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Cædmon's Hymn

Cædmon's Hymn is thought to be the earliest composed Old English poem, composed between 658 and 680. The sole source of original information about Cædmon's life and work is Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People . According to Bede, Cædmon was an illiterate herdsman who lived at the Whitby monastery on the northeast shore of North Yorkshire. There are several variations of the tale, but a dominant version cites Cædmon , who never played the harp or sang during festivities, was commanded to sing something by a man in his dream. Cædmon insisted that he didn’t know how to sing, but the man in his dream insisted and Cædmon then sang about the Creator and in praise of God. He had miraculously received the “gift of song” (religious song, that is) and became hailed by the monks as a “lay brother.” According to Bede, Cædmon went on to compose other religious stories and poems which proved his gift to the monks. The only one to survive today is his Hymn.

This is an image of Cædmon's Hymn in the "Moore" manuscript (737), Cambridge, Kk.5.16, f. 128v, written in Northumbrian. This is the earliest known version of this work.

The most notable difference between the manuscript and the West Saxon text is, of course, the language. Bede wrote in Latin, and there are numerous recessions and dialects of the hymn.

Caedmon's Hymn Moore mine01.gif

These images contain the beginning lines of the poem, the entire nine lines of which read (in West Saxon):

Nu         sculon herigean          heofonrices weard
meotodes meanthe          ond his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,         swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,          or         .
heofon to hrofe,         halig scyppend;
þa middengeard         moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,         æfter teode
firum foldan,         frea ælmihtig.

This, in modern English translates to:

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 the wonders,
the eternal Lord,          established a beginning.
He shaped first
heaven as a roof,          the Holy Maker;
then         , makind's Guardian,
the eternal Lord,          made afterwards, solid ground for men,         the almighty Lord.

Although the modern English version (there are alternate versions in Latin and Northumbrian) of the hymn may not sound like beautiful poetry to our ears, the Old English dialect was more alliterative and this is the earliest example of Old English poetry. The Hymn also has by far the most complicated known textual history of any surviving Anglo-Saxon poem and has been found in two dialects and five distinct recensions. Instead of pairs of lines joined by rhyme (similarity of sounds at the ends of words) to which modern readers are accostomed, Anglo-Saxon poets typically used alliteration and created a technique or stlyle in which the first half of the line (the a-verse) is linked to the second half (the b-verse) through similarity in initial sound. Anglo-Saxon poets also used "Kennings," which are highly poetic and can make oral performance difficult to understand. A line of Old English poetry usually has three words that alliterate. The meter, or rhythm, of the poetry works together with the alliteration. The large spaces in the middle of the lines represent the caesura. The alliterating lines that connect the half-lines are:

Line 1: h in herigean, h in heofonrices
Line 2: m in meathe, m in modgeþanc
Line 3: w in weorc, w in wundra
Line 4: e in ece, o in or
Line 5: h in heofon, hrofe, and halig
Line 6: m in middengeard and moncynnes
Line 7: e in ece, æ in æfter
LIne 8: f in firum, folden, and frea

Although the language of Cædmon's Hymn is simple and meant as little more than a praise of the Creator. In line 3 we have an example of the Old English kenning in the word “wuldorfæder,” meaning the “glory father.” There are also numerous and varying epithets for God: Weard (1) Guardian, Meotod (2) Measurer, Wuldorfæder (3) Glory-Father, Drihten (4) Lord, Scyppend (5) Creator, Frea (8) Master . The last is especially interesting to note because of its allusion to a pagan god.

All content written, researched, and compiled by Ashley Winans. I am responsible for the content of this site. No one is to quote from this site or use my ideas without or use my ideas without proper attribution. This wesite is an assignment for ENGL630ML: The Technology of Textuality with Professor Scott Kleinman at California State University, Northridge during Fall 2007.