A part of history of english literature and the christian poetry -
RELATED INTRODUCTION BRIEFLY AND THE THEMATIC MEANING
TO ONLY UNDERSTAND THE POEM--‘Caedmon’s hymn’
BRITAIN, ENGLAND AND ENGLISH
‚The cliffs of England stand
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.‛
Matthew Arnold, ‘Dover Beach’ (c.1851)
The cliffs at Dover were often the first of Britain seen by early incomers and have become a familiar
symbol of England, and of the fact that England is on an island. These cliffs are part of what the
Romans, perhaps from as early as the 2nd century, had called the Saxon Shore: the south-eastern
shores of Britain often raided by Saxons. The Romans left Britain, after four centuries of occupation,
early in the 5th century. Later in that century the Angels and Saxons took over the lion’s share of the
island of Britain. By 700, they had occupied the parts of Great Britain which the Romans had made
part of their empire. This part later became known as Engla-land, the land of the Angels, and its
language was to become English.
It is not always recognized especially outside Britain and England are not the same thing. Thus,
Shakespeare’s King Lear ends by the cliff and beach at Dover, but Lear was king not of England but
of Britain, in that legendary period of its history when it was pre-Christian and pre-English. The
English Romantic poet William Blake was thinking of the legendary origins of his country when he
asked in his ‘Jerusalem’--
“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain’s green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?”
William Blake here recalls the ancient legend that Jesus came with Joseph of Arimathea to
Glastonbury, in Somerset. One answer to his wondering question would be: ‘No, on Britain’s.’
“The fields of Ireland are rich and green with learners, and with numerous
readers, grazing there like flocks, even as the pivots of the poles are brilliant
with the starry quivering of the shining constellations. Yet, Britain, placed, if
you like, almost at the extreme edge of the Western clime, has also its flaming
sun and its lucid moon…”
Literature is written language. Human settlement, in Britain as elsewhere, preceded recorded
history by some millennia, and English poetry preceded writing by some generations. The first
poems that could conceivably be called ‘English’ were the songs that might have been heard from
the boats crossing the narrow seas to the ‘Saxon Shore’ to conquer Britannia. ‘Thus sung they in the
English boat’, Andrew Marvell was to write.
The people eventually called the English were once separated peoples: Anglo-Saxons and Jutes. St.
Bede recounts in his Latin ‘Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum’, that the Jutes were invited into
Kent in 449 to save the British king do from the Saxons and Picts. The Jutes liked what they saw
and, by about 600 the lion’s share of Britannia had fallen to them, and to Saxons and Angles. The
Celtic Britons who did not accept this went west, to Cornwall and Wales. The new masters of Britain
spoke a Germanic language, in which ‘Wales’ is a word for ‘foreigners’. Other Britons, says Bede,
lived beyond the northern moors, in what is now Strathclyde, and beyond them lived the Picts, in
northern and eastern Scotland.
‚Wayland knew the wanderer’s fate:
That single-willed earl suffered agonies,
Sorrow and longing the sole companions
Of his ice-cold exile. Anxieties bit
When Nithhad put a knife to his hamstrings,
Laid clever bonds on the better man.
That went by; this may too.‛
English was first written about the year 600 when King AEthelred of Kent was persuaded by
St.Augustine of Canterbury that he needed a written law-code; it was written with the Roman
The people to be called the English lived in a mosaic of small tribal kingdoms, which gradually
amalgamated. The threat of Danish conquest began to unify a nation under King Alfred of Wessex (d
899). Under his successors, Angel-cynn (the English people and their territory) became Engla-lond,
the land of the English, and finally England. English Literature, which had flourished for four
centuries, was dethroned at the Norman Conquest in 1066, and for some generations it was not
After 1066 the English wrote in Latin as they had done before the Conquest, but now also in French.
English continued to be written in places like Medehamstead Abbey (modern Peterborough), where
the monks kept up The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle until 1152. Not very much English writing survives
from the hundred years following Conquest, but changes in the language of the Peterborough
Chronicle indicate a new phase. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (AS) is a Renaissance Latin term, used to designate
both the people and the language of pre-Conquest England.
The Angles and Saxons conquered what is now called England in the 5th
and 6th centuries. In the 7th
century, Christian missionaries taught
the English to write. The English wrote down law-codes, and late their
poems. Northumbria soon produced Caedmon and Bede. Heroic poetry, of a
Christian kind, is the chief legacy of old English literature, notably
Beowulf and the Elegies. A considerable prose literature grew up after
Alfred (d.899). There were four centuries of writing in English before
the Norman Conquest.
“Lo! We have heard of twelve mighty heroes
Honoured under heaven in days of old,
Thanes of God. Their glory failed not
In the clash of banners,the brunt of war,
After they were scattered and spread abroad
As their lots were cast by the Lord of heaven.”
The modern academic convention of calling the people Anglo-Saxons and their language Old English
should not detract from the point that people were English, and that their literature is
EnglishLiterature. Linguistically and historically, the English poems composed by Caedmon after
670 and Bede (673-735) are the earliest we know of. Manuscripts (MSS) of their works became
hard to read, and were little read between the Middle Ages and the reign of Queen Victoria, when
they were properly published. Only then could they take their place in English Literary history. Old
English is now well understood but looks so different from the English of today that it cannot be
read or made out by a well educated reader in the way that the writings of Shakespeare and
Chaucer can: it has to be learned.
Linguistically the relationship between the English of AD1000 and that of AD 2000might be
compares to that between Latin and modern French. Culturally, however, the English of 1000 had
none of authority of Latin. The supreme achievement of Greek literature comes at the beginning
with the Iliad of Homer (8th century); and that of Italian Literature, the Commedia of Dante (d
1321), comes very early. Any idea that Old English poetry will be of historical interest only doesn’t
survive the experience of reading Old English poetry in the original or even in some translations.
Old English Literature is part of English Literature, and some of it deserves discussion here on
literary merit. Besides merit, it needed luck, the luck to be committed to writing and to survive. The
Angels, the Saxons and The Jutes were illiterate: their orally-composed verses were not written
unless they formed part of runic inscriptions. The Britons passed on neither literacy nor faith to
their conquerors. The English learned to write only after they had been converted to Christ by
missionaries sent from Rome in 597. Strictly there is no Old English writing that is not Christian,
since the only literates were clerics.
Background and Culture of the Germanic people
The Anglo-Saxon invaders who came to Britain in the latter
part of the fifth century A.D. and eventually established their kingdoms there were the
founders of what we can properly call English culture and English literature. They gave
England its name its language and its links with „Germania‟, that great body of Teutonic
people whose migrations disrupted Roman people.
Runes-A Germanic alphabetic secret writing, runic letters have straight
lines,which are easier to cut.
The Roman historian Tacitus had given his account of the
Germanic people. His Germania idealises the Germanic people. We can trace in his
account something of the qualities of these people. They were barbarians who with
their primitive vigour and alien ways of thought endangered both the political structure
of the Empire and the ideological structure of Greco-Roman thought. They were
heathen and their life and their society reflected heroic ideals. Gradually heathen ways
of life and thought were fused as they grew together.
According to St Bede, writing his „Ecclesiastical history of
England’ two hundred years and more after their arrival, they came from three very
powerful nations of the Germans: that is from Saxones, Angli and the Jutac. They are
known as the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes. The cultural differences between the
three groups of people who included Goths, Burgandians, Lombards and others. They
were warriors and invaders. Possibly there were heroes among them.
St Bede (673-735) - Monk of Wearmouth and Jarrow, scholar, biblical
English poetry before the Norman Conquest may be roughly divided into two classes-
heroic and Christian. The heroic poems deal for the most part with Germanic legend
and history. The heroic poems – Beowulf, Finnsburn, Waldhere, Deor and Widsith
probably took the present form in the course of the seventh century. These poems
reflect the tradition and spirit and conditions of life in the Heroic Age. The poems insist
on the virtue of loyalty that a warrior owes to his liege lord. This creed is well-expressed in
the works of Wiglaf when he exhorts his comrades to stand by Beowulf against the fire-
This personal allegiance is strengthened by the lord‟s
generosity and the poems are full of praise for the lords, who knows how to give freely.
Hrothgar (in Beowulf) is praised for his liberal attitude to his followers and to Beowulf ;
and one of the reproaches against Heremod of whom Hrothgar speaks is that he “gave
no rings to the Danes”. The minstrels, Widsith and Deor, both receive grants of land from
their masters. The sad exile in The Wanderer recalls “how in his youth his gold-friend was
kind to him at the feast.”
Towards the end of the sixth century Saint
Augustine came to the British islands but took four centuries to Christianise the whole of
the islands. As a result, pagan poetry of Anglo-Saxons was replaced by Christian or
religious poetry although there was mingling and interpretation of Christian and pagan
elements in the religious poetry of the seventh century.
Anglo-Saxon religious poetry is mainly the work of two
Christian poets who were monks- Caedmon (675) and Cynewulf (800). With the
introduction of Christianity in the island and the conversation of the people, Anglo-
Saxon poets turned away from the pagan themes and applied themselves to religious
themes. Caedmon‟s works consist mainly of the poetical rendering of the biblical
stories while Cynewulf wrote about the lives of saints, mainly female saints.
Bede‟s (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731) gives an account of the life of
Caedmon. According to Bede, Caedmon flourished in the Northumbria in the last
quarter of the seventh century. He was associated with a certain monastery. He was
the first man to sing about Christian themes systematically.
The manuscript of a folio of two hundred and twenty nine pages in sixty seven sections
discovered in 1630 was supposed to be the work of Caedmon because of the opening
lines and because the content tallied partially with the accounts of Bede. The
manuscript comprises four different works:
(1) Genesis (2) Exodus (3) Daniel (4) Christ and Satan.
Genesis has two parts-Genesis A and Genesis B. It is a poem
about God and Angels in heaven, of rebellion of the angels and of the fallen angels in
hell, their council and design on man. Adam and Eve were tempted and their fall was
recorded with vigour. After a vigorous description of the flood the poem ends abruptly
with Abraham at the sacrifice of Issac.
Exodus is the story of the book of exodus. Here Caedmon
calls up a warlike and troublous atmosphere. He gives the description of the marshalling
of Pharaoh‟s hosts and the pursuit of Moses and his men. The poem is characterized by
rapidity of narrative and vigour of style.
Daniel is an incomplete poem dealing with the first five chapters of the book of Daniel.
Christ and Satan is actually a group of three different poems-
(i) Lament of the Fallen Angels (ii) Harrowing of Hell (iii) The Temptation of Christ.
Judith is the fine poem attributed to Caedmon. Judith is a
version of the vulgate text of the apocryphal book of Judith. It tells of the beheading of
the drunken Holofernes by Judith. Judith rallies the Hebrews to attack the Assyrians, the
fear of the Assyrians on discovering the headless body of Holofernes, the defeat of the
Assyrians by the Hebrews and Judith‟s triumph. Judith is the only example of a female
warrior in Anglo-Saxon poetry.
These are the poems attributed to Caedmon on the
authority of Bede. The poems are of unequal merit. At worst they are tedious
paraphrases of Biblical stories as in Daniel. At best they are strong and spirited with
some gift for descriptive writing as in Exodus. The description of the drowning of the
Egyptian host in the Red Sea is done with great vigour.
Reference to Caedmon’s Hymn
Who is Caedmon? What is the significance of his hymn?
Caedmon is the first Christian poet in English poetry. Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English
people tells how in the monastery of the abbess Hilda at Whitby lowly lay brother named Caedmon
suddenly and miraculously received the gift of song and he at once began to sing in praise of God the
creator verses which he had never heard before.
Hymn to God is the only poem which is certainly by Caedmon. It is a nine lines hymn quoted by Bede in
his account of the poet’s first inspiration.
Give a brief note on the metaphorical-reflective -allegorical theme of
In the Hymn Caedmon praises the glorious aspects of God, the Almighty. He writes to sing about the
heavenly kingdom’s guardian, or God Himself, His ability and wisdom. It is God who created the earth
for his children, i.e. living world. For the purpose of protecting men on earth God as their guardian
created heaven as a roof on earth. Thus God who is Almighty created earth for men and planned to
“Now shall we praise the heavenly kingdom’s Guardian,
the Creator’s ability and his wisdom,
work of the glorious Father, so he wonder each,
eternal Lord, origins created.
He first created the earth for the children
Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;
then the earth mapkind’s Guardian,
eternal Lord afterwards created
for men as earth, Lord almighty.”
Give the contents of Caedmon’s hymn and indicate its significance.
In his hymn, Caedmon praises the guardian of Heaven’s kingdom, the God’s might and his purpose. He is
the father of glory and of all wonders and established the beginning. He first created the earth for the
children and Heaven as a roof and then men and the earth for men.
This hymn shows, clearly enough ,the vocabulary of praise which the earlier scop had applied to his lord
now being applied to God and gives some indication of how the heroic style could be adapted to Biblical
subjects. Caedmon sang about the creation of the world and the origin of mankind Genesis and other
poems, but the relative stiffness of the nine lines(hymn) quoted by Bede seems to represent an earlier
stage in the development of Anglo-Saxon religious poetry than that represented by such poems as
Genesis, Exodus, Daniel attributed to Caedmon by Bede.
Assess Caedmon as a poet on the basis of his hymn as given above only.
‘Caedmon’s hymn’ which celebrates the glory of God as a creator of human world exhibits poetic quality
of the hymn. He has metaphorically God as heavily kingdom’s guardian, creator, glorious Father etc.
Caedmon’s romantic imaginative power is indicated in whole description of new God created human
world. At the same he has presented the theme in a systematic way i.e. creators of heaven as the roof of
the earth, followed by that of men. Thus it is evident that Caedmon shows his poetic insight though he
as highly guided Christian Ideas.
What is the significance of ‘Caedmon’s hymn’?
‘Caedmon’s hymn’ is the only known survivor from his oeuvre. It is considered as one of the earliest
texts of written Old English as well as from Germanic language. It was probably first published in Old
English Northumbrian dialect by Wanley in his Catalogus Historico-Criticus illud Saxonicum Caedmonis a
Baeda Memorantum. Later it has been regarded as the genuine work compared by Caedmon.
This hymn which praises the glory of God indicates the impact of Christianity on the Old English society
as well as literature.
“I am the scalp of myself, skinned by my foeman,
Robbed of my strength, he steeped and soaked me,
Dipped me in water, whipped me out again,
Set me in the sun. I soon lost there
The hairs I had had. The hard edge
Of a keen-ground knife cuts me now,
Fingers fold me, and a fowl‘s pride
Drives its treasure trail across me,
Bounds again over the brown rim,
Sucks the wood-dye, steps again on me,
Makes his black marks.”…….
Except settings, ideas and contextualsed, words/sentences/references from state
university book and Palgrave.