A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

the account of the final acts of Bede, a professional writer. This shows that compos-
ing came before writing: Bede composed and sang his ‘Death Song’after singing the
verse of St Paul upon which it was based. Composition was not origination but re-
creation: handing-on, performance. These features of composition lasted through
the Middle Ages, and beyond.
Cædmon was the first to use English oral composition to turn sacred story into
verse; the English liked verse. Bede presents the calling of this unlearned man to
compose biblical poetry as a miraculous means for bringing the good news to the
English. He tells us that Cædmon, an old man ignorant of poetry, was a farmhand
at the abbey at Whitby, which was presided over by St Hilda (d.680). At feasts when
all in turn were invited to compose verses to the harp and entertain the company,

when he saw the harp coming his way, would get up from table and go home. On one
such occasion he left the house where the feast was being held, and went out to the
stable where it was his duty that night to look after the beasts. There when the time
came he settled down to sleep. Suddenly in a dream he saw a certain 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 was 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
neve r heard before, and their theme ran thus.

Bede gives Cædmon’s song in Latin, adding ‘This the general sense, but not the actual
words that Cædmon sang in his dream; for verses, however masterly, cannot be trans-
lated wor d for word from one language into another without losing much of their
beauty and dignity.’ The old man remembered what he had sung and added more in
the same style. Next day the monks told him about a passage of scriptural history or
doctrine, and he turned this overnight into excellent verses. He sang of the Creation,
Genesis, and of Exodus and other stories of biblical history, including the Incarnation,
the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost and the teaching of the apos-
tles,and many other religious songs. The monks surely wrote all this down, though
Bede says only that ‘his delightful renderings turned his instructors into auditors’.
In 1655 the Dutch scholar Junius published in Amsterdam ‘The monk Cædmon’s
paraphrase of Genesis etc.’, based on a handsome Old English manuscript contain-
ing Genesis,Exodus,Daniel and Christ and Satan. The poems are probably not by
Cædmon,but follow his example. John Milton knew Junius and read Old English,
so the author ofParadise Lost could have read Genesis. He calls Bede’s account of the
calling of the first English poet perplacida historiola, ‘ a most pleasing little stor y’.
In the margins of several of the 160 complete Latin manuscripts of Bede’s
Ecclesiastical History are Old English versions of ‘Cædmon’s Hymn’, differing in
dialect and in detail, as usual in medieval manuscripts. Their relation to what
Cædmon sang is unknown. Here is my own translation. Another appears on p. 409.

Pr aise now to the keeper of the kingdom of heaven,
The power of the Creator, the profound mind
Ofthe glorious Father, who fashioned the beginning
Of every wonder, the eternal Lord.
For the children of men he made first
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.

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