Caedmon, a middle-aged stablehand, was at a festive dinner with his friends, where each man played a tune and sang in turn; however, he was scared and left as he saw the lyre coming his way. Yet in his sleep, an angel accosted him and in his sleep asked him to sing.
Caedmon protested, “But I left the feast because I could not sing, and even then about what would I sing?”
The angel pushed, “Sing of the beginning of created things.”
And Caedmon responded:
Nu sculon herigean / heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte / and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder, / swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten, / or onstealde.
He ærest sceop / eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe, / halig scyppend;
þa middangeard / moncynnes weard,
ece drihten, / æfter teode
firum foldan, / frea ælmihtig.
And the translation into Modern English*:
Now we must praise / the Protector of the heavenly kingdom,
the might of the Measurer / and His mind-plans,
the work of the Glory-Father, as He for each of the wonders,
the eternal Lord, / established a beginning.
He shaped first / for the sons of the Earth
heaven as a roof, / the Holy Maker;
then the Middle-World, / mankind’s Guardian,
the eternal Lord, / made afterwards,
solid ground for men, / the almighty Lord.
This was the first poem we have in the English language, and one of the most beautiful. From the mouth of a stablehand who had never sung, let alone written poetry, we see a glimpse of a world at once distant and instant. The images of God as sovereign are tightly woven together – the Lord as the Measurer of life (possibly an allusion to Lachesis), as protective Father for the powerless, and the Pantokrator, the hegemon of heaven. Yet Caedmon also alludes to God’s role as roofer and foundation layer – the celestial contractor. Caedmon’s vision of God is divine and practical – he is the eternal God who planned the course of the universe, yet he’s also the one who put down the tile.
In this way, and certainly many more, I’ve thought about Caedmon’s poem for many years. For me, it is so appealing because of the deft balance between the two ways that I commune with God – the intimate closeness of my personal relationship with Him and the deep astonishment at the wonders of His Creation. And of course, Caedmon is the first in one of the greatest traditions we have – poetry, which lasted us until the time of Cervantes. More than 1200 years later, Caedmon yet sings afresh.
*This is a common translation that I have seen in the Norton Anthology of English Literature.