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Life of Cædmon

by William J. Long

Life of Cædmon. What little we know of Cædmon, the Anglo-Saxon Milton, as he is properly called, is taken from Bede's account of the Abbess Hilda and of her monastery at Whitby. Here is a free and condensed translation of Bede's story:

There was, in the monastery of the Abbess Hilda, a brother distinguished by the grace of God, for that he could make poems treating of goodness and religion. Whatever was translated to him (for he could not read) of Sacred Scripture he shortly reproduced in poetic form of great sweetness and beauty. None of all the English poets could equal him, for he learned not the art of song from men, nor sang by the arts of men. Rather did he receive all his poetry as a free gift from God, and for this reason he did never compose poetry of a vain or worldly kind.

Until of mature age he lived as a layman and had never learned any poetry. Indeed, so ignorant of singing was he that sometimes, at a feast, where it was the custom that for the pleasure of all each guest should sing in turn, he would rise from the table when he saw the harp coming to him and go home ashamed. Now it happened once that he did this thing at a certain festivity, and went out to the stall to care for the horses, this duty being assigned to him for that night. As he slept at the usual time, one stood by him saying: "Cædmon, sing me something." "I cannot sing," he answered, "and that is why I came hither from the feast." But he who spake unto him said again, "Cædmon, sing to me." And he said, "What shall I sing?" and he said, "Sing the beginning of created things." Thereupon Cædmon began to sing verses that he had never heard before, of this import: "Now should we praise the power and wisdom of the Creator, the works of the Father." This is the sense but not the form of the hymn that he sang while sleeping.

When he awakened, Cædmon remembered the words of the hymn and added to them many more. In the morning he went to the steward of the monastery lands and showed him the gift he had received in sleep. The steward brought him to Hilda, who made him repeat to the monks the hymn he had composed, and all agreed that the grace of God was upon Cædmon. To test him they expounded to him a bit of Scripture from the Latin and bade him, if he could, to turn it into poetry. He went away humbly and returned in the morning with an excellent poem. Thereupon Hilda received him and his family into the monastery, made him one of the brethren, and commanded that the whole course of Bible history be expounded to him. He in turn, reflecting upon what he had heard, transformed it into most delightful poetry, and by echoing it back to the monks in more melodious sounds made his teachers his listeners. In all this his aim was to turn men from wickedness and to help them to the love and practice of well doing.

[Then follows a brief record of Cædmon's life and an exquisite picture of his death amidst the brethren.] And so it came to pass [says the simple record] that as he served God while living in purity of mind and serenity of spirit, so by a peaceful death he left the world and went to look upon His face.