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.

   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. Bede’s version was in Latin; several other dialect versions have also survived, of which this Northumbrian manuscript of 749 CE is thought to be the closest to the original:-

Nu seylum hergam               hefaenricaes vard,
metudaes maecti                   end his modgidanc,
verc vuldurfadur,                 sue he vundra girhuaes,
eci dryctin                             or astelidae.
He aerist scop                       aelda barnum
heben til hrofe,                     haleg scepen;
tha middungeard                 moncynnaes vard,
eci dryctin,                            aefter tiadae,
firum foldu,                          frea allmetic.

   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 is an insult to its author. Where is the structure of the original? Where is the repetition of “eci dryctin”? 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?

   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. 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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