how long it was until Matins, and learning that it was not long, he crossed himself and lay his head upon his pillow, reposing blessedly in the Lord, shriven and at peace with all.

Saint Cædmon was not an iconographer, but his divinely-given talents as a scop may be described in similar terms. He took the stories of Scripture and related them in a wholly selfless and inspired way by the popular oral tradition of Teutonic song and verse to folk of his own class and tongue.

Venerable Cædmon, Spirit-led crafter of hymns, we bid you pray to Christ our God to save us!

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