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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #2: A Dream-Inspired Poet

Updated: Dec 22, 2023


We talked about the first known American poet, Anne Bradstreet. But what about the first English poet? Although the epithet “Father of English Poetry” has been given to another, the first known English poet was a man named Caedmon.

We find out about the Medieval poet in a work by an 8th-century historian named Bede, who wrote a book in Latin titled The History of English Church and People. Bede tells us that Caedmon spent much of his adult years in the monastery of Streonaschalh, or Whitby Abbey. The abbey was built by the Anglo-Saxon king Oswy in 657 B.C. in an area which is now located in North Yorkshire, a northeastern county in England. The ruins of the abbey may be still seen today (see picture).

Caedmon’s life as a poet and as a monk were intertwined. He started his adult life as a herder of cows and ended up as a poet and monk by chance, as it were, and not by choice. Bede tells us that the cowherd would attend feasts at which the guests were asked to sing a poem. He would quietly leave the table, however, as he was bashfully aware of his limitations. One day when he left the house, he went out to the stable and there he fell asleep with the animals. While sleeping he had a very remarkable dream. He dreamed that a man appeared to him and requested him to sing, just as he had been requested at the feast. Caedmon said humbly that he could not, but the man insisted. “But you will sing to me,” he said. Caedmon then asked what song he wanted to hear. The man replied, “Sing to me about creation.” Then it happened that the floodgates of Caedmon’s poetic soul were opened, and he poured forth such sweet melody that when he awoke, he remembered every word. He told his superior, the reeve, and the reeve took him to the abbess. When Caedmon gave an account of how he acquired his skill, she took him to the learned men in the abbey who listened to him recite his verses. They quickly recognized that his gift of poetry was no ordinary gift; it was a gift from God.

Caedmon’s only surviving work is called today “Caedmon’s Hymn,” and most likely this is the poem talked about in the story of the dream, as it is about creation. The poem is written in Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, and is difficult or near impossible for modern readers to enjoy except in translation.

Caedmon's Hymn

nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard

metudæs maecti end his modgidanc

uerc uuldurfadur swe he uundra gihwaes

eci dryctin or astelidæ

he aerist scop aelda barnum

heben til hrofe haleg scepen.

tha middungeard moncynnæs uard

eci dryctin æfter tiadæ

firum foldu frea allmectig

Translation of Caedmon's Hymn in Modern English:

Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,

the might of the architect, and his purpose,

the work of the father of glory[47] — as he the beginning of wonders

established, the eternal lord,

He first created for the children of men[48]

heaven as a roof, the holy creator

Then the middle earth, the guardian of mankind

the eternal lord, afterwards appointed

the lands for men,[49] the Lord almighty.

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