Saint of the Day – 11 February – St Caedmon (Died c 680) is the earliest English (Northumbrian) poet whose name is known. An Anglo-Saxon who cared for the animals at the double monastery of Streonæshalch (Whitby Abbey, in Yorkshire, England) during the abbacy (657–680) of the Founder, St Hilda (614–680), he was originally ignorant of “the art of song” but learned to compose one night in the course of a dream, according to the 8th-century historian and Saint, The Venerable St Bede (673-735) Father & Doctor of the Church. He later became a zealous monk and an accomplished and inspirational Christian poet.
The sole source of original information about Cædmon’s life and work is St Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica. According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother who cared for the animals at the monastery Streonæshalch, now known as Whitby Abbey. One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. The impression clearly given by St Bede is that he lacked the knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which “someone” approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.” After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his foreman about his dream and gift and was taken immediately to see the abbess, St Hilda of Whitby. The abbess and her counsellors asked Cædmon about his vision and, satisfied that it was a gift from God, gave him a new commission, this time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine”, by way of a test. When Cædmon returned the next morning with the requested poem, he was invited to take monastic vows. The abbess ordered her scholars to teach Cædmon sacred history and doctrine, which after a night of thought, Bede records, Cædmon would turn into the most beautiful verse. According to Bede, Cædmon was responsible for a large number of splendid vernacular poetic texts on a variety of Christian topics.
After a long and zealously pious life, Cædmon died like a saint – receiving a premonition of death, he asked to be moved to the abbey’s hospice for the terminally ill where, having gathered his friends around him, he died after receiving the Holy Eucharist, just before nocturns.
Bede’s narrative shows that Bede, an educated and intelligent man, believed Cædmon to be an important figure in the history of English intellectual and religious life. He, however, gives no specific dates in his story. Cædmon is said to have taken holy orders at an advanced age and it is implied that he lived at Whitby, at least in part, during Hilda’s abbacy (657–680).
Cædmon is one of twelve Anglo-Saxon poets identified in medieval sources and one of only three of these for whom both roughly contemporary biographical information and examples of literary output have survived. St Bede wrote, “there was in the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in Old English, which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world and to aspire to heaven.”
Cædmon’s only known surviving work is Cædmon’s Hymn, the nine-line alliterative vernacular praise poem in honour of God which he learned to sing in his initial dream. The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English and is one of the earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic language. In 1898, St Cædmon’s Cross was erected in his honour in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Whitby.
St Bede’s Latin version of St Caedmon’s poem runs as follows:
Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis,
et consilium illius facta Patris gloriae –
cum sit aeternus Deus,
omnium miraculorum auctor exstitit,
qui primo filiis hominum caelum
pro culmine tecti dehinc terram
custos humani generis
Now we must praise the author
of the heavenly realm,
the might of the creator
and His purpose,
the work of the Father of glory –
as He, who, the almighty guardian
of the human race,
is the eternal God,
is the author of all miracles,
who first created the heavens
as highest roof
For the children of men,
then the earth.