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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hymn - Cædmon

nu scylun hergan     hefaenricaes uard
metuadæs maecti     end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur     swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin     or astelidæ
he aerist scop     aleda barnurn
heben til hrofe     haleg scepen,
tha middungeard  moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin     æfter tiadæ
firum foldu     frea allmectig


In Latin translation (Bede's translation):
Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis,
potentiam creatoris, et consilium ilius
facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille,
cum sit aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor exstitit;
qui primo filiis hominum
caelum pro culmine tecti
dehinc terram custos humani generis
creavit,
omnipotens.

Modern English translation:
Now [we] must honor the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator
Then the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.


Cædmon is the earliest poet in the English language whose work survives, with this hymn likely composed between 638 and 650.  His Hymn is the only thing we have of his compositions.  He was not a writer, but like all poets in his time, a scop, a singer of poetry within the Old English tradition.  Bede, whose Historia eccelsiastica is our source of information about Cædmon, tells us that Cædmon was a layman in the employ of a monastery, in charge of the care of the animals.  As the story goes, during feasting, Cædmon left early because he didn't know any songs (songs were a common feature of feasting in that time).  In his sleep, he had a dream vision, in which he was approached by someone who asked him to sing.  He eventually sang, surprising himself with a poem in the praise of God.  The next day, he remembered everything, and consulted a local abbess, who appraised his gift as a gift from God, and commissioned poetry from him as a test.  After his successes, the abbess would have scholars teach him sacred history and doctrine, which Cædmon would turn into verse.  Bede tells us that he composed many texts on various Christian topics, though only the Hymn today survives.

The hymn was not recorded until the early 8th century, and it exists in a number of Old English dialects, as well as in Bede's Latin.  I've included both.  My knowledge of Old English is small, but there are a number of clear cognates with Modern English.  For example, the word "uard" is "ward", and paired with "hefearnicaes", means "Heaven's ward" or "Heaven's guardian."  The line "he aerist scop" means, "He is a poet."  In reference to God, it's clear that this means that he authored creation, he sings the world into being.  I wish I was more experienced in Old English, but it's an area in which I sadly lack expertise.  Still, I find it fascinating to read and learn about, and even more so to imagine the world in which this poetry flowed, like so much mead in the halls where it was sang.

Formally, as a hymn, it was likely composed shortly after the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity.  The form of the hymn here was traditionally used to glorify kings, but Cædmon used it to glorify God instead of a monarch.  It is not known if there were earlier Christian poets in the English language which may have influenced the Hymn, but it seems likely that this was an entirely new and original development.

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