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Cædmon's Works

by William J. Long

Cædmon's Works. The greatest work attributed to Cædmon is the so-called Paraphrase. It is the story of Genesis, Exodus, and a part of Daniel, told in glowing, poetic language, with a power of insight and imagination which often raises it from paraphrase into the realm of true poetry. Though we have Bede's assurance that Cædmon "transformed the whole course of Bible history into most delightful poetry," no work known certainly to have been composed by him has come down to us. In the seventeenth century this Anglo-Saxon Paraphrase was discovered and attributed to Cædmon, and his name is still associated with it, though it is now almost certain that the Paraphrase is the work of more than one writer.

Aside from the doubtful question of authorship, even a casual reading of the poem brings us into the presence of a poet rude indeed, but with a genius strongly suggestive at times of the matchless Milton. The book opens with a hymn of praise, and then tells of the fall of Satan and his rebel angels from heaven, which is familiar to us in Milton's Paradise Lost. Then follows the creation of the world, and the Paraphrase begins to thrill with the old Anglo-Saxon love of nature.

Here first the Eternal Father, guard of all,
Of heaven and earth, raisèd up the firmament,
The Almighty Lord set firm by His strong power
This roomy land; grass greened not yet the plain,
Ocean far spread hid the wan ways in gloom.
Then was the Spirit gloriously bright
Of Heaven's Keeper borne over the deep
Swiftly. The Life-giver, the Angel's Lord,
Over the ample ground bade come forth Light.
Quickly the High King's bidding was obeyed,
Over the waste there shone light's holy ray.
Then parted He, Lord of triumphant might,
Shadow from shining, darkness from the light.
Light, by the Word of God, was first named day. [30]

After recounting the story of Paradise, the Fall, and the Deluge, the Paraphrase is continued in the Exodus, of which the poet makes a noble epic, rushing on with the sweep of a Saxon army to battle. A single selection is given here to show how the poet adapted the story to his hearers:

                                        Then they saw,
Forth and forward faring, Pharaoh's war array
Gliding on, a grove of spears;--glittering the hosts!
Fluttered there the banners, there the folk the march trod.
Onwards surged the war, strode the spears along,
Blickered the broad shields; blew aloud the trumpets....
Wheeling round in gyres, yelled the fowls of war,
Of the battle greedy; hoarsely barked the raven,
Dew upon his feathers, o'er the fallen corpses--
Swart that chooser of the slain! Sang aloud the wolves
At eve their horrid song, hoping for the carrion. 

Besides the Paraphrase we have a few fragments of the same general character which are attributed to the school of Cædmon. The longest of these is Judith, in which the story of an apocryphal book of the Old Testament is done into vigorous poetry. Holofernes is represented as a savage and cruel Viking, reveling in his mead hall; and when the heroic Judith cuts off his head with his own sword and throws it down before the warriors of her people, rousing them to battle and victory, we reach perhaps the most dramatic and brilliant point of Anglo-Saxon literature.

Book: Shattered Sighs