Caedmon's Hymn

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:

http://www.liamguilar.com/articles#/caedmon

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/

Liam Guilar's 'Two stories from Bede'

These poems are from ‘A Presentment of Englishry’ (Shearsman Books, 2019) where they form the first of two ‘interludes’ between the three major narratives in the book.

Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ was written in 731 AD.

Story One: Recovering Oswald’s Relics.

Oswald, King of Northumbria was defeated by Penda of Mercia in 642. Oswald’s body was dismembered and his head and limbs displayed on stakes. A year later, Oswald’s brother and successor, Oswiu, lead what modern media would describe as a ‘daring raid deep behind enemy lines’ to recover his brother’s head, hand and arm. The story about the raven is told by Reginald of Durham in the twelfth century.

I am intrigued by the reality of this story, hence the poem.

Story Two. The Death fo King Sigbert of East Anglia

The details of Sigbert’s story are basically as told by Bede. He was another of Penda’s victims. Or of his upbringing. Or circumstance. How much choice do you have?

from the Old English 'The Dream of the Rood'.

Inanimate things speak in Old English poetry, often in ways that are ambigious and thought provoking.

in this case, the Cross manages to convey the painful ambiguity of its response. It wants to crush the enemies of Christ. it wants to bend and break. Instead it does its duty, stands fast and allows the eager hero to mount his gallows.

The poem begins with a speaker anouncing that he will tell us ‘The dream of dreams!’. He tells us how he dreamt about the Rood, the Cross on which Christ was crucified. He describes how the Cross appears, and his descripiton acts as a fame or at least an introduction before the Cross itself begins to speak. The passage I’m reading contains the last four lines of the intial dream description and then the opening portion of the Rood’s story of itself.

This is Michael Alexander’s translation from ‘The Earliest English Poems’ published by Penguin Classics, which has recently been reissued as ‘The First Poems in English’. You can hear the whole poem read in Old English by Micheal Drout at http://mdrout.webspace.wheatoncollege.edu/category/dream-of-the-rood/

P.S

The modern title is ambigious. The Poem is not the dream belonging to the Rood, it’s the dream about the Rood.

Old English, From 'The Battle of Maldon' Byrhtnoth's reply to the Viking Messenger.

This is a short extract in Old English taken from ‘The Battle Of Maldon’ an Old English poem written sometime after the battle, which occurred in August 991.

The modern statue of Byrhtnoth, looking down towards the site of the battle

The modern statue of Byrhtnoth, looking down towards the site of the battle

 An English force, lead by Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, trapped a Viking army on an Island in the river Pant, now the Blackwater in Essex. The island was, and still is, separated from the mainland by a causeway covered by the tide. 

Prior to this extract, the Vikings have sent a messenger to Byrthnoth.  If he agrees to pay them off they will sail away. This is his reply.

I’ve attempted the reading in Old English because the poem loses so much even in the best of translations: Byrhtnoth’s bitter joke about Heriot is not the only part that needs footnotes, so this is a very simple gloss.

Byrhtnoth spoke, raised his shield, brandished the slender ash spear, angry and resolute, gave back his answer: ‘Do you hear seaman, what this folk say? They will give you bitter point and trusted sword for tribute, a heriot that will be of little use to you in battle. Go back and tell a more unpleasant tale. Here stands an Earl, undisgraced, with his troop, who will defend this land, my lord Aethelred’s land, folk and fold. Heathens will fall in battle! I think it too shameful that you should go to your ships with our treasure without a fight; to have come so far into our country unopposed. You shall not so easily gain treasure; first point and edge, grim battle play, will decide between us before we will give you any tribute’.