Old English poetry appears in two forms: heroic and Christian. Heroic poetry is based in Germanic legend and history. Christian or religious poetry adapts biblical narrative and uses the poetic form to present a moral perspective. Caedmon (died ca. 680) is recognized as being among the earliest of the Christian poets.
Information about Caedmon's life is sketchy. The English theologian, St. Bede the Venerable (673-735), captured what little information was available and published it in the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, around 730. Bede lived in the generation following Caedmon and was his closest contemporary and most accurate observer. Caedmon's date of birth is unknown. According to Bede, Caedmon was a herdsman and lay brother at Whitby, a monastery founded in 657 by St. Hilda. As a lay brother, he did not have the responsibilities of a monk, but rather served the monks by tending to their livestock. Reports indicated that Caedmon was illiterate and demonstrated no particular talents.
The story of how he developed his talent is wrapped in the mist of folklore. It is said that his talent sprang from a dream. It was a common practice of the time for those present at any feast or gathering to take turns performing and entertaining. Caedmon had, on many occasions, slipped quietly from the crowd as the harp made its way toward him and it appeared that a song would be demanded. One evening at the monastery, Caedmon was faced with just such a challenge. Acutely aware that he had no talents as a poet or musician, he knew he would be embarrassed when it was his time to perform. As he had on other occasions when faced with this challenge, he left his friends rather than face the humiliation of being forced to sing. He retired to his place in the stable, preferring solitude rather than embarrassment.
During the night Caedmon was visited by the vision of a man who commanded him to sing. Caedmon refused, claiming that he could not sing. But the visitor would not be put off. He requested that Caedmon sing of the creation. To Caedmon's surprise, he sang beautifully in praise of God. It was from this divine inspiration that Caedmon began to write religious poetry.
The next morning he remembered every detail of his dream and went on to add additional verses. He told Hilda and the learned men at Whitby of his dream, and repeated his verses. He was closely examined and everyone agreed that he did, indeed, receive a Divine gift. Throughout his life, Caedmon took sacred stories that had been supplied to him, as well as those related to him, and turned them into verse. Hilda implored him to join the monastery and take up a monastic life to which he agreed. He was told additional holy stories, ranging from the creation of the world to the Last Judgment, which he put to verse. Caedmon's creations were strictly religious and contained no frivolous verse.
The form of verse popular during this period was a Germanic style of oral poetry. It was not written down but passed from one generation to another by memory. As related by Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson in A Guide to Old English, "When Caedmon's Anglo-Saxon forebears migrated from the Continent to the British Isles, they brought with them a well-developed poetic tradition shaped by centuries of oral improvisation … (a) tradition rich with legends and characters … a highly formalized poetic…system of versification."
Bede later recorded a poem said to have been written by Caedmon entitled "Caedmon's Hymn." The "Hymn of Creation" is the only poem that can be accurately attributed to Caedmon. It was composed around 670 and is only nine lines in length. This Hymn attests to the time when the two poetic styles (heroic and Christian) proved to be compatible and began to merge. The poem praises God and was recorded in Latin by Bede, although there are later Old English versions in alliterative verse.
The exact date of Caedmon's death is unknown, but is said to be around 680. William of Malmesbury, in 1125, wrote that Caedmon was most likely buried at Whitby. He was later canonized, his sanctity attested to by numerous miracles.
In 1655, Francis Junius (du Jon), librarian to the Earl of Arundel and friend of the poet John Milton, first published and credited to Caedmon, a unique tenth century manuscript, The Caedmon Poems. This manuscript consisted of a series of poems, "Genesis," "Exodus," and "Daniel," and another collection of poems, written in a different hand, now referred to as "Christ and Satan." The manuscript, which contains these poems, can be found in the Bodleian Library. Additional entries in the manuscript are the "Fall of the Angels," the "Descent into Hell," the "Resurrection," the "Ascension," the "Last Judgment," and the "Temptation in the Wilderness." Later Anglo-Saxon scholars questioned Caedmon's authorship of these works. Most authorities agree that the nine lines quoted by Bede are probably the only surviving works that can be accurately credited to Caedmon.
Caedmon was the first of a series of Anglo-Saxon religious poets. Many English writers of sacred verse attempted to imitate his style, but none were able to equal him. His sacred stories have been retold and pondered in great depth. Caedmon painted a vivid picture in each story and drew inspiration from English life and the surrounding landscape for much of his colorful background. His action stories echo the true sense of battle—with the excitement of the encampment and the apprehension of the ensuing fight. In "Christ and Satan," Caedmon portrayed Satan in a clear, sharp manner. Whether the poems were truly developed by Caedmon, or whether they came from one of his imitators, scholars agree that their style is representative of a long and noble line of Old English poetry.
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