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Skip to: content. PR D6 Robarts Library. Hoad Oxford: Clarendon Press, : For most of his life, he worked in animal husbandry for a monastery, living with the non-religious, and reporting to the reeve, a steward who superintended the abbess' estates.
When the workers routinely ate together in the hall at a table, they entertained each other by singing lyrics to a hand-held harp, passed around. Surviving Old English poetry hints at what they sang about: historical battles like Maldon, mythic heroes like Beowulf, lonely wanderers by land and sea such as Widsith, and riddles.
Before Caedmon's turn to sing came, he left for home or for the stable where he kept the livestock overnight. One time, when his turn came to sleep with the animals, he had a dream.
In it a man called him by name and told him to sing. When Caedmon explained that he could not sing to the others, the man asked him to sing to him instead.
When Caedmon said that he did not know what to sing about, the man told him, "the Creation of all things. Awaking, he remembered his dream and the song, and added more to it. The religious for whom Caedmon performed his song later attributed his singing as a gift by God's grace.
He must have seemed to them like one of the disciples in the gospels whom Jesus had called by name to God's service. Creativity in making songs, to them, happened when a greater power took over the poet and made him its voice. John Milton also attributed his poems to a "Heavenly Muse. However, the monastic brothers were wrong about Caedmon's "gift. Like a teacher, this man only set the topic.
Caedmon, and only he, composed the verses. What astounded the monastery's scholars was the immediacy of his composition. The verses came out without work or prompting of memory. Caedmon's account of what happened to him is cognitively true.
When people speak, they seldom rely on a mental script that they copy in uttering. Our words emerge unself-consciously, spontaneously. Our language process relies on a form of memory termed implicit or procedural. We cannot search for how to compose an utterance, as we do in trying to remember a name or a date, some part of our knowledge of the world which we have stored in long-term memory.
All we can do is to want to say something and then "recall the procedure" of making language by actually doing it. We may sense, mentally, a welling up of an inchoate need to utter something on a topic at hand.
The uttering then is a relief. Often it comes in words that we have never before used in that combination before. We can be surprised by what happens to us in speaking. If we stand before a crowd, charged with speaking off-the-cuff, we can become conscious of our state of unknowing, and it can unnerve us. It is like standing before a cliff and jumping out into thin air, in the belief that we will fly.
That fright leads to stuttering, blocking, silence, and sometimes escape. Caedmon experienced this very same "stage fright" when the harp approached him. His dream released this damming up of his power to utter. Surprised, given no time to worry, Caedmon just obeyed the man's command.
That Caedmon was unselfconscious of how he managed to sing what he did wonderfully captures the reality of language cognition. We may often not know what we are going to say until we have said it. That he had something to say on the topic, on the other hand, is obvious. No one worked for a monastery without repeatedly hearing the story of Genesis or the duty of man to praise God for it.
Caedmon does not say that he penned his song after waking up, but that he remembered it. Bede clearly explains that one of Caedmon's abilities was to store up what he was taught in his memory. He wrote down nothing, as far as we can tell, and he was likely illiterate. Reading and writing then were technical skills, needed by few, and so taught to few.
Herdsmen would not have been among that number. The astonishment with which Caedmon's song-making skills were met by learned people reflects the skepticism that they feel in hearing of an undereducated person composing expertly. For centuries, Shakespeare has borne the brunt of such disbelief; he was the son of a glover and had a grammar school education, good for its times, but comparable to leaving school after grade eight.
The text of Caedmon's hymn of the Creation also perfectly satisfies the cognitive needs of an utterance that, once generated, must be memorizable so that it can later be recalled by rote. Each Old English line has two balanced phrases with four stressed syllables, three of which alliterate. Each half-line, if uttered musically, in time to the plucking of a harp, would fit nicely into our phonological working short-term memory, which can accept two seconds of speech only before recycling.
The poet phonologically encodes each first half-line to make recall of the closing half-line easy. For such reasons, literary historians term Old English poetry as "oral formulaic": meant for publishing only as speech, and so not available in written form, poets filled their works with formulas, easily re-used and remembered building blocks. Caedmon's hymn has just two sentences, which can be summarized: "Let me now praise God the Creator" , and "God created Heaven, earth, and man" The assertion itself has a simple logic that ensures Caedmon can link together, in memory, the larger units, the full lines, into a verse paragraph.
Its length may also reflect a common cognitive upper-limit on large text segments. Most poems take from and contribute to a pre-existing body of poetry. Eliot's terms, Caedmon drew from a Biblical poetic tradition.
The brothers fed him stories from the Old and New Testaments, and he versified them. Denise Levertov, in "Caedmon," in turn draws from Bede's story of Caedmon's first hymn to create a very modern poem about how poets make poetry.
Her lovely revisioning, however, substitutes her own poetics for his. She turns a dream into an angelic visitation and so substitutes the monks' Muse-based account of inspiration for a cognitive one that is based on memory and is truer to what Caedmon said happened to him and to what he actually composed.
Levertov writes a dramatic monologue, from Caedmon's perspective, using the first person. She makes him physically clumsy 3 and psychologically insecure, hunching down at the back of the room near the door, and nervously licking his lips.
In Bede's account, confidently enough, Caedmon sits at the table. His persona in Levertov's poem does not understand "talk" that sounds like a "dance," that is, words put to music, or song, and so he breaks the "gliding ring" that forms when men pass a harp from one to another around a table. Her Caedmon feels like one of the unspeaking "warm beasts," "at home and lonely," enjoying the silence or the simple sighing and "body sounds" of the feeding cows.
He prefers being at table with the animals in the near-dark, where a lighted "twist" of hemp creates shadows. His transformation comes, not in a dream but in real life, and by means not of a man but of a "sudden angel" in great light, his wings sparking with "feathers of flame.
Then the Holy Ghost descends among the apostles with tongues of fire and gives them all the ability to speak many languages. With these, the once retiring disciples spread throughout the earth to preach Christ's gospel, often facing martyrdom. For Levertov, poetic inspiration comes with pain, unaccountably wrenching the shy, inarticulate, awkward person into public performance.
The source of poetry for her is the "muse of fire" of which the Prologue in Shakespeare's Henry V speaks. However she may differ from Bede's account, Levertov's "ring of the dance" beautifully describes the communal aesthetics of poetry. As the harp passes from one poet to another, each taking up the same dance motif, so poets take the traditions of poetry as their source and inspiration.
By creating his persona, Levertov becomes Caedmon. The ring comes full circle after years. Where Caedmon wrote of God's creation, on the other hand, Levertov writes of man's. Even as monastery brothers told Caedmon what to write, so he, a monastery brother, gives her the poem's subject. A gradual secularization of poetry -- its separation from institutional religion -- has turned poets inward, describing aspects of themselves rather the external world.
Time has made Caedmon's creative process, in Levertov's eyes, less cognitive and more supernatural or mythic. Of course, by Levertov's time, poetic method had changed drastically.
No longer does a modern Caedmon compose in or publish from memory. Most poets today store text on paper or disk so that it can be edited and read rather than revised in memory and recited by rote. Yet she begins by imitating the Old English form. Her verse splits in two Caedmon's conventional joined half-lines and uses alliteration comparably. You are here Home. Search form Search. Caedmon, of Whitby, 0 -. Original Text:. The two earliest of these manuscripts render the poem in a Northumbrian dialect.
The Cambridge University Library "Moore" manuscript appears in an 8th-century hand, and the Leningrad manuscript can be precisely dated in Back to Line. Once she describes the angel's "hand of fire," at the word "Until," lines become more irregular in length, imitating the abrupt, fearful summons of the angel.
By indenting lines 30 and 33, especially, Levertov shows how the image of the words on the page -- here the indenting -- replaces the sound of the poet's voice and his harp in segmenting the lines expressively.
Yet by echoing lines in the final two lines, Levertov makes her poetic form imitate her subject. Both come full circle.
Publication Start Year:. RPO poem Editors:.
It was composed between and and is the oldest recorded Old English poem, being composed within living memory of the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England. It is also one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse. It was designed to be sung from memory and was later preserved in written form by others, surviving today in at least 19 verified manuscript copies. It forms a prominent landmark and reference point for the study of Old English prosody , for the early influence which Christianity had on the poems and songs of the Anglo-Saxon people after their conversion. He left the hall after feeling ashamed that he could not contribute a song.
Caedmon's Hymn: Summary & Themes
It started with the holy trance of a seventh-century figure called Caedmon, an illiterate herdsman, who now stands at the top of the English literary tradition as the initial Anglo-Saxon or Old English poet of record, the first to compose Christian poetry in his own language. The story goes that Caedmon, who was employed by the monastery of Whitby, invariably fled when it was his turn to sing during a merry social feast. He was ashamed he had never had any songs to contribute. But one night a voice came to Caedmon in a dream and asked him to sing a song.