You could be forgiven for looking at the town of Whitby in Northern England and thinking someone had realised an ideal of a fishing village. It looks like a post card. The houses clutter the steeply rising slopes on either side of the narrow estuary. A ruined abbey stands out on the headland, refusing to be assimilated into the modern sprawl. The fishing boats still go out from the working harbour, passing the replica of Cook’s Endeavour and the boat rides, both closed for winter when I was there. Its tune is the rhythmic creaking of the wheeling gulls, punctuated by the venting brakes of tourist coaches.
Like a ‘text’ in a modern theory driven class, what you look for in Whitby shapes what you see. For the lover of gothic fiction, this is where Bram Stoker brought Dracula ashore. Go up the ‘hundred steps’ to St Mary’s church and you too can wander where Bram happily recorded names and dates from the grave stones that hadn’t been eroded by the salt gales. If you come from Australia, there’s Captain Cook and the Endeavour. There’s a whaling history and a boat building history. There’s the famous abbey where the synod decided when Easter should be and how monks should cut their hair. There’s even a Cafe that boasts the best fish and chips in Great Britain. But if you’re interested in English poetry, this is where Caedmon first sang his famous ‘Hymn’.
For the past twenty years I have been obliged, professionally, to read, discuss, and teach a thing called ‘literary theory. But perhaps perversely, I cling to the idea that real people write poems for reasons that are real to them. They often do it in specific places and there is something to be gained by going there.
The first time I went to Whitby, the Abbey was locked. According to the brochure, on the days the abbey was open to the public, there are actors dressed as historical characters who ‘interact with the visitors’. Twenty years ago, had I met Caedmon, I would have interacted with him by throwing him over the cliff. I would have probably been canonized by all those students who bruised their patience against the most famous piece of Old English Poetry besides Beowulf. Not that the hymn is long; at nine lines, it’s a mere doodle by OE standards. Nor is it difficult to translate. The frustration comes from the fact that nothing you can do will make those nine lines look ‘interesting’ in modern English. ‘Professional’ attempts at translation, Paul Muldoon’s for example, suggest the piece is little more than a list.[i]
The story is told by Bede. An evening, sometime between 658 and 680 AD, near or in the abbey of Whitby (Streanaeshalch) in Northumbria.[ii] It’s a double monastery, which means that it contains both monks and nuns and is ruled over by a woman, Hild. After the meal everyone takes it in turn to sing. Embarrassed by his inability, Caedmon, the man who looks after the cattle, sneaks out of the room. Safe in the hay with his beasts, he’s soon asleep. In his dream a figure appears: ‘Caedmon, sing something.’
‘I can not sing’, he replies.
‘But you will sing to me’
‘What shall I sing?’
‘Sing about the creation.’
And so he does. Waking up, he finds he remembers the song and rushes to find officials. At first they are suspicious; not all dream visitors are welcome. They take him to the abbess who has him examined. Soon they are mollified.
The story is told by Bede in the influential, ‘A History of the English Church and People’ and ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’ enters English history in a Latin Paraphrase. Bede summarised the poem, but his Old English translator wrote it out, and it appears in the margins of some of the Latin manuscripts. In Price’s translation, Bede describes Caedmon’s later productions as ‘delightful and moving poetry’ and writes: ‘Others after him tried to compose religious poems in English, but none could compare with him…’(Price 1955. 251) Although Bede says he went on to compose many more pieces, nothing else survives.
Recently scholars have argued that what does survive are not the words Caedmon sang, but a later, back translation from Bede’s Latin paraphrase. There are different Old English versions. The translation at the start of the Norton Anthology of English Literature is in fact a translation of a composite of these versions. That ‘Caedmon’s Hymn' might be a translation of versions of a Latin Paraphrase of a lost original composed in Old English by a man with a British name, adapting a story he may have heard first in Latin is just one of literature’s delightful tangles.
For a reader used to the maneuvers of modern poetry, it’s tempting to say that if this is divine poetry, then God has IF framed on the office walls and a complete set of Robert Service (leather bound) on the shelves. But leaving the poem to one side for a moment, the story of its composition, standing at the beginning of the history of poetry in English, offers a range of interpretative possibilities. There’s at least two ways of thinking about the packaging that is the story.
The first, most obvious, would be to lament all that Bede doesn’t tell us. He’s like a witness to a turning point in history who insists on telling you about the hat his mother was wearing. What kind of songs were sung at the table before Caedmon ran away? Were they songs in the modern sense, of composed texts which exist prior to, and independent of, a particular performance, or were they improvised pieces? It’s difficult to imagine being the tenth person at a table waiting for your turn to sing if the pieces were of the length of ‘The Wanderer’ or ‘The Seafarer’. Does the story point to a type of ‘poem’, like the hymn, short, well known, but now lost? Did the women sing? Did they sing the same songs as the men? And how did the people at the table react to Caedmon’s song when they finally heard it? Did they agree with Bede about its quality? Were they astonished by the quality of the poem or by the fact it was Caedmon who created it? There’s nothing short of a time machine that could rescue the information.
Or, secondly, we can play the games I’m supposed to teach my students. Here, on the ground floor, we can watch the process of Canon Formation at work. Literature is an institutionalized art form. Quality is not the issue: power is. The text carries with it the validation of Caedmon’s name and the story of its composition: it’s not just any nine lines scribbled in the margins. It has the backing of one of the most powerful intellectual establishments of the age: the monastery of Whitby, with the added weight of it having taken place during Hild’s impressive rule. The story is told by the most influential historian of early British history, the poem transmitted in a book that will dominate English historiography for centuries. And it is divinely inspired.
We can interrogate the story by asking the questions it won’t answer and reveal the bias at work. How many visions went unrecorded? How many divinely inspired bits of doggerel were forgotten? In the religious atmosphere of the seventh century, was Whitby the only abbey where this happened; Caedmon the only person it happened to? Did Bede know other stories and reject them because it didn’t fit his agenda? Or was Whitby’s PR simply more effective than that of its rivals?
However, when you’ve finished, when you’ve explored the cultural context, the power relationships, the gaps and silences, when someone has inevitably used the word patriarchal, you have to accept the given facts of the art form. It’s not fair. There must have been many poets who never had a John Taylor to stand beside them until their third volume made a reputation, and many Emily Dickensons whose families burnt the box of paper under the bed. How many Hamlet’s were unfinished because their writers died of plague or pox or were stabbed to death in some seedy Southwark back alley. There seems to be something faintly absurd, if not actually pointless, in showing that Bede wrote this ‘text’ for his own purposes, not ours and that his story carries with it the values of its time. This seems a characteristic maneuver where I work; however, I live within walking distance of the Pacific Ocean. I don’t need to travel all the way to Whitby to discover that the North Sea is wet.
The reality, from Caedmon to the reviews in today’s journal, is that any art form requires power brokers. The poet needs partisans: publishers or editors or critics, people who will promote his or her work, first to an audience and secondly to avoid Hardy’s ‘second death’. The history of English literature is characterized by the way different groups have been marginalized; by fashion, by prejudice, by politics. The difficulty, however, is while the theorist and the poet might rail at this apparent injustice, a visit to authorsden.com reveals what happens when anyone can publish whatever they like. Why some writers receive support and others don’t is often unfathomable. The argument that quality will always rise to the surface is comforting but untenable. But so is the argument that power is the only factor in a text’s reception. Simply promoting the poem as divinely inspired is not going to make it popular if it didn’t fit in with existing ideals of excellence.
While you can play endless games with the packaging, the hymn itself seems to resist most attempts to deal with it. If this is the cornerstone of the anthology that is ‘Poetry in English’ then it is rough hewn and refuses to be conscripted to the service of anachronistic reading practices or assimilated to later ‘schools of poetry’. Like the ruined abbey, it has an essential awkwardness that doesn’t see the need to apologise.
Approaches to Caedmon, whether to his story or his hymn, usually carry more than a whiff of anachronism. Older commentaries judge his Hymn by comparing it to what it isn’t. While not central to the ‘miraculous ‘ nature of the event, at the edge of most interpretations, the adjectives ‘illiterate’ and ‘unlearned/ignorant’ are lurking, waiting for an invitation to attach themselves to ‘cow herd’. The assumptions that the literate have a monopoly on composition, or that there is something inimical to creating poetry in being a ploughman or a farmer, are both snobbery. In an oral society, literacy is an irrelevance, if not an actual impediment. And ‘learned’ is a loaded judgment. Caedmon probably knew a great deal more about keeping cattle than most Anglo-Saxon scholars. He obviously knew a great deal more about Anglo-Saxon poetry ‘on the pulses’ than they do.[iii]
But then so much of our literary history and criticism is tangled with politics and snobbery. The reading practices and pleasures refined by reading what students were taught to appreciate, became an ‘objective standard’ to measure something completely different. Old English has taken no part in the development of modern reading practices. Readers who know no Greek or Latin will still accept, on a trust founded on nothing but tradition and snobbery, that there is something wonderful about a poetry they can only access in translation, no matter how flat and banal those translations appear. They are ready to believe that a tedious story in which a bunch of juvenile thugs, interacting withsome ‘Gods’ who wouldn’t pass a maturity test in a primary school, argue over a brutalized girl, before lots of people are killed, is an undying ‘classic of world literature’ while Beowulf is an incoherent children’s story about monsters and Caedmon’s hymn is a poor poem.
Like some of the stranger places I’ve stayed in on a journey to somewhere else, Old English has rarely been more than a compulsory stop over on the high road to Chaucer and the Renaissance. These days it’s not even that. Where I work, the journey starts with Shakespeare, and you either take the ruined bypass to the Romantics or find all the road signs are down and no one seems to be able to give meaningful directions.
We had hired a car to drive to Whitby. For some reason we were ‘upgraded’. It was the kind of vehicle I’d only seen behind plate glass. The hire company had kindly forgotten to include the driving manual. We got there and back, but I never did find out what all the buttons were for, or what I could have done with the beast. It’s the same with Caedmon’s poem. We simply don’t know how it was ‘read’. Whatever the original subjective experience, it is lost to us. Reading it like a modern poem, looking for balance and irony and paradox, may be one way of driving the beast, but I’d be willing to bet that wasn’t what its original operators did with it. Trying to use a chair as a bicycle is a frustrating experience.
Twenty years after I’d hurled Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer against the wall, I stumbled over Caedmon’s poem in a totally different context and learnt that spoken aloud, the original sings. Inveigled into reciting it as part of a concert to commemorate St Hilda’s day, I can vouch for the sound of it and my stunned realisation of its music coming out of the speakers to fill the silence of a packed concert hall. Something I had dismissed as trivial asserted itself as worthy of notice. Translated, it doesn’t work. In the original it has a supple, carved resilience.
It is also a poem about something; a criticism that can’t always be leveled at modern poems. It reminds us that irony isn’t the only game in town, and to a modern reader used to the ‘post modern/post romantic’ games poets use to hedge the lyric /I/, there’s something almost confronting about the total absence of self-effacement. There’s no knowing wink to the audience, no attempt to have it both ways by saying one thing and suggesting you don’t really believe it. If you were living in the seventh century, there would have been so many forces trying to efface you that not helping them was probably a healthy survival instinct. Reading backwards, its easy to forget that Christianity was not the dominant hegemonic force it would become. People were still dying in Britain for belief. If we live in a relativist universe, then Caedmon lived in one where belief systems were clashing, not metaphorically, but on the battle field. Race and creed were literally life and death matters, not literary tropes that had been abstracted to the university.
Perhaps the hymn’s only real ambivalence is that it is devotional without being denominational in any obvious way. There’s no sense here of a message hermetically coded for a small group of cognoscenti. Instead there’s something obdurate and durable. There’s celebration, but also the sense of someone leaning into the wind. Belief then, as now, was an act of exposure. Just as the Abbey sits on a hilltop jutting into the sea, the poem forces itself forward to assert its presence. Not only does Caedmon use the first person, he uses the first person plural. There is the implicit assumption that he not only speaks for himself to others; he speaks for others as well. The poem is an invitation to express what the poet assumes is a sentiment his immediate audience can share. It has more in common with the compulsive rhythms of the old mass book; belief organised into metrical units of memorable words I can still recite thirty years later; than the introspective games of some modern poems.
At the top of the hundred steps (which aren’t actually a hundred) there’s a fake Celtic cross. Under Hilda, there’s a carving of a man with a harp of sorts and the words: ‘To the glory of God and memory of Caedmon, the father of English sacred song’. Given the quality of some Medieval religious lyrics, and of some of the hymns that have been written in English down the years, it’s not a title anyone could find embarrassing.
So perhaps, going to Whitby wasn’t such a waste after all. (And yes, the fish and chips were very good). We were lucky. It was one of those rare winter days when the North Sea is a flat reflection of a deep northern-blue sky that looked like it would shatter if you touched it. You don’t need to be conventionally religious in any denominational sense to realise the ‘spirituality’ of the place. You can imagine Caedmon here, watching spring, after the long winter, the first flowers on the headlands bringing colour back to the world, and see why he’d praise God the maker.
[i] Paul Muldoon’s translation can be found in Moy Sand and Gravel Farrar Straus and Giroux New York 2002
[ii] Caedmon’s story is told by Bede in Chapter 24 of Book Four of his ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People’ that Leo Shirely Price translated for Penguin as ‘A History of the English Church and People’. It’s not clear if the story begins in the Abbey or nearby. Bede’s Latin text was translated into Old English. The conversation in the Old English version is the best bit of the whole story. I have merely summarized it.
[iii] One of the great exceptions to all this is Seamus Heaney’s poem Whitby-sur-Moyalla.