CÆDMON(FL. C. 675). Cædmon was a farm laborer at the monastery of Whitby during *Hild’s tenure as abbess in the seventh century. He is said to have written poetic paraphrases of Bible stories from both Testaments. Other than this his dates are unknown, as is any evidence of his poetry apart from the example found in *Bede in conjunction with the following story.
Each time the harp was passed about after a feast and songs called for from each of the workers of the monastery, Cædmon was embarrassed at his inability to compose and slipped silently out of the room when his turn came. One night, having been assigned care of the cattle, he went to sleep in the barn. While sleeping he heard a voice call, “Cædmon! Sing me something.” When Cædmon protested that he could not sing, the visitor repeated the command, insisting that he sing about the beginning of created things. Upon this, according to Bede, Cædmon sang the following:
Now we must praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory and how He, since he is the eternal God, was the Author of all marvels and first created the heavens as a roof for the children of men and then, the almighty Guardian of the human race, created the earth.
The following day, when Cædmon was brought to the abbess Hild with his story, she had him speak with scholars of the monastery, who decided that his gift was from the grace of God. He was given a scriptural passage from which to make a song and produced a fine poem. At Hild’s urging, he entered the monastery and devoted his life to production of sacred poetry.
He died a holy death after producing many poems drawn from Scripture, none of which survive. The above example, known as “Cædmon’s Hymn,” exemplifies Old English metrics: alliterating half lines marked by formulaic diction and variation of conventional epithets, in this case for God.