by Dr. Holly Ordway
Sometimes it is the poem that moves me; sometimes the poet; often, I can’t draw a clear line between the two.
The more I learn about Anglo-Saxon culture and history, and the more I dwell in the richness of Old English poetry and prose, the more I feel a connection with these people of centuries past, whose world was different from mine in many ways, yet similar in many ways as well. I often recognize a kindred spirit across many years.
In one short poem, “Caedmon’s Hymn,” I meet two of these friends-across-time.
Here is the poem, in its entirety (translated from Old English):
Now we must praise the Guardian of Heaven,
the might of the Lord and His purpose of mind,
the work of the Glorious Father; for He,
God Eternal, established each wonder,
He, Holy Creator, first fashioned
heaven as a roof for the sons of men.
Then the Guardian of Mankind adorned
this middle-earth below, the world for men,
Everlasting Lord, Almighty King.
I love this poem, but perhaps most of all, I love the story of how this poem came to be. Caedmon, the poet, worked as a cowherd in the abbey community of Whitby, where the abbess Hilda (614-680 AD) ran both a women’s and a men’s monastery. The monks enjoyed singing songs after dinner, but Caedmon, who couldn’t sing, would sneak out in embarrassment and go work in the stable instead.
I empathize already: I love music, and love hearing really excellent singing, but I myself am lamentably bad. I’d be embarrassed too, if I were called on to sing in public!
In any case, on one particular night, Caedmon fell asleep out in the stable — and had a dream-vision in which a man told him to sing, and lo and behold, Caedmon was able to compose and sing, a beautiful song praising the Creator. When he woke up, he not only remembered the verses, but was able to compose more of them. He told his superior, one of the monks, and was taken before the abbess, Hilda, who listened to his songs to determine if they were, in fact, any good.
They were astonishingly good. Hilda praised his work, and encouraged him to give up his secular employment as a cowherd, and become a monk in her community; he did so, and she arranged for him to be educated in sacred history, so that he could draw on all the great events of creation and redemption and God’s action in ancient Israel and in the Church, to create his poetry. And so he did — and lived out the rest of his life as a poet, glorifying God with his gifts.
I find myself drawn to both these figures in history. First, the poet Caedmon, who was given the gift of poetry, and called to use it. He never expected this gift! And yet, having been given it, he did not hesitate to use it — and he worked at it, through study and practice. Inspiration was a start, but perseverance was part of the gift. Like Caedmon, I never expected to be a poet; and while I didn’t have any sort of dramatic dream-gifting, I did start writing very suddenly, a year and a half ago — and became aware that ‘poet’ is now part of who I am. I didn’t ask for that, but I am grateful for it.
But I am also drawn to Hilda, who plays an important part in this story. As abbess, she was an administrator, responsible for a whole community and its economic functioning as well as its spiritual health. She was a scholar and educator, who knew Scripture and theology, and served as an advisor to rulers. She was a key figure in the Synod of Whitby, where the English church debated the claim of Rome’s authority and ultimately accepted it. She was recognized and honored in her own day a woman leader and a teacher in the Church — an inspiration and model for me.
Even more than that, I am drawn to her role in Caedmon’s life. She didn’t dismiss the idea of a cowherd-turned-poet… but she also used her judgment, listening to his poetry first to discern whether it was worth supporting or not. It wasn’t enough that Caedmon praised God; she wanted to know whether he was doing it in good poetry and good song. Then, when she realized that she’d found real talent, she immediately acted to support the poet and encourage him to develop his gift to the fullest. Again, that is a model for me as I seek to work in the world of culture, and encourage Christian artists.
So “Caedmon’s Hymn” opens up to a whole treasure-chest of inspiration: the poem, the poet, and the woman who made the poetry possible.
The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Oxford World’s Classics.
Penguin Dictionary of Saints.
The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by the Venerable Bede.