The Procession of Allusions to God in British Poetry from the Beginning: God's Acts and the Response of Poets

By Blain, Rob | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Procession of Allusions to God in British Poetry from the Beginning: God's Acts and the Response of Poets


Blain, Rob, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


"Let all the world in every corner sing 'My God and King!'

George Herbert

The human heart enjoys this glorious world and all wonders of nature and mankind, and the mind thinks, "The scope of it is beyond me." "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it." (1) We sense what is beyond us and are reminded, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp/Or what's a heaven for?" (2) Expressions of wonder at and devotion to God have always and will always pervade English literature. In fact, writers in every generation give new, creative expressions of their own experience and faith which show a continuing development of ingenuity but which also accurately display the revelation of biblical experience and authenticity.

The revelation of God and His life-changing, redeeming love and power is revealed in the writings of those whose lives are changed and who sing the praises of Him who, alone, is capable of redeeming life. The variety of expressions of his life, goodness and power is astounding. Early British literature's many references to God intervening in the lives of men and women and giving the gift of poetry, song, praise and revelation to God's greatness include "Caedmon's Hymn," (the best known) which tells of Caedmon being gifted with poetry and song which he was incapable of producing before a visitation by "a being," or "a certain person," or "One," who bid him sing even though Caedmon, a laborer, protests that he could not. In fact, three related early English references to the gift of God to compose poetry (and song) are recorded in "Caedmon's Hymn," "The Dream of the Rood," and Cynewulfs "Elene."

   The critical moment for Caedmon comes, of course, unexpectedly: But
   on an evening when he had the care of the cattle he fell asleep in
   the stable; and One stood by him, and saluting him, said, 'Caedmon,
   sing me something.' And he answered, 'I know not how to sing, and
   for this reason I left the feast.' Then the other said,
   'Nevertheless, you will have to sing to me.' 'What shall I sing?'
   Caedmon replied. 'Sing,' said the other, 'the beginning of things
   created.' Whereupon he immediately began to sing in praise of God,
   the [Creator], verses which he had not heard before.' (3)

The next morning, Caedmon tells his foreman, the reeve, who takes him to the abbess and an examination of his gift is done before "the most learned men and scholars" to determine what the gift was and from whence it came. "Then it was seen by all even as it was, that to him from God Himself a heavenly gift had been given." (4)

Caedmon is then continuously able to produce verse for perhaps ten to twenty years encompassing the whole story of Creation, the Fall, the Redemption of man and the coming Judgment, and, says Bede, "Others after him tried to make religious poems in the English nation, but none could compare with him and no vain or trivial song came from his lips." (5) The text of Caedmon's original hymn is true to scripture and as one translation puts it simply Caedmon sang:

   [P]raise the Guardian of the kingdom of heaven, the might of God
   and the wisdom of his spirit, the work of the Father of Glory, in
   that he, the eternal Lord, ordained the beginning of everything
   that is wonderful. (6)

Caedmon's being included in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People is evidence in itself that the Venerable Bede, a scholar, historian, and dedicated monk who lived his life in a community of pious dedication and study, valued Caedmon and his work, only a sliver of which survives.

This first example of reference to God in British literature is true to biblical understanding of God and the human experience. It is a comparator and tests well with scripture itself which calls for testing and proving the authenticity of what is good: "Every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of change" . …

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