Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet: Caedmon’s Hymn

by ofthewedge

As the frontiers of the Roman Empire receded towards the East, tribes crossed the North Sea to colonise southern and eastern parts of Britannia. Germanic antecedents to their language are almost lost to history. Roman Christianity however brought writing, and the Anglo-Saxons were among the earliest Germanic tribes to convert. Their own language is thus preserved in 3037 texts, dated to between 600 and 1150, containing around three million words, the equivalent of 30 medium-sized novels. Of this, 5% per cent, 30 000 lines, is poetry.

Old English poetry followed a rubric whereby its lines divided into two parts separated by a pause or caesura, and relied on the mnemonics of alliteration and metaphor rather than rhyme and simile. Its metre strongly suggests a musical accompaniment, likely the sort played by the harp found among the hoard in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Reading it you are peering into a lost pagan culture, revolving around its revered war lords dispensing treasure in mead halls after raids and battles, surrounded by barren expanses of fen and moor, refuges from crashing waves and frozen seas, from the vultures pulling the flesh from the carcasses of the fallen beyond. It is a tradition to which the Norman Conquest of 1066 put paid.

Among the oldest of these 30 000 lines are the nine that make up Caedmon’s Hymn, whose unusually copious preservation in 17 separate manuscripts is thanks to the admiration of the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (AD 731). According to Bede, Caedmon was an unschooled herder of cows – the clumsy clodhopper reimagined by the 20th century poet Denise Levertov – on the land of the monastery at Streoneshalh (Whitby) under the rule of Abbess Hild. An old man (which at the time could have meant no more than 40 years old), he would rise and return to his beasts to avoid his turn at singing as the harp circulated towards him during feasting (convivio in Bede’s original Latin, on beorscipe (‘beer drinking’) in the later Old English translation), until he was suddenly and miraculously imbued with the ability to compose skilful verse.

Here is its likely original transcription, added as a gloss to Bede’s History just after his death, in the Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon.

Nu scylan hergan            hefaenricaes uard 

metudaes maecti             end his modgidanc

uerc uuldurfadur,            sue he uundra gihuaes,

eci dryctin,                       or astelidae.

He aerist scop                  aelda barnum

heben til hrofe,                haleg scepen;

tha middengeard             moncynnaes uard,

eci dryctin,                        aefter tiadae,

firum foldu,                      frea allmectig.

This little poem coincided with the peak of the Christianising influences on the Anglo-Saxons. The people clearly warmed more immediately to the Old Testament God of Hosts than to the New Testament message of the suffering Messiah. Accordingly, the hymn consists in large part of the various names of God in apposition like in an Old Testament Psalm or the messianic prophesy of Isaiah, with lots of alliteration and a couple of the compounds or ‘kennings’ so abundant in the tradition: hefaenrīcaes Uard (heavenly ward or lord), metudæs maecti (mighty ‘measurer’ i.e. God), Uuldurfadur (glory father), ēci dryctin (eternal lord), hāleg scepen (holy creator), moncynnæs Uard (mankind’s ward), Frēa allmectig (Lord Almighty). It follows a largely trochaic metre, which means its skips along, hovering a bit over the multiple stresses and ‘u’ sounds in the third line, and the ‘double lift’ of ‘moncynnes uuard’.

Unlike the other surviving ‘elegiac’ poems, such as Beowulf, the Wanderer and the Seafarer, Caedmon’s Hymn is exclusively concerned with the eternal (ece) rather than the transitory (laene). It lacks their racy kennings, melancholy and melodrama. I think of it like Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, whose pared-back simple lyrics run to around the same length and is also accompanied by a single acoustic instrument, eschewing the genre-bending audacity of their most creative period. It goes nowhere; it just dwells in the presence of a new God, the new commander of the people’s allegiance. With each half verse comes the strum of the harp. The mead hall and revelry remain, but the eternal God has taken the place of the powerful but transitory treasure-giving lord, in whose lap the retainers were wont to nestle: Now ought we to praise our lord and creator, the poem goes, who made heaven for our roof, and middle earth as our dwelling place, and that is enough for now. The new-fangled heavenly kingdom has supplanted the earthly one.

Bede’s History includes an account of the fatalistic reflections of a pagan counsellor to Edwin, King of Northumbria and great-uncle to Abbess Hild, while they cogitated on whether to embrace the new faith.  

It seems to me thus, dearest king, that this present life of men on earth, in comparison to the time that is unknown to us, [is] as if you were sitting at your dinner tables with your noblemen, warmed in the hall, and it rained and it snowed and it hailed and one sparrow came from outside and quickly flew through the hall and it came in through one door and went out through the other. Lo! During the time that he was inside, he was not touched by the storm of the winter. But that is the blink of an eye and the least amount of time, but he immediately comes from winter into winter again. So then this life of men appears for a short amount of time; what came before or what follows after, we do not know. Therefore, if this new lore brings anything more certain and more wise, it is worthy of that that we follow it.

The inspired herdsman sings in hopeful counterpoint to this ancient bleakness.