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Whitby Cædmon's Hymn

Translation and text written for Wynd Cottage by Alice Bell.

Caedmon's Hymn or Caedmon's Song - Scroll over the text for the translation.

Cædmon's Hymn- 9th Century

Original:

Nu scylun hergan  hefaenricaes uard,

Metudæs maecti   end his modgidanc,

uerc uuldurfadur   su he uundra gihuaes,

eci Dryctin   or astelidae.

He aerist scop   aelda barnum

heben til hrafe   haleg Scepen;

tha middungeard  moncynnæs uard,

eci Dryctin   æfter tiadæ

firum foldu   Frea allmectig

Translation:

Now we must praise the Heavenly Kingdom's Watcher,

the Lord's power and his purpose of mind,

the work of the Wondrous Father as he,

the Eternal Lord, established wonders.

He, the Holy Creator, created heaven

as a roof for the children of earth;

Then the Watcher of Mankind created this middle earth,

the earth of the people,

Eternal Lord, God Almighty

Caedmon’s Hymn: Prelude, imagined

He had spent many years here, toiling hard as an honest man should. When he was younger, many years ago, he had enjoyed the gatherings of brothers, singing sweet songs that curled up into the night like smoke from the fire pit, and just as impermanent. They were nothing truly, but such was the manner of song, the words were spoken with little thought, could never be grasped and escaped, unremembered in the soft light of the morning sun. Once he had enjoyed them, but now he hated them. It was pointless, he thought. He couldn’t wind his tongue around words of mourning and beauty and a million things he had never truly experience. He couldn’t twist a tale of heroism about long dead warriors to the marching beat of drums, nor could he sing of men of myth, their stories slipping over the strings of a harp and tumbling out of his grasp. He couldn’t do it, therefore it was pointless.

Therefore when the drink flowed too heavy, he would leave to instead listen to the music of nature. The crashing of the waves beneath him was solid, a steady rhythm as soothing as any drum beat, the cawing of gulls a sweeter voice than any of the men around the fire could summon. The bleating of the sheep would lull him to sleep, and the light of the white autumn moon was more of a comfort to him than the thought of letting mismatched words and half thought rhymes vomit out of his throat to the entertainment of the others. No, not entertainment. - Amusement.

He looked over to the west side, the river dividing the land of the abbey and the land of the souls they protected, a great gulf between the scholars and peasants. Why did he stay here, he sometimes wondered. Surely this was not his place? He belonged over there, on the west, to gaze up at the little community of dedicated monks like a beacon to God, rather than sitting here in the flames of God’s light. He wasn’t clever enough for God. He wasn’t dedicated enough. But then again, he was a decent shepherd. He knew that people called Jesus a shepherd, but sheep were so much easier to guide than people, so he didn’t really think it was a good comparison.

He did not know when he sat down, mulling over his longing and inadequacy. He did not know when he lay back into the soft autumn grass, slightly damp from the night’s cool air. He did not know when the sound of the waves grew louder, their crashing rising to a beautiful crescendo, louder and louder and full of joy and energy and life. He did not know when the moon grew bright as sunlight, nor when the gulls urged him to open his mouth. Instead of the words tumbling clumsily like a rock fall, they floated and spun in the air, an elegant dance of sweet scented smoke that escaped his lips and swam up to the stars.
When he woke, he could not give word to Weland’s trials, could not sing of Mathild and her lost love. But he could murmur of God’s glory and miracles, hum a tune to the beauty of the holy spirit, manoeuvre words so they sang of Jesus, the wonderous Shepherd.

Perhaps that would be enough.

Notes on the Translation and Old English Poetry

Cædmon's Hymn is the earliest example of Old English poetry available to us. Although Christianity brought the art of writing to the English countries, it was almost exclusively in the language of religion, Latin. In fact, Bede's original text of the Historia Ecclesiastica includes a Latin version of the hymn. It is only in later manuscripts, between the 8th and 10th century, that the Anglo-Saxon version of the poem began to emerge in amendments to the original text. The version of the Anglo-Saxon poem you see above is a normalised version of one of the oldest versions of the poem, found in The Moore Bede manuscript, an 8th century Northumbrian version of the text currently housed in the Cambridge University Library. Given that Whitby was a part of the kingdom of Northumbria, we can assume that this is one of the closest relatives to Cædmon's original verse.

The verse embodies many of the features of Germanic poetic literature that we come to recognise in the larger body of 10th and 11th century work, not just in the choices of images and language, but also in the structure of the verse. Germanic poetry was structured through alliteration and stressed half lines, which is how modern editors know how to structure the poetry into clear lines.

An example of alliteration:
uerc uuldurfadur    se he uundra gihuaes

In this line, the 'v' sound is repeated. Whilst this may seem confusing, Old English was not a standardised language, and sounds could be represented by different letters or symbols depending on the text. We know from later versions of the text that the 'u' is replaced by a 'w', and as in modern German the 'w' is pronounced as a 'v'

It is incredibly difficult to accurately replicate the stress and alliteration of the original verse; Old English was an inflected language, meaning was not determined by word order, as it is in our modern tongue, but by relationships between words, shown through cases and tense. In translation, we often have to add prepositions, pronouns, and articles to have the verse make sense to a modern audience, meaning that it is impossible to maintain the rhythm of the original verse. Where possible, I have attempted to preserve the alliterative and rhythmic aspects of the poem, such as in the line 'the work of the Wonderous Father as he...' that repeats the 'w/v' sound of the original line, but with less frequency.

Recommended Reading

Crossley Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World, a collection of Old English poetry

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