The oldest dateable poem in ‘English’. Not the first English poem, and not composed by the first English poet, just the oldest dateable poem, and the oldest poem in English with the author’s name attached to it.
It was composed sometime before 680, while Hild was still alive and abbess at Streanaeshalch.
You can read my general introduction to Caedmon and the poem here:
Bede tells the story of the Hymn’s creation in Book 4, chapter 24 of his Ecclesiatical History of the English Church and People. Caedmon, a cowherd, slips out of the feast to avoid having to take his turn at singing, because he can’t. He is visited in his dreams by a figure who demands that he sing about the creation of the world. He does so. Waking up, he finds he can still remember his song, so he goes and sings it to the authorities. They question him; not all dream visitors are devine. But accepting this one was, they pass him on to Hild.
Bede wrote in Latin, and he paraphrased the Hymn in Latin. There’s a strand of scholarship that argues that the version we have in Old English is a back formation from Bede’s Latin, not Caedmon’s original words.
Whether Bede and his contemporaries thought it was a good song is an unaswerable question. It’s not the most exciting of poems though it does sing.
With Old English I am never convinced by my pronunciation. If you want to hear it read ‘properly’ I recommend Michael Drout’s magnificent ‘Anglo-Saxon Aloud’ web site.
You can find his reading and translation here: http://mdrout.webspace.wheatoncollege.edu/category/caedmons-hymn/