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Outlines of English and American Literature
Cędmon
by Long, William J.


In a beautiful chapter of Bede's History we may read how Cędmon (d. 680) discovered his gift of poetry. He was, says the record, a poor unlettered servant of the Abbess Hilda, in her monastery at Whitby. At that time (and here is an interesting commentary on monastic culture) singing and poetry were so familiar that, whenever a feast was given, a harp would be brought in, and each monk or guest would in turn entertain the company with a song or poem to his own musical accompaniment. But Cędmon could not sing, and when he saw the harp coming down the table he would slip away ashamed, to perform his humble duties in the monastery:

    "Now it happened once that he did this thing at a certain
    festivity, and went out to the stable to care for the horses, this
    duty being assigned him for that night. As he slept at the usual
    time one stood by him, saying, 'Cędmon, sing me something.' He
    answered, 'I cannot sing, and that is why I came hither from the
    feast.' But he who spake unto him said again, 'Cędmon, sing to me.'
    And he said, 'What shall I sing?' And that one said, 'Sing the
    beginning of created things.' Thereupon Cędmon began to sing verses
    that he had never heard before, of this import:

      Nu scylun hergan hefaenriches ward ...
      Now shall we hallow the warden of heaven,
      He the Creator, he the Allfather,
      Deeds of his might and thoughts of his mind...."


In the morning he remembered the words, and came humbly to the monks to recite the first recorded Christian hymn in our language. And a very noble hymn it is. The monks heard him in wonder, and took him to the Abbess Hilda, who gave order that Cędmon should receive instruction and enter the monastery as one of the brethren. Then the monks expounded to him the Scriptures. He in turn, reflecting on what he had heard, echoed it back to the monks "in such melodious words that his teachers became his pupils." So, says the record, the whole course of Bible history was turned into excellent poetry.

About a thousand years later, in the days of Milton, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript was discovered containing a metrical paraphrase of the books of Genesis, Exodus and Daniel, and these were supposed to be some of the poems mentioned in Bede's narrative. A study of the poems (now known as the Cędmonian Cycle) leads to the conclusion that they were probably the work of two or three writers, and it has not been determined what part Cędmon had in their composition. The nobility of style in the Genesis poem and the picturesque account of the fallen angels (which reappears in Paradise Lost) have won for Cędmon his designation as the Milton of the Anglo-Saxon period. [Footnote: A friend of Milton, calling himself Franciscus Junius, first printed the Cędmon poems in Antwerp (cir. 1655) during Milton's lifetime. The Puritan poet was blind at the time, and it is not certain that he ever saw or heard the poems; yet there are many parallelisms in the earlier and later works which warrant the conclusion that Milton was influenced by Cędmon's work.]

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