Why We Care: The Origins of English Verse

Composed somewhere between 658 and 680 A.D., Cædmon's Hymn is the earliest known English poem. Yes, true, it's not in a language that most English-speaking people can read, and yes, true, its poetic conventions seem very strange in an age where poetry is largely structured by complex meter and rhyme, but it is, nonetheless, a start to the written record of English poetry.

Old English is a Saxon language, much closer to German than any of its modern descendents. What we think of today as English is a melding of this Saxon tongue with the language of the Norman French, who crossed the channel in 1066 to rape, pillage, and change English forever. (Two of these were more intentional than the third.) It is only after the influence of French -- and, through it, Greek and Latin -- that we get an English that begins to resemble what you're looking at.

All the conventions of pre-1066 English verse had to do with the single line. The rules were simple: a line of poetry is alliterative, meaning the beginning sound of several words in the line will be the same; and a line of poetry breaks in the middle at a pause called the caesura. Take, for example, the opening line of the Hymn:

  Nu sculon herigean    heofonrices Weard

The rendering of the caesura by a gap of whitespace is a modern convention. Old English verse was spoken, not written, so a more accurate rendering of the caesura is a verbal pause. Another feature of Old English poetry that is also tied to its verbal nature is the subject matter: these poems were often lengthly epics and served as a record of history and culture. Beowulf is an example of a poem that meets all these criteria. Alliteration is a wonderful mnemonic device, and was likely instituted to make these poems easy to remember. Cædmon's Hymn is not an epic, but it nonetheless follows the epic form within each poetic line.

Dramatis Personae: Cædmon of Whitby and the Venerable Bede

Bede, who lived from somewhere around 673 until about 735, is the most famous Old English man of letters. He was a theologian and historian, and his work Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in Latin, is one of the period's most influential texts. It is through him we get the text for the Hymn, as well as the story of Cædmon's life.

Cædmon was an illiterate herder who worked for the Whitby Monastery. He and his fellow workers had little leisure time, but during festivals they would often pass the harp around and sing songs. Cædmon always hid in the stables when it was his turn, until one day when a stranger appeared to him in a dream and called out, "Cædmon, sing me something." Poor Cædmon protested he did not know how to sing, but the man insisted. Still Cædmon protested, but the stranger bade him sing of the Creation. At this, Bede writes, "Cædmon immediately began to sing verses in praise of God the Creator, which he had never heard before." Bede transcribed the Hymn, but cautioned that "this is the general sense but not the exact order of the words he sang in his sleep, for it is impossible to make a literal translation" of Cædmon's song into Latin.

In Bede's Latin the Hymn must have born a striking resemblance to the beginning of the Mass, which runs:

  Vere dignum et iustum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi
  semper et ubique gratias agere:  Domine, sancte Pater,
  omnipotens aeterne Deus.

  (It is indeed right and fitting, our duty and our
  salvation that we should always and everywhere praise you,
  Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.)

(The line breaks above are for formatting purposes and are not found in the text of the Mass.) These similarities are either coincidental or are artifacts of Bede's translation, since Cædmon himself knew no Latin. Most interesting is the tendency in both works to refer to god by a number of names or honorifics: Domine ("Lord"), sancte Pater ("holy Father"), and omnipotens aeterne Deus ("almighty and eternal God") in the Latin; Weard ("Guardian"), Meotod ("Measurer"), Wuldor-Fæderu ("Glory-Father"), Drihten ("Lord"), Scyppend ("Creator"), and Frea ("Master") in the Old English.

The Text, As Best We Know It

Old English is extremely difficult to pin down into any sort of stable written form. This is England before the printing press, before the establishment of secular Universities. This is the Seventh Century, and chances are you don't know how to read, even if you are a monk, scribe, or king.

We get our Old English texts from manuscripts. Back before the printing press, anyone who wanted to make the written word last used cured animal skin as their medium of choice. This skin was not cheap -- today it runs for $20 per square foot. Likewise, inks were precious, not only because of their scarcity, but also because they were often shot through with ultramarine or precious metals like gold. Monks, who may or may not have been literate, were often employed as scribes, and since English spelling was not standardized, orthography was largely a matter of scribal taste.

The social and economic influences of these valuable manuscripts were enormous. They were often given as gifts to lords or kings, even to those who could not read. After all, you don't need to be a wine connoisseur to appreciate a large gold goblet. This influence is even felt today: many of the typographic conventions we associate with the layout of "serious" literature come from these monks, from the large, decorative initial letters beginning each section of a work, to the association of archaic-looking typefaces with gravity and history.

The dominant version of Cædmon's Hymn is in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, though a version in the Northumbrian dialect is also common. The West Saxon is generally considered more authoritative, and is more widely found in anthologies. In the text below, the first line of every group is the West Saxon, the second is the Northumbrian, and the third is a literal translation into modern English.


Cædmon's Hymn


Nu sculon herigean               heofonrices Weard
Nu scylun hergan                 hefaenricaes uard
Now we must praise               heaven-kingdom's Guardian,

Meotodes meahte                  ond his modgeþanc
metudæs maecti                   end his modgidanc
the Measurer's Might             and his mind-plans,

weorc Wuldorfæder                swa he wundra gehwæs
uerc uuldurfadur                 sue he uundra gihuaes
the work of the Glory-Father,    when he of wonders of every one,

ece Drihten                      or onstealde
eci dryctin                      or astelidæ
eternal Lord,                    the beginning established.

He ærest sceop                   ielda1 bearnum
He aerist scop                   aelda barnum
he first created                 for men's sons

heofon to hrofe                  halig Seyppend
heben til hrofe                  haleg scepen
heaven as a roof,                holy Creator;

ða middangeard                   monncynnes Weard
tha middungeard                  moncynnæs uard
then middle-earth                mankind's Guardian,

ece Drihten                      æfter teode
eci dryctin                      æfter tiadæ
eternal Lord,                    afterwards made --

firum foldan                     Frea ælmihtig
firum foldu                      frea allmectig
for men earth,                   Master almighty.


1 Later manuscrips have eorþan ("earth") in the place of the West Saxon ielda or Northumbrian ælda ("men's).


  1. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th ed.
  2. The Georgetown University Old English Pages (http://www.georgetown.edu/cball/oe/oe-texts.html)

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