‘Caedmon’s Hymn’ is one of the three earliest remaining poems in Old English. In fact, Caedmon is considered to be the first English poet. In this lesson, we will not only look into Caedmon’s life and extraordinary life story, but interpret the hymn, as well.
Who Was Caedmon?
Caedmon was a Celtic herdsman who lived around 687 B.C. He used to listen to teachings in the Streon;shalch monastery, and then he would go home and write music to what he heard.
But for most of his life, he had no musical talent.Bede, an English monk who lived from 672-735 A.D., translated Caedmon’s hymn from Old English to Latin.
He also wrote about Caedmon in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Here is a translation of his account:’In this abbess’s monastery was a certain brother particularly glorified and honoured with a divine gift, in that he fittingly was accustomed to make songs, which pertained to religion and virtue, so that whatever thus he learned of divine letters from scholars, those things he after a moderate space of time he brought forth, in poetic language adorned with the greatest sweetness and inspiration and well-made in the English language. And by his poem-songs the spirits of many men were kindled to distain of the world and to service of a heavenly life.’Bede tells us that Caedmon ‘fittingly was accustomed to make songs.’ In other words, he was a talented musician.
His songs were spiritual in nature and encouraged those who heard them to live holy lives. Bede makes it clear, too, that Caedmon’s musical talent was a miraculous gift from God. Caedmon wasn’t always so musically inclined.
How Caedmon Got His Talent
Caedmon was elderly, and for a long while he didn’t have any musical or poetic talent. As the story goes, the monks would pass around a harp and people would take turns singing. Caedmon was embarrassed, so he left early. When he got home, he went out to the barn and fell asleep. He then dreamed that a man appeared and said, ‘Caedmon, sing me something.
‘ Caedmon replied: ‘I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.’ The man replied: ‘Nevertheless, you must sing.’ When Caedmon asked what he must sing, the man said: ‘Sing to me of the first Creation.
‘Now, whether it was God, Himself, who spoke to Caedmon or an angel, the story does not say, but we can assume that Caedmon had a pure heart. He just hadn’t previously had a voice to sing. According to the story, Caedmon began to sing this very song right away:’Now let me praise the keeper of Heaven’s kingdom,the might of the Creator, and his thought,the work of the Father of glory, how each of wondersthe Eternal Lord established in the beginning.
He first created for the sons of menHeaven as a roof, the holy Creator,then Middle-earth the keeper of mankind,the Eternal Lord, afterwards made,the earth for men, the Almighty Lord.’This is the portion of the song that remains – it was said to be longer. Caedmon is considered to be the first English poet.
This portion of Caedmon’s hymn is all that we have of his writings.
The theme in the hymn, or song of praise, is that God created the heavens and the earth for the enjoyment of men. Caedmon praises God for His creation. Using repetition, he points out twice that God, unlike man, is eternal. In a fairly pagan Celtic atmosphere, we see some of the earliest influences of Christianity.
For most of his life, Caedmon, a Celtic herdsman who lived around 687 B.C., had no musical talent.
As the story goes, he was once visiting a nearby monastery listening to the monks singing and playing music. When the harp was passed to him, he became embarrassed and left. That night, he was visited by a heavenly being who instructed him to sing of the First Creation. The hymn he sang praises God for His creation of the heavens and the earth. Centuries later, an English monk by the name of Bede translated Caedmon’s hymn and wrote about it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Caedmon is considered to be the first English poet.