Saturday, February 11, 2006

Caedmon's Hymn

St. Caedmon has no officially assigned patronage
(and in fact, isn’t even a formally canonized saint), but I think of Caedmon as the patron saint of sacred lyrical poetry. Although history has retained only eight lines of Caedmon’s verses, the Venerable Bede said that Caedmon composed many more wonderful pieces. I believe the Venerable Bede.

It haunts me that we can lose people’s creations so easily. I think of the desecreation of the Royal Library of Alexandria, and more recently, the National Museum of Iraq. What can I say? There is nowhere I can even begin to do justice to commemorate what we have lost.

However, I can tell you about Caedmon, and then you will know another story. By the way, “Caedmon” was what we chose for our baby’s name were we to have had a boy. I am guessing that most people will think our child was lucky she was born a girl (that "ae" is a difficult dipthong that is open to interpretation depending upon which language rules you follow), but I still think of “Caedmon” as Lucia’s boy-name.

Caedmon's Hymn, or "What Shall I Sing?"

Caedmon was a cowherd for the great monastery of Whitby. He was shy and slow of speech, but he loved the cows and often talked to them. While he was courteous and pleasant to the other farmhands, his shyness kept him from becoming good friends with them.

At the end of the day, all the farmhands would gather together and sing songs about the great heroes of the past. They passed the lyre from one farmhand to the next, but Caedmon always let the lyre pass him by. The very thought of singing in front of everyone made his knees wobble and his mouth dry up.

It was different in the barn. Sometimes, Caedmon would make up a little song and sing it to the cows. One song he had was only a line long:

“Living Lord beginning made—ah…”

It was a little song, but it was a good song. The cows listened, and perhaps the angels listened too, but Caedmon didn’t notice that, as he went about his work, the other farmhands began to overhear the song too. They joked to each other, “Caedmon’s in the barn, chewing the cud, just like the cows!” but they didn’t bother him, for they knew he was shy.

However, one night, after the a great feast in the farmhand’s dining room, the lyre went around the room, and someone called out, “Caedmon, it’s your turn to sing something for us!”

Caedmon’s knees shook and his tongue dried up in his mouth. He stumbled to his feet and ran to the door. “I’ve got to look out of the cows!” he said. Once Caedmon reached the barn, he felt better. He checked on all the cows, and then curled up in some hay and fell fast asleep.

Caedmon dreamed. In the dream, a man appeared before him and said, “Caedmon, sing me something.”

“I don’t know how to sing,” Caedmon said. “That is why I ran away from the feast.”

“You do know how to sing,” the man said. “You sang for the cows, and now you shall sing for me.”

“What shall I sing?” Caedmon asked.

“Sing to me of creation,” the man said.

Caedmon opened his mouth and began to sing. He didn’t think about what he should sing, and the words just came out of his mouth:

Now hail we heaven-kingdom’s Lord, the
Measurer’s might, and His mind’s thought, the
Wonder-father’s work! Of all things He the
Living Lord beginning made—ah!
First He raised heaven’s roof on high, that
Holy Shaper, for sons of men—ah!
Middle-earth then mankind’s Lord, the
Living Lord, with all life filled, for
All men’s sons, Almighty God, ah!

When Caedmon woke from his dream, he felt a confidence he had never had before. He decided he must tell his dream to his boss, the reeve who ran the farm. When Caedmon sang, the reeve said, “We must go to the Lady Hilda and tell her your dream.”

“Lady Hilda?” Caedmon asked. “The Abbess?”

Caedmon’s newfound courage began to waver, but the reeve said, “Yes, the Abbess will want to hear about your dream.”

When the Abbess Hilda heard Caedmon’s song, she called to all of the monks and nuns to listen. “The man who appeared to you in your dream was an angel,” Abbess Hilda said.

“Yes,” Caedmon replied, and bowed his head.

The Abbess Hilda asked Caedmon to sing other songs. Someone read aloud the story of Adam and Eve, as Caedmon himself did not read. Caedmon mulled it over during the night, and in the morning, had composed another song. That is how Caedmon spent the rest of his days. He became a brother in the monastery where he listened every day to the sacred stories. After he listened, he chewed over the Word as cows chew their cud, and when he was ready, he brought forth new songs.

It is recorded that Caedmon died on February 11, AD 680. There is a carving of Caedmon (pictured below the Abbess Hilda) on a cross in Whitby, Yorkshire North Riding, England. Below his picture are the words:

To the glory of God and in
memory of
The Father of English
Sacred Song
Fell asleep
hard by 680

*Caedmon’s story comes from Bede's History of the English Church (Book IV, Chapter 24) . My short version is heavily influenced by Robert P. Creed’s storytelling, and the actual hymn translation is directly quoted from Creed's version of the story, “How Caedmon Got His Hymn.” You may find Creed's text version in Best Loved Stories: Told at the National Storytelling Festival.


Yorkshire Pudding said...

Alkelda. Nice blog entry. Whitby is one of my favourite places in Britain - not just because of Caedmon and the Abbey but also because of the jet industry (NOT aeroplanes) and the special links with Captain James Cook, Frank Sutcliffe and Bram Stoker. It also has a superb folk festival each year. Whitby is a wild and individualistic place. So you would fit in well! Try the fish and chips at the Magpie Cafe by the harbour!

Lone Star Ma said...

Why is that so familiar? Have you sent it to me? But I can't think why you would have. I am having massive deja vu....

Saints and Spinners said...

Yorkshire Pudding, Thanks for the recommendations. Now I yearn for the fish and chips at the Magpie Cafe. I want to go. I want to go. Maybe I'll have to go to England for my 40th birthday or something big and commemorative. I've got six years to go. I almost wish I smoked so I could quit and save the money for the trip.

Lone Star Ma, I may have sent you a link at some point. I was going to name my son Caedmon, after all (though Bede said that had we actually had a son, he would have thought more on it).

Lone Star Ma said...

It is lovely. Please pronounce Caedmon - or whatever you would call doing that given that I will not be hearing you say it(:

Saints and Spinners said...

Lone Star Ma: I would like to pronounce the name "Cade-mon," which is how I thought it was pronounced first. If you go by the Celtic rules of dipthongs (and please, someone feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but this is what my research revealed), the "AE" would be a long A. However, when I have heard it pronounced, it's with an Old English interpretation of "AE", which is a short a-- hence, "Cad-man."

I have met a number of people whose children have names that are traditionally pronounced one way, but the parents liked a different pronounciation. I'm glad that our child doesn't have to go through that.

Erm, however, Lucia's real name is subject to a lot of interpretation, even though it follows modern American English pronunciation guidelines.

Unknown said...

There's a Bede connection to the abbey where I briefly attended high school. One of the founders of the Abbey was an American millionaire who decided to become a monk after his wife died. He donated a large sum of money to the monks so they could found their monastery. His wife was buried in a chapel underneath the abbey.

Here are some pictures:

And some others:

The sculptures in the church are the work of one of the monks, a brilliant artist.

Lone Star Ma said...

I like the long A better as well.

Lady K said...

Akelda, as usual, I am stunned and amazed. I know I don't comment often, but please know I'm here every day.

By the way, did you really get that cool MOON PHASE software? I've been looking for something like that for a long time. I KNEW there was something up with people when I looked up at the sky last night...hee hee!

Saints and Spinners said...

Lady K: You changed your name! Don't think I am remiss in noticing such things.:) I didn't buy the Moon Phase software, I saw the moon phase chart on someone else's blog, and of course had to put it on my own. Maybe I'll be able to monitor my moods better.

I am at your website every day, too. I try to give Brad the Gorilla the space he requires (he's a bit grumbly that I'm over on his turf so much), but sometimes I can't resist chiming in.

Hazed said...

Alkelda, you mention what a shame it is that we've lost so much history - but it's wonderful folk like you who keep it alive for the world, my dear. The tangibles may be long gone, but the tradition stays alive in lovely story-tellers. Think about this: ancient civilizations and even some currents keep traditions and histories alive without paper and pen or monuments. Native Americans come to my mind, first. How many centuries have they kept their culture alive just by story-telling by a nighttime fire?

Lone Star Ma said...

That's right, Alkelda. We're counting on you!

Lady K said...

You are more than welcome to chime in whenever you want! Yes, I changed my name, AND my life. Change sucks, but it's for the best, always, no matter if the reason is understood in the here and now. Lady Hearteater is still part of my heart, but for now, I just gotta be ME.

NOW, I'm gonna look into finding a lunar monitor...

haha! my WV is qqalda. Made me think of you.

Saints and Spinners said...

Friday: Thanks! You're right-- there is much that is still kept alive through oral traditions. I like what a lot of people are doing with blogging, too. While the act of blogging means putting something into print, the response time is a bit closer to the oral tradition.

I'm counting on all of you to keep stories alive, too!

Martyn said...

Hi Alkelda, I'm a bit late with this but regarding the pronounciation of Caedmon. He's believed to have been of mixed Anglian - British Celtic parentage, and his name is derived from the Brythonic, Cadlan and Catumandos, so it's usual to promounce his name in the Celtic fashion with a longer a. H

Whitby is a fantastic place, just up the road from me. We'll be going up there this week so I'll be posting some photos on the blog etc.

Saints and Spinners said...

Thanks, Martyn! I always preferred the long "A" and I'm glad it's usual to pronounce the name as such. I can't imagine living up the road from such a place as Whitby. I think if I were born in England, I would never get tired of it or take centuries of history for granted. I haven't made strong efforts to visit England, though I've visited Scotland. I think I must be waiting for the time in which it will be truly the fulfilment of a dream!

The Poor Blogger said...

On my blog I have several translations of St. Caedmon's hymn, and a pronunciation guide for the Old English version:

Unknown said...

thankyou for posting this! we are naming our son caedmon...he is due any day now!

Saints and Spinners said...

Melody: Thanks for telling me! I wish you well as you prepare for your new son to arrive in the world.

Kara @ Just1Step said...

We are probably planning to name our baby born this summer Caedmon. Thanks for sharing the story. Now I am just trying to come up with a quick one-sentence version of the story to share with others when they ask the meaning behind the name.

Saints and Spinners said...

Hi Kara,
Thanks for stopping by and commenting. How lovely that you are preparing for a baby this summer, and planning to name him Caedmon. The one-sentence explanation is a challenge. Here are some ideas:
"Caedmon was a cowherd who discovered his second career as a poet during his mid-life crisis."

"Caedmon is considered the father of English sacred poetry. Only eight lines of his poetry exist today... as far as we know."