- Time Period600 - 670
Died 670. Saint Bede recorded the life of Caedmon, the cowherd of Whitby Abbey, who though rough and untutored, by some strange power, in his later years broke into song and became the father of English poetry. Some say he was quite old when he first exercised his gift. The legend is that for years he was so ashamed of his inability, on account of his shyness, to take his turn in singing on festive occasions that he would steal away and hide himself. 'Wherefore, being sometimes at feasts, when all agreed for glee's sake to sing in turn, he no sooner saw the harp come towards him than he rose from the board and turned homewards.'
One night, however, when he had left the feast and had taken refuge in the stable, he heard a voice saying: 'Sing, Caedmon. Sing some song to Me.' Caedmon stammered in reply: 'I cannot sing.' 'But you shall sing,' replied the voice. 'What shall I sing?' Caedmon asked in wonder. The voice answered: 'Sing the beginning of created things.' And Caedmon, in that moment, attempting to sing, found his stammering tongue had been loosened.
In the morning he recalled the words of his song and, adding other verses to it, appeared before the Abbess Hilda, to whom he related his strange story. He sang to her the song he had sung in the night, and she and all who heard were amazed, and agreed 'that heavenly grace had been conferred upon him by the Lord.'
He became a lay-brother and, still in the great abbey of Whitby, was taught by his fellow monks the truths of the Bible; these he turned into poetry 'so sweet to the ear that his teachers became his hearers.' 'He sang,' says Bede, 'of the creation of the world, the origin of man, and the history of Israel, of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, and the teaching of the Apostles.' This first Anglo-Saxon writer of religious poetry covered with his paraphrases the whole field of Scripture, and though 'others after him strove to compose religious poems, none could vie with him, for he learned the art of poetry not from men, but from God.'
He is said to have died in holiness and perfect charity to all, after showing that he knew his life was at an end, although he was not seriously ill.
It was a remarkable instance of the power of the Bible to stimulate the imagination and awaken natural genius. Thus, Caedmon brought to the common people the energy and realism of the Scriptures, which, entering deeply into the life of the nation, have never ceased through all the centuries to invigorate and inspire the culture of the English-speaking world. Though only nine lines of one of his hymns, Dream of the Road, said to have been composed in a dream, survives, he is called the 'Father of English Sacred Poetry.' His feast is still celebrated at Whitby.