1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cædmon

CÆDMON, the earliest English Christian poet. His story, and even his very name, are known to us only from Bæda (Hist. Eccl. iv. 24). He was, according to Bæda (see Bede), a herdsman, who received a divine call to poetry by means of a dream. One night, having quitted a festive company because, from want of skill, he could not comply with the demand made of each guest in turn to sing to the harp, he sought his bed and fell asleep. He dreamed that there appeared to him a stranger, who addressed him by his name, and commanded him to sing of “the beginning of created things.” He pleaded inability, but the stranger insisted, and he was compelled to obey. He found himself uttering “verses which he had never heard.” Of Cædmon’s song Bæda gives a prose paraphrase, which may be literally rendered as follows:—“Now must we praise the author of the heavenly kingdom, the Creator’s power and counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory: how He, the eternal God, was the author of all marvels—He, who first gave to the sons of men the heaven for a roof, and then, Almighty Guardian of mankind, created the earth.” Bæda explains that his version represents the sense only, not the arrangement of the words, because no poetry, however excellent, can be rendered into another language, without the loss of its beauty of expression. When Cædmon awoke he remembered the verses that he had sung and added to them others. He related his dream to the farm bailiff under whom he worked, and was conducted by him to the neighbouring monastery at Streanæshalch (now called Whitby). The abbess Hild and her monks recognized that the illiterate herdsman had received a gift from heaven, and, in order to test his powers, proposed to him that he should try to render into verse a portion of sacred history which they explained to him. On the following morning he returned having fulfilled his task. At the request of the abbess he became an inmate of the monastery. Throughout the remainder of his life his more learned brethren from time to time expounded to him the events of Scripture history and the doctrines of the faith, and all that he heard from them he reproduced in beautiful poetry. “He sang of the creation of the world, of the origin of mankind and of all the history of Genesis, of the exodus of Israel from Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land, of many other incidents of Scripture history, of the Lord’s incarnation, passion, resurrection and ascension, of the coming of the Holy Ghost and the teaching of the apostles. He also made many songs of the terrors of the coming judgment, of the horrors of hell and the sweetness of heaven; and of the mercies and the judgments of God.” All his poetry was on sacred themes, and its unvarying aim was to turn men from sin to righteousness and the love of God. Although many amongst the Angles had, following his example, essayed to compose religious poetry, none of them, in Bæda’s opinion, had approached the excellence of Cædmon’s songs.

Bæda’s account of Cædmon’s deathbed has often been quoted, and is of singular beauty. It is commonly stated that he died in 680, in the same year as the abbess Hild, but for this there is no authority. All that we know of his date is that his dream took place during the period (658–680) in which Hild was abbess of Streanæshalch, and that he must have died some considerable time before Bæda finished his history in 731.

The hymn said to have been composed by Cædmon in his dream is extant in its original language. A copy of it, in the poet’s own Northumbrian dialect, and in a handwriting of the 8th century, appears on a blank page of the Moore MS. of Bæda’s History; and five other Latin MSS. of Bæda have the poem (but transliterated into a more southern dialect) as a marginal note. In the old English version of Bæda, ascribed to King Alfred, and certainly made by his command if not by himself, it is given in the text. Probably the Latin MS. used by the translator was one that contained this addition. It was formerly maintained by some scholars that the extant Old English verses are not Bæda’s original, but a mere retranslation from his Latin prose version. The argument was that they correspond too closely with the Latin; Bæda’s words, “hic est sensus, non autem ordo ipse verborum,” being taken to mean that he had given, not a literal translation, but only a free paraphrase. But the form of the sentences in Bæda’s prose shows a close adherence to the parallelistic structure of Old English verse, and the alliterating words in the poem are in nearly every case the most obvious and almost the inevitable equivalents of those used by Bæda. The sentence quoted above[1] can therefore have been meant only as an apology for the absence of those poetic graces that necessarily disappear in translations into another tongue. Even on the assumption that the existing verses are a retranslation, it would still be certain that they differ very slightly from what the original must have been. It is of course possible to hold that the story of the dream is pure fiction, and that the lines which Bæda translated were not Cædmon’s at all. But there is really nothing to justify this extreme of scepticism. As the hymn is said to have been Cædmon’s first essay in verse, its lack of poetic merit is rather an argument for its genuineness than against it. Whether Bæda’s narrative be historical or not—and it involves nothing either miraculous or essentially improbable—there is no reason to doubt that the nine lines of the Moore MS. are Cædmon’s composition.

This poor fragment is all that can with confidence be affirmed to remain of the voluminous works of the man whom Bæda regarded as the greatest of vernacular religious poets. It is true that for two centuries and a half a considerable body of verse has been currently known by his name; but among modern scholars the use of the customary designation is merely a matter of convenience, and does not imply any belief in the correctness of the attribution. The so-called Cædmon poems are contained in a MS. written about A.D. 1000, which was given in 1651 by Archbishop Ussher to the famous scholar Francis Junius, and is now in the Bodleian library. They consist of paraphrases of parts of Genesis, Exodus and Daniel, and three separate poems the first on the lamentations of the fallen angels, the second on the “Harrowing of Hell,” the resurrection, ascension and second coming of Christ, and the third (a mere fragment) on the temptation. The subjects correspond so well with those of Cædmon’s poetry as described by Bæda that it is not surprising that Junius, in his edition, published in 1655, unhesitatingly attributed the poems to him. The ascription was rejected in 1684 by G. Hickes, whose chief argument, based on the character of the language, is now known to be fallacious, as most of the poetry that has come down to us in the West Saxon dialect is certainly of Northumbrian origin. Since, however, we learn from Bæda that already in his time Cædmon had had many imitators, the abstract probability is rather unfavourable than otherwise to the assumption that a collection of poems contained in a late 10th century MS. contains any of his work. Modern criticism has shown conclusively that the poetry of the “Cædmon MS.” cannot be all by one author. Some portions of it are plainly the work of a scholar who wrote with his Latin Bible before him. It is possible that some of the rest may be the composition of the Northumbrian herdsman; but in the absence of any authenticated example of the poet’s work to serve as a basis of comparison, the internal evidence can afford no ground for an affirmative conclusion. On the other hand, the mere unlikeness of any particular passage to the nine lines of the Hymn is obviously no reason for denying that it may have been by the same author.

The Genesis contains a long passage (ii. 235–851) on the fall of the angels and the temptation of our first parents, which differs markedly in style and metre from the rest. This passage, which begins in the middle of a sentence (two leaves of the MS. having been lost) is one of the finest in all Old English poetry. In 1877 Professor E. Sievers argued, on linguistic grounds, that it was a translation, with some original insertions, from a lost poem in Old Saxon, probably by the author of the Heliand. Sievers’s conclusions were brilliantly confirmed in 1894 by the discovery in the Vatican library of a MS. containing 62 lines of the Heliand and three fragments of an old Saxon poem on the story of Genesis. The first of these fragments includes the original of 28 lines of the interpolated passage of the Old English Genesis. The Old Saxon Biblical poetry belongs to the middle of the 9th century; the Old English translation of a portion of it is consequently later than this.

As the Genesis begins with a line identical in meaning, though not in wording, with the opening of Cædmon’s Hymn, we may perhaps infer that the writer knew and used Cædmon’s genuine poems. Some of the more poetical passages may possibly echo Cædmon’s expressions; but when, after treating of the creation of the angels and the revolt of Lucifer, the paraphrast comes to the Biblical part of the story, he follows the sacred text with servile fidelity, omitting no detail, however prosaic. The ages of the antediluvian patriarchs, for instance, are accurately rendered into verse. In all probability the Genesis is of Northumbrian origin. The names assigned to the wives of Noah and his three sons (Phercoba, Olla, Olliua, Olliuani[2]) have been traced to an Irish source, and this fact seems to point to the influence of the Irish missionaries in Northumbria.

The Exodus is a fine poem, strangely unlike anything else in Old English literature. It is full of martial spirit, yet makes no use of the phrases of the heathen epic, which Cynewulf and other Christian poets were accustomed to borrow freely, often with little appropriateness. The condensation of the style and the peculiar vocabulary make the Exodus somewhat obscure in many places. It is probably of southern origin, and can hardly be supposed to be even an imitation of Cædmon.

The Daniel is often unjustly depreciated. It is not a great poem but the narration is lucid and interesting. The author has borrowed some 70 lines from the beginning of a poetical rendering of the Prayer of Azarias and the Song of the Three Children, of which there is a copy in the Exeter Book. The borrowed portion ends with verse 3 of the canticle, the remainder of which follows in a version for the most part independent, though containing here and there a line from Azarias. Except in inserting the prayer and the Benedicite, the paraphrast draws only from the canonical part of the book of Daniel. The poem is obviously the work of a scholar, though the Bible is the only source used.

The three other poems, designated as “Book II” in the Junius MS., are characterized by considerable imaginative power and vigour of expression, but they show an absence of literary culture and are somewhat rambling, full of repetitions and generally lacking in finish. They abound in passages of fervid religious exhortation. On the whole, both their merits and their defects are such as we should expect to find in the work of the poet celebrated by Bæda, and it seems possible, though hardly more than possible, that we have in these pieces a comparatively little altered specimen of Cædmon’s compositions.

Of poems not included in the Junius MS., the Dream of the Rood (see Cynewulf) is the only one that has with any plausibility been ascribed to Cædmon. It was affirmed by Professor G. Stephens that the Ruthwell Cross, on which a portion of the poem is inscribed in runes, bore on its top-stone the name “Cadmon”;[3] but, according to Professor W. Vietor, the traces of runes that are still visible exclude all possibility of this reading. The poem is certainly Northumbrian and earlier than the date of Cynewulf. It would be impossible to prove that Cædmon was not the author, though the production of such a work by the herdsman of Streanæshalch would certainly deserve to rank among the miracles of genius.

Certain similarities between passages in Paradise Lost and parts of the translation from Old Saxon interpolated in the Old English Genesis have given occasion to the suggestion that some scholar may have talked to Milton about the poetry published by Junius in 1655, and that the poet may thus have gained some hints which he used in his great work. The parallels, however, though very interesting, are only such as might be expected to occur between two poets of kindred genius working on what was essentially the same body of traditional material.

The name Cædmon (in the MSS. of the Old English version of Bæda written Cedmon, Ceadmann) is not explicable by means of Old English; the statement that it means “boatman” is founded on the corrupt gloss liburnam, ced, where ced is an editorial misreading for ceol. It is most probably the British Cadman, intermediate between the Old Celtic Catumanus and the modern Welsh Cadfan. Possibly the poet may have been of British descent, though the inference is not certain, as British names may sometimes have been given to English children. The name Caedwalla or Ceadwalla was borne by a British king mentioned by Bæda and by a king of the West Saxons. The initial element Caed—or Cead (probably adopted from British names in which it represents catu, war) appears combined with an Old English terminal element in the name Caedbaed (cp., however, the Irish name Cathbad), and hypocoristic forms of names containing it were borne by the English saints Ceadda (commonly known as St Chad) and his brother Cedd, called Ceadwealla in one MS. of the Old English Martyrology. A Cadmon witnesses a Buckinghamshire charter of about A.D. 948.

The older editions of the so-called “Cædmon’s Paraphrase” by F. Junius (1655); B. Thorpe (1832), with an English translation; K. W. Bouterwek (1851–1854); C. W. M. Grein in his Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Poesie (1857) are superseded, so far as the text is concerned, by R. Wülker’s re-edition of Grein’s Bibliothek, Bd. ii. (1895). This work contains also the texts of the Hymn and the Dream of the Rood. The pictorial illustrations of the Junius MS. were published in 1833 by Sir H. Ellis.  (H. Br.) 

  1. It is a significant fact that the Alfredian version, instead of translating this sentence, introduces the verses with the words, “This is the order of the words.”
  2. The invention of these names was perhaps suggested by Pericope Oollae et Oolibae, which may have been a current title for the 23rd chapter of Ezekiel.
  3. Stephens read the inscription on the top-stone as Cadmon mae fauaepo, which he rendered “Cadmon made me.” But these words are mere jargon, not belonging to any known or possible Old English dialect.