Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bede's Account of the Poet Caedmon

Bede's Account of the Poet Caedmon is one of the most historically important texts of the English language and of English poetry. It tells the story of the oldest known poem, Caedmon's Hymn, written in English, ca 680, and of the first literary encounter between Anglo-Saxon culture and the Christian religion. There is perhaps no extant English text more relevant for the ideological foundation of Literary Catechesis.

The story of Caedmon is more memorable than the poem itself. As you can read for yourself in my translation below, Caedmon was a cowherd living a secular life near a monastery. (Among the interesting areas for further study, that monastery was controlled by a woman.) All his life, poor Caedmon lived every feast in fear of being called upon to sing a song or recite a poem, effectively the same thing, because he had no talent for it. On one such night, he slunk off from a 'beer party' to sleep in the cowshed with the cows. A man, presumably an angel, came to him in a dream and demanded that he sing. What follows is the God-inspired first poem in English:

Now we must honor heaven’s warden,
the power of the Creator, and his purpose—
work of the father of glory, as he of every miracle,
the everlasting Lord, established the beginning.
He first shaped for the sons of the earth,
heaven for the roof. The holy Creator,
mankind’s warden, then Earth,
the everlasting Lord afterward adorned
the earth for people, the master almighty.

The poem itself is less impressive that what it represents. In these few lines, Caedmon has used the form of heroic poetry to create a hymn to the Christian God. He has used contemporary culture to praise and to teach about God. It is a valuable lesson for those of us whom wish to interact with society on its terms, without sacrificing any of the purity and veracity of the Truth we profess.

Bede goes on to tell us how Caedmon went to see the abbess. She herself, along with the help of the most learned men in the monastery (who were, at that time, the most learned men period), inspected and questioned Caedmon. She was unwilling to trust Caedmon's own word that his gift was from God, in the same way that we should be careful of people who adapt culture to religious ends. But, the important point of the story, is that Caedmon passed the test and the abbess not just allowed him but encouraged him to continue writing poems. Unfortunately for us, all of Caedmon's other poems have been lost. (Several Old Testament narratives fitting the description from Bede do still exist, but most scholars attribute them to far later poets.) But an incredible tradition of Old, Middle, and even Modern English texts continue where Caedmon left off--making religion accessible and relevant to their readers.

Bede's Account of the Poet Caedmon
Appropriate Age: 10+
Look for: Faith meeting culture, obedience to God
Be Wary of: --
Availability: Available below and in several other on-line editions

Following, you will find a translation of Bede's account. This text was originally written in Latin and translated into Old English under King Alfred, several centuries after it was written.

In this abbess’ church, there was a certain brother especially made famous and honored with a divine gift. For he was accustomed to produce suitable poems, those which pertained to religion and to piety, so that, whatsoever he learned of divine letters through scholars, that, after a brief interval, with the most sweetness and inspiration he adorned and brought forth in well made English in poetic language. And by his sung poems the minds of many men were often inspired to contempt of the world and to joining the heavenly life. Moreover, many others after him among the English people began to make pious poems: however, nevertheless no one was able to make poems like him. For he was not at all taught by man, nor through man; but he learned the poetic craft because he was divinely helped and through God’s gift received that song craft. Therefore he was never able to produce a fable or an idle song, but only such songs as pertained to religion and which befitted his holy tongue to sing.

He was a man settled then at that time in secular life until he was advanced in old age and had never learned even one poem. He therefore often in feasts, when for the sake of making merry it was decided that, it was deemed that they all ought to, in succession, sing accompaniment to the harp. When he saw the harp draw near him, he arose out of shame from the feast and went homewards to his house. On a certain occassion,he left that house of the beer party, and out was going to the shed of the cattle: it had been given to him that night. There, in a suitable time, he set down his limbs in rest and fell asleep. Then a certain man appeared to him through a dream and hailed him and greeted him and called him by his name, ‘Cædmon, sing me something.’ Then he answered and said, ‘I cannot sing and because of this I departed from the beer party and came here because I do not know how to sing anything.’ Again he spoke, he with whom he was speaking, ‘Nevertheless, you can sing to me.’ Then Cædmon said, ‘What must I sing?’ The he said, ‘Sing creation to me.’ When he received this answer, he began at once to sing his song in praise of the good Creator, the verses and the words that he had never heard. This is the word order:


Now we must honor heaven’s warden,
the power of the Creator, and his purpose—
work of the father of glory, as he of every miracle,
the everlasting Lord, established the beginning.
He first shaped for the sons of the earth,
heaven for the roof. The holy Creator,
mankind’s warden, then Earth,
the everlasting Lord afterward adorned
the earth for people, the master almighty.

Then he arose from that sleep and all that he had sleeping sung he had fast in his remembrance. And to those words he soon added many words in the same meter, worthy songs in God’s honor. Then he came in the morning to the town reeve, who was his alderman. He said to him what kind of gift he had received, and he immediately led him to the abbess. He told and related it to her. Then she summoned them, all the most learned men and the scholars: and she commanded him relate that dream, and to sing that song, that the judgement of all of them would be decided, from what or from whence that gift of song had come. Then it seemed to them all, just as it was, that the song was from the Lord himself, a heavenly gift given. Then she taught and related a certain holy story to him in words of divine teaching and told him, if he could, that he should translate it into melodious poetry. When he received this command, Caedmon then went home to his house and came back in the morning. He recited and gave it back adorned with the best poetry: that was commanded to him.

Then the abbess began to embrace and love the gift of God in that man. They she exhorted and advised him that he should abandon the secular life and should take up monastic orders; and he heartily consented. And she accepted him into that minster with his goods, and he joined the community of God’s servants. She commanded him to teach of the sequence of the holy history and of stories and all that he could learn by hearing, he remembered, and, just as a clean beast chewing the cud, could translate it into sweetest poetry. And his song and his poem were so winsome to hear that the same ones, his teachers, at his mouth wrote and learned. He sang first about the creation of Earth and concerning the beginning of mankind and all that history in Genesis, that is the first of Moses’ books; and again concerning the exodus of the Israelite folk of the land of the Egyptians and concerning the entry of the promised land; and concerning the many stories of the holy canon’s writing book; and concerning Christ’s incarnation, and concerning his suffering, and concerning his ascension into heaven, and concerning the Holy Ghost’s coming, and the apostles’ teaching; and again concerning the imminent day of doom, and concerning the horror of tormenting punishment, and concerning the sweetness of the heavenly riches, he wrote many poems. And likewise he wrote another several others about the divine benefits and judgments. In all of them he eagerly took heed that he withdrew from men and from love of sins and of evil deeds, and to love and to try to rouse his desires to good deeds because he was a devoted humbly to service in the monastic rule. And against those who wished to behave in another he, he was kindled with a fervor of great zeal. And therefore, his life ended by a beautiful conclusion.




1 comment:

thehubcapkid said...

the poem translation came out very nicely! yay for poetry!