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Northeast England looking a little less wild
than in Caedmon's time.

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Cowboy Singer

The Unlikely Birth of English Poetry

In the seventh century, at Streaneshalh, in northern England, Hilda built a double monastery for men and women. The community was self-supporting and cared for orphans.

Not many miles away at a farm manor, Caedmon the cowboy left the night hall after dinner because the harp was being passed round, and he couldn’t sing. I don’t mean he couldn’t sing in key, which is my problem. I mean that when the harp was passed to him, words tumbled away from him like a spilled cup of wine.

Caedmon crept away from the table and went back to the cows and horses, and bedded down in the straw. He had no stories to tell and even if he had, he had no words to tell them in. He fell asleep.

As he slept, a stranger appeared to him in a dream, and told him to sing.

Caedmon found himself sitting up in his sleep, and staring at the stranger, a man he had never seen before.

Sing,” said the stranger.  He spoke with authority, as if he expected to be obeyed.

“I can’t sing,” Caedmon said with the slow-mouthed wonder of the dreamer.  

“Maybe not, but you will,” said the stranger.

“What will I sing?” asked Caedmon, finding like many a dreamer that it was impossible to resist the imperatives of his dream.

Sing of the beginning of things,” commanded the stranger, and Caedmon, singing in his sleep, “gave voice to verses he had never heard before.”

The next morning, when he awoke, he remembered the stranger and the dream and even the words he had sung. The dream hadn’t run off like a dog slipping its collar, as dreams so often do.  Later, he mentioned his dream to his boss, and once again the unexpected happened.  At first the man listened, the way we often listen to a dream, politely, but without much interest. Then Caedmon sang the words he had heard. 

“Lord,” said his boss. He had never heard a song like that. "Sing it again," he said. He was snagged by the song. After a day thinking about it, he decided to take Caedmon to Hilda at Streaneshalch.

Streaneshalh, which is now called Whitby, lay in the ancient English kingdom of Northumbria. To the north ran the country called Caledonia.  To the east lay the North Sea.  Winters could be severe; springs were late; summers were cool. The mountains and moors were wild, and raked by easterly winds. The pastures, grazed by sheep, had never known the plough. Gazing across the rough land with its rocky outcrops to the fast-travelling clouds above the wind-bent grass was to feel you stood near the beginning of time.

Hilda’s monastery stood on a cliff above the mouth of the River Esk, close to the sea. Holy Island lay farther to the north, unseen but always in mind. Aidan lived on Holy Island. People came to him to discover their true faces.  Hilda was one of these, but as Aidan saw right away, she already possessed her true face.

Hilda had lived at the court of her great-uncle Edwin, the first Christian king of Northumbria, when she was young. Unusually, she had never married. It is not clear how she had survived when he was killed.  Nineteen at the time, she had seen his severed head stuck on a pole above the battlements of York. 

Hilda was thirty-three when, encouraged by Aidan, she founded a community where men and women lived together. The double Celtic monastery at Streaneshalh flourished, partly because Hilda was a brilliant administrator at a time when good management meant the difference between life and death, partly because, as the Venerable Bede observed, the rule of her house was rooted in love. The house took care of orphans and those who came to the gate for help.

With Caedmon tagging nervously behind his boss like a calf behind his mother, they went to see Hilda.  Caedmon stared down at his muddy feet as his boss told her about the dream. 

When Caedmon heard Hilda speak, he lifted his head. He saw a woman dressed in plain wool with only her eyes for jewels. 

“Do you think your words come from God?” Hilda asked him.

It is not the kind of question many writers receive today, and Caedmon did not know how to answer her.

“Sing the words aloud,” Hilda said, “so we can decide."

So we can decide. Pursuing a course of action that would be remarkable at any time, she intended to hear the evidence, evaluate it, and decide its merits. Hilda asked that some others not in the hall be called in to listen.  

When they had all gathered, Caedmon sang the verses he had heard, and a silence fell on them, hearing creation told so beautifully in their own language.  They could see the stars flying slowly through the night like birds and the sun streaming into the garden on that first morning, and the man and woman walking easily together, and talking. 

The men and women in the hall looked at each other wordlessly when Caedmon had finished, and decided on a second test.  They gave him another piece of scripture, reading it aloud to him since he could not, and asked him to put the story into verse by the next morning.  In one of the first recorded descriptions of a writer on deadline, Caedmon went away to work.

He went, I think, to the stable, where he felt most secure, the animals breathing quietly around him, warming him with their bodies and chewing their cud as he chewed the scripture.  Perhaps he cast about for words, choosing a word to end a line; finding he had to change the line that came before to make the word work; plaiting the words, and sometimes unplaiting them, like a rope. Or perhaps Caedmon sat in the straw, and closed his eyes, and listened.

The next morning he stood before Hilda and her companions, and sang them his song. As he finished, he heard a gasp. He had never heard a woman gasp with pleasure before.

Hilda asked him to learn all the sacred stories, and to sing them in his words. They didn’t waste time in those days with acceptance or rejection letters. The Venerable Bede reports that Caedmon joined the monastery and lived there, singing songs for the rest of his life.

He is known today as one of the first great Old English poets, but only by repuation. A few fragments of Caedmon’s songs have come down to us.  Most of them were scattered to fire and wind in Viking raids.

We may wonder why Caedmon dreamed his dream and sang.  Was it an answer to prayer after long years of silence, or grace falling out of the blue, surprising him?  

I like to think that Caedmon lay in the womb of his old life until he sang, and was reborn.  I like to think that each of us is called to sing the song unique to us – raising a family, healing the sick, bringing peace, farming, painting, protecting the weak. . .


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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass