Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Caedmon's Dream, Part III

From the series "Ring Hoard"

This whole Saxon revival thing was sparked up, initially, when I stumbled across the story of Caedmon and his dream. The source, once again, is Bede's Ecclesiastical History (Book IV, chapter xxiv) but it's a story that has fascinated many people, and -- like the tale of the sparrow flying through the hall -- you come across it all over the place. Poets, particularly, are drawn to Caedmon: he is, after all, the first named English poet. You might say that this is nothing less than the foundation myth of English literature.

"Caedmon's Hymn" is, in itself, one of the lesser items in the less than mighty Old English corpus. It sits alongside some "Mercian Hymns" and "Kentish Charters" in an unenticing section of Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader entitled "Examples of non-West-Saxon dialects". It is unremarkable, in other words, until you attach the story told by Bede to it. The story goes like this:

Caedmon was a stable hand in the employ of the abbey at Whitby, which was run by a converted Saxon noblewoman called Hilda (I'm pretty sure this was not considered an intrinsically amusing name in the 7th century). Now, in those days people had to make their own entertainment and so the possession of a party piece was more or less de rigueur. Obviously, the bar was not set high for the party piece of a cowherd, but nonetheless the ability to pipe up with an amusing song while your companions drank themselves insensible was not considered an unreasonable expectation.

This Caedmon, however, had somehow never got the hang of singing, and would always slope off home to the stable whenever it came round to his turn to sing. Bede does not record whether this coincided with his turn to buy a round, but you might wonder. Anyway, one night after he had made his customary retreat from the merry-making back to his hayloft Caedmon had one of those curious Saxon-style dreams, in which a mysterious being appears by your bed and starts issuing instructions, commands, and prophesies. Clearly, there were more angels out and about at that time than we encounter nowadays, or perhaps there were more nocturnal intruders with a good line in exculpatory improvisation.

Whatever, this one got straight down to business and -- rather spitefully for an angel -- went directly for our man's vulnerable spot. He/she/it spake thusly: "Caedmon, sing me a song".

In Bede's words:

He answered, "I cannot sing; for that was the reason why I left the entertainment, and retired to this place, because I could not sing." The other who talked to him, replied, "However, you shall sing." ­ "What shall I sing?" rejoined he. "Sing the beginning of created beings," said the other.
So he did, and very good it was, too. When he woke up he could remember it all, and it wasn't just nonsense about scrambled eggs, so he added some new bits as well. "Caedmon's Hymn" had arrived.

From the series "Ring Hoard"

Now, it's fairly obvious that a hymn of praise to the Lord of Creation was not going to raise the roof at the next cowherd's bash. Moreover, any talk of angels visiting stable lads in the night was going to raise eyebrows in the monastery, so Caedmon was brushed off, scrubbed up and wheeled in to see the Abbess Hilda herself.

Abbess Hilda (that's Saint Hilda to you) was no innocent. She had been part of the same extended, incestously intertwined pagan royal family that gave us King Edwin of Northumbria, about whom we heard in Part II. Persuaded to convert in her thirties by the same missionary, Paulinus, she went on to an illustrious career as a sort of monastic trouble-shooter, stamping out any funny stuff, imposing discipline, encouraging learning, and eventually setting up a veritable bishop-factory at her own abbey at Whitby. She died amid an appropriate son et lumière of piety, with various susceptible nuns seeing simultaneous visions of Hilda's soul ascending to heaven.

OK, so Caedmon is brought before that Hilda. Perhaps suspecting that her pious leg was being pulled, but impressed nonetheless, she sets a test. In Bede's words:
They expounded to him a passage in holy writ, either historical or doctrinal, ordering him, if he could, to put the same into verse. Having undertaken it, he went away and, returning the next morning, gave it to them composed in most excellent verse; whereupon the abbess, embracing the grace of God in the man, instructed him to quit the secular habit, and take upon him the monastic life; which being accordingly done, she associated him to the rest of the brethren in her monastery, and ordered that he should be taught the whole series of sacred history.
Nice move, Caedmon! Say goodbye, draughty stable, and get belly-up to the top table -- talk about singing for your supper! No wonder poets have found him such an inspiration over the years.

The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I

was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me — light effacing my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.

from Caedmon, by Denise Levertov *
Caedmon lived out his life as a devout monk, turning out religious verse like, Bede says, a cow chewing on the cud of the sacred history he was fed. Of course, once you get used to the regular meals and the dry bedding, the monastic life is not to everyone's taste. Here is an extract from a poem by the excellent Ian Duhig which puts it in perspective:

Lord I know, and I know you know I know
this is a drudge's penance. Only dull scholars
or cowherds maddened with cow-watching
will ever read
The Grey Psalter of Antrim.
I have copied it these thirteen years
waiting for the good bits -- High King of the Roads,
are there any good bits in
The Grey Psalter of Antrim?

(text illegible here because of teeth-marks.)

from: Margin Prayer from an Ancient Psalter, by Ian Duhig
Don't you love those teeth-marks? "Hey, brother Caedmon, chew me a song out of this!"

Next:  Caedmon's Hymn (finally).

From the series "Ring Hoard"

* The Biblically-minded among you may see a reference to Isaiah 6 here, where the angel touches a hot coal from the altar to Isaiah's lips to purify him for prophesy. Isaiah 6:4 is one of my favorite bits of Biblical language: "And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke". Boom!

1 comment:

Gustaf Erikson said...

I loved this little series about Old English, thanks! The images are cool too.