|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
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.]