Cædmon’s Hymn, the earliest recorded poem in English

I was looking for a short Old English poem to translate in preparation for the next EIF Poetry Challenge (coming later today), so I searched through my poetry archives to find ‘Cædmon’s Hymn,’ which I had studied at university many moons ago.

Old English is very different from Modern English. If you’re unfamiliar with Old English poetry, you can read the original version of the poem, or (I highly recommend this) listen to it being read aloud. Not only is the language different, but so is the poetic form (more on this below).

Context of the poem

The title of this post refers to the earliest recorded poem in English. Cædmon was not a literate poet such as those whose words we read today. He was a composer of oral poetry, seemingly with a god-given gift for shaping words into beautiful lines of verse.

Cædmon’s poetry was first recorded by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 A.D.). Somewhat ironically, he first recorded the poem in Latin, making the following observation (which has been translated to modern English courtesy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature):

‘it is impossible to make a literal translation, no matter how well-written, of poetry into another language without losing some of the beauty and dignity.’
(Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol 1, 7th Ed., p25)

So here we have a translation within a translation! Thankfully, the original Old English version of the poem was added to several manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. The original poem was not written but spoken by Cædmon, a humble cowherd of Whitby Abbey (pictured above) who did not know how to write. The words (so the story goes) came to him in a dream when an angelic figure ordered him to ‘sing about the Creation.’ Upon receiving these lines of poetry, he abandoned the secular life and dedicated his life to the composure of religious verse.

My translation of Cædmon’s Hymn

Now shall we praise the Lord of Heaven’s Kingdom and the might
Of He who measures mindful thoughts; the work
Of the almighty, glorious Father, worker of wonders
At the dawn of time, and ever-after Lord:
Who first off shaped the roof of heaven and afterward 
The middle-earth (our earth) for sons of men;
Ward of mankind, and our eternal Ruler who did form 
For men this, our own earth: our one Almighty God.

© Experimentsinfiction 2020, All Rights Reserved

I didn’t translate the poem literally, because I agree with Bede, it’s impossible to make a literal translation without losing some of the poetic beauty. Just try reading any literal translation of this poem and you will see what I mean: it might be interesting, but poetry it is not.

Old English verse is characterised by the use of alliteration, assonance and repeated poetic phrases. Like Homeric poetry, it derives from an oral tradition, so the lines needed to be easy to remember. Also characteristic is the caesura, or line break between phrases in the centre of each line.

In my translation, I abandoned the caesura altogether but kept plenty of alliteration and assonance. I hope you enjoyed reading it!

Lord of the Rings fans may note the reference to ‘middle-earth:’ this was an Anglo-Saxon concept, the lower earth being hell, and the upper earth heaven. Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxon scholar so we see here something of the world from which he took his inspiration.

Now my translation work is done, I will continue to work on this week’s EIF Poetry Challenge: perhaps you can guess the theme? Watch this space for further details!

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