24 February 2009

St Cædmon's Poetics

I thought it would be worthwhile to say a thing or two about St Cædmon’s Hymn itself in a separate post. The Venerable Bede, as he himself notes, gives only a Latin paraphrase of it in the Ecclesiastical History IV.24, ‘For it is not possible to translate verse, however well composed, literally from one language to another without some loss of beauty and dignity’ (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], p. 216).

But fortunately, the poem was so well-known and passed on so often, that scribes copying St Bede’s work added the poem itself in the original language, or some dialectical variant thereof. Thus, we can see that, as Paul Cavill points out, ‘this is regular, classical poetry of the standard Germanic sort’ which ‘uses the alliterative form of all Old English poetry, binding the two halves of the line of verse together by echoing the sounds’ (Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England [London: Fount, 1999], p. 95). It is in this fact that much of the significance of the poem lies. Cavill points out that it is a 'conversion of poetry', which parallels the three conversions of St Cædmon himself (p. 94). In C.L. Wrenn’s words (qtd. in Kevin Crossley-Holland, trans. and ed., The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology [Oxford: Oxford U, 1984], p. 194):

If this poet was, in fact, the very first to apply the Germanic heroic poetic discipline of vocabulary, style, and general technique to Christian story and Christian edification, then, indeed, the Hymn must be regarded (as it must have been at the time of its original recitation) as a great document of poetic revolution in early Anglo-Saxon England. Whoever first applied pagan traditional poetic discipline to Christian matter set the whole tone and method of subsequent Anglo-Saxon poetry. He preserved for Christian art the great verbal inheritance of Germanic culture.

Here is a West Saxon version (taken from Benjamin Slade’s page on the St Cædmon story; unfortunately, I don’t know how to reproduce the caesuras of OE poetry here):

Nu we sculan herian heofonrices weard,
metodes mihte and his modgeþonc,
wera wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece dryhten, oórd onstealde.
He ærest gesceop eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend;
ða middangeard moncynnes weard,
ece drihten, æfter teode
firum foldan, frea ælmihtig.

And here is a poetic rendition by Kevin Crossley-Holland (p. 197):

Now we must praise the Guardian of Heaven,
the might of the Lord and His purpose of mind,
the work of the Glorious Father; for He,
God Eternal, established each wonder,
He, Holy Creator, first fashioned
heaven as a roof for the sons of men.
Then the Guardian of Mankind adorned
this middle-earth below, the world for men,
Everlasting Lord, Almighty King.

Happily, Cavill argues both for the authenticity of the poem, as well as for the miracle story that accounts for it. He also makes some very insightful comments about the beauty and depth which lie below the poem's apparent simplicity:

Take the middle lines for example, ‘He first created for the sons of the earth/heaven as a roof, the holy Creator’ [the syntax is not reflected in Crossley-Holland’s translation above]. Of course a creator creates. But the lines enclose with God’s creative nature and activity both earth and heaven, people created from the dust and the roofing vault of the skies. We can see a criss-cross pattern, with the contrast earth-heaven matched and enclosed by the parallel created-Creator. This is a kind of verbal equivalent to the interlace in Anglo-Saxon art, where patterns cross and intertwine. (p. 97)

Cavill also notes the theology of the poem, as well as echoes of the Bible and the liturgy. He concludes (p. 98):

When we put all these things together, the Hymn ceases to look primitive. It is a poem which teaches subtle theology with simplicity and directness. It uses language that belongs to the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition, but that also echoes and resonates with the Christian language of the Bible and church services. For the uneducated and unpoetic Cædmon to produce this would indeed be a miracle. Hild’s scholars heard a work of unexpected spiritual, theological and artistic depth when they listened to Cædmon’s Hymn.

Of course, this is also not the least bit surprising in light of my previous observations about the hesychastic roots of St Cædmon’s poetic craftsmanship.


Anonymous said...

Your knowledge is simply amazing Aaron! Thank you so much for sharing the treasures of the Saints.

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh no! Now all of the many people whose knowledge is far greater than mine are rolling their eyes and going, 'Hmph! He thinks this guy is amazing?'