The Hymn of Caedmon, translated from the Anglo-Saxon

03 June 2024 by Jian Zhi Qiu

Quote from Dear Su Yen pp. 26-29

Dear Su Yen

Having thought a bit about what poetry is with Ariel's Song, here is what is said to be the earliest English poem. I know you think England is very old, with your dreams of the Middle Ages, but it is not very old compared with China and many other places, nor is the English language. Of course there were people living here thousands of years ago, but we don't know much about what they thought because they have left no writing.

The first time writing came to this country was about 2000 years ago when the Roman Empire conquered Britain; the name England did not exist then. The people were called Britons and the Romano-British society was very cultured. You might like to see one day what their life was like by visiting the Roman Museum in Cirencester.

Then the Romans had to leave at the beginning of the fifth century AD. Over the next two centuries the country was slowly invaded and settled by people called Saxons who came from Saxony, in what is now Germany, and by Angles from the south of Denmark. That is why we are still sometimes called Anglo-Saxons. During this time there was no proper government or law as there had been in Roman times and that period is often called the Dark Ages. Culture, such as reading, writing and illustration, was kept alive in monasteries and abbeys by religious communities of monks and priests and their servants.

In a monastery in Whitby, in the north-east of the country, ruled by an Abbess (that is, a woman head-priest) called Hilda, the monks, and the servants as well, used to take turns to give a little entertainment in the evenings. A servant man called Caedmon who was not very well-educated (his job was to look after the cows) was very worried because next night he had to perform and he didn't know what to do. But that night, as he slept in the cowshed, he had a beautiful dream in which he was ordered to sing a song praising God, about the beginning of all things. When he woke up he could remember his song, and he sang it that night and it has been famous ever since. Here it is.

The Hymn of Caedmon, translated from the Anglo-Saxon by A. S. Cook (1853-1927)

Now must we hymn the Master of Heaven,
The might of the Maker, the deeds of the Father,
The thought of his heart. He, Lord everlasting,
Established of old the source of all wonders:
Creator all-holy, He hung the bright heaven,
A roof high, upreared, o'er the children of men;
The King of mankind then created for mortals
The world in its beauty, the earth spread beneath them,

He, Lord everlasting, omnipotent God.

Unlike Full fathom five, the rhythm here is powerful, like drum beats, which matches the idea of power in the poem. Try saying the second line:


 See how the words are arranged so that the strong beats also emphasise the important words. There are four beats in a line, as in Full fathom five, but the arrangement of syllables makes a quite different effect: here there are two soft syllables, instead of one, between the strong ones.

I said this was the earliest known English poem, but neither you nor I would be able to read it in its original form. It has had to be translated into modern English. That is because it was written in the Anglo-Saxon language. This language gradually changed into the English we know today, but not until about the fourteenth century did it reach a form which most modern people might begin to understand, and only then with great difficulty.

But a few hundred years before that, the land of the Angles, Angle-land, became known as England.