Saturday, September 6, 2014



Praise now to the keeper of the kingdom of Heaven,
the power of the Creator, the profound mind
of the glorious Father, who fashioned the beginning
of every wonder, the eternal Lord.
For the children of men he made first
heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.
Then the Lord of mankind, the everlasting Shepherd,
ordained in the midst as a dwelling-place,
Almighty Lord, the Earth, for men.

(translated by Michael Alexander)

The oldest poem in the English language by a known poet, it was recorded by the Venerable Bede in his "Ecclesiastical History of the Nation of the Angles" in 731 CE – selected, presumably, for its Christian rather than for its poetic virtues, for Caedmon was a lay brother of the Abbey at Whitby in North Umbria. Bede's version was in Latin (see below); several other dialect versions have also survived, of which this North Umbrian (northumbrian) manuscript of 749 CE is thought to be the closest to the original:-

With respect to Michael Alexander, who has no doubt done his best, and whose knowledge of the mediaeval dialects is self-evidently better than mine, his translation does not perform good service to the Hymn's author. Where is the structure of the original, deliberately echoing the caesura-form used in so many of the Psalms? Where is the repetition of "eci dryctin" from line 4 to line 8? Where are the cadences, the rhythms, the sonorities, the alliterations, the assonances and dissonances? Where, in short, is the original poem, save for a rendering in modern English of the meanings of its words?

But cross-checking this in Wikipedia because my students are bound to have done so (it is officially prohibited in many schools), I find myself ready to forgive Michael Alexander. The Wikipedia entry confirms again why it is prohibited. It is, after all, fully aware that Caedmon came from Whitby, because it says so; that Whitby is in North Umbria; that Olde Aenglish was the dialect of the folk in the south, the Umbrians being of Viking stock, the Aenglish of Anglian mixed with Saxon. But nothing of the North Umbrian text; rather, it is an Olde Aenglish rendition of the Hymn which Wikipedia chooses, alongside Bede's Latin and a modern translation so disgracefully poor it completes the vindication of Michael Alexander. And worse, it is a "mid-8th century Old English" version, a hundred years after Caedmon wrote it in North Umbrian Norse, at a time when the two languages were in process of assimilating, undergoing more significant changes that at any point in the language's history before or since (the replacement of gender forms by neutralities the most significant). Bot-knowledge is all very well for University Challenge; sadly not much use in schools that are trying to apply Bloom's Taxonomy.

Bede's version is rather better (I have no Latin, my colleague who teaches the subject gives it 9.5/10, and this only because he is unhappy about the Christian God being translated into the Roman "deus"):

Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis,
potentiam creatoris, et consilium illius
facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille,
cum sit aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor exstitit;
qui primo filiis hominum
caelum pro culmine tecti
dehinc terram custos humani generis
omnipotens creavit.

In his essay "The Dream of Coleridge", Borges tells how "Caedmon was an uneducated herdsman and was no longer young; one night he slipped away from a festive gathering because he knew that they would pass the harp to him and he also knew that he could not sing. He fell asleep in the stable near the horses, and in a dream someone called him by name and told him to sing. Caedmon replied that he did not know how to sing, but the voice said 'Sing about the origin of created things'... " The tale, though Borges does not say this, mirrors closely the Night of the Isra, on which the angel Jibril appeared to Muhammad for the first time and instructed him to read. 

"Then Caedmon recited verses he had never heard before," Borges continues"He did not forget them when he awoke, and was able to repeat them to the monks at the nearby monastery of Hild. Although he did not know how to read, the monks explained passages of sacred history to him and he ruminated on them like a clean animal and converted them into delightful verses. He sang about the creation of the world and man and the story of Genesis; the Exodus of the children of Israel and their entrance into the Promised Land; the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord; the coming of the Holy Spirit; the teaching of the Apostles; and also the terror of the Last Judgement, the horror of Infernal Punishments, the delights of Heaven, and the graces and punishments of God. He was the first sacred poet of the English nation. Bede wrote that no one equalled him because he did not learn from men, but from God. Years later he foretold the hour of his death and awaited it in sleep."

The text of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan", alongside Borges' essay "The Dream of Coleridge" can be found at The Borges essay is published in "Other inquisitions, 1937-1952", Pan, 1975)

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