Did you know that the first true English poem was written with the help of an angel? Well, so the story goes! The first poem that can be called the very first true English verse is known as Caedmon’s Hymn. It was believed to be a miracle according to the Venerable Bede. An illiterate neat-herd (a man employed to look after livestock) claims an angel came to him in a dream & commanded him to sing. The man, quite naturally was taken aback & denied he had any such talents. The angel replied “Yet you could sing if you tried” or words to that effect & implored our illiterate herdsman to sing about The Creation. This has been handed down to us as a partially alliterated eight line poem written at the monastery of the Abbess Hild, Streoneshalh in Whitby, Yorkshire.
The man known as Caedmon, of uncertain age, came to the monastery as a labourer around 657 A.D. By the time Bede had become the great scholar of Wearmouth & Jarrow some twenty-three years later it was a legend. It survives in the seventeen manuscripts of Bede’s Historia Eccclesiastica Gentis Angloram or Ecclesiastical History.
It has its origins in an oral Western Germanic tradition some three to four hundred years older. It would not have been unusual for farm workers after long days of toil to recite songs & verse, especially to the accompaniment of harps & viols. The form of the double verse & alliteration was developed many years later in fourteenth century poems such as Sir Gawain & the Green Knight & Langland’s Piers Plowman.
Because English (Middle English or otherwise) is notoriously difficult to rhyme (possibly due to case changes & inflectives) much early poetry was alliterative & strangely, in dactylic hexameter, not unlike classical epic poetry. Gleemen & minstrels performed much of this work from memory. It was a society that was fundamentally illiterate. Because of this much of the performance was in the very sound of the words. Strong assonant vowel rhyming & aural effects were greatly appreciated by an audience that could not read for itself. We tend to take the fact that we read quietly to ourselves, for our own amusement or edification for granted. In earlier times this practise would have seemed unusual for the majority, including the literate.
One of the first things that jump out at us in Caedmon’s poem is the separation of the poem into almost into two halves. This dramatic pause is often called a caesura. It must have had a powerful effect on the listener, let alone the performer! The metre, which seems to include anapaests does indeed seem alien to us today. The pronunciation of these unfamiliar words has been lost to history. English dialects & accents are as rich & varied now as they were then. Repeated readings of the poem out aloud may give it a sense of what it may have sounded like to Caedmon. So, just what did it look like?
Caedmon’s Hymn (657 A.D.)
Nu scolon herigean heofonrices Weard
Meotodes meahte and his modgethanc
Weorc Wuldor-Faedor swa he wundra gehwaes
ece Drihten, or onstealde
He aerest sceop ielda bearnum
Heofen to hrofe halig Scyppend
ece Drihten aefter teode
firum foldan Frea aelmithig
I am not going to modernise the translation. Old English syntax was simpler than we use now. However there were more complexities with case. My translation is essentially as literal as I can get it. I think it gives a general feel for what the poem is trying to say. If anyone can do better please let me know. I know there are Anglo-Saxon scholars out there.
Now should praise heaven’s Reich (kingdom) warder
Meted might and his mind think
Work wish (?)- Father while he wonder which
(?) Noble or un-stolen
He earlier shaped (for his?) children (bairns)
Heaven to roof holy shaper
(?) Noble after (tidings?)
men (of the) fold Gracious(?) almighty
As you can see, my grasp of Old English is not particularly good. I am indebted to A Book of Middle English 2nd Ed by J.A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre & its excellent glossary of Middle English in my interpretation of the poem.
A Book of Middle English 2nd Ed: J.A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre.
The Story of Poetry: Michael Schmidt.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: OUP.
'They say best men are moulded out of faults, &, for the most, become much more the better for being a little bad': Measure for Measure (V,i)