First English poet whose name is known; fl. c. 670. His story is told in one of the great chapters of bede's Ecclesiastical History (5.24). He was a cowherd on lands of the monastery of Streanes Healh, usually identified with Whitby. In rustic feasts at Streanes Healh, the company used to entertain one another by singing poems to the music of the harp. Caedmon had grown old and had never been bold enough to take his turn; when the harp, passed from hand to hand, approached him, he used to steal away from the feast. One night as he slept after deserting the festival, an angel appeared to him and told him to sing of the beginning of things. "He began at once to sing lines in praise of God the Creator, verses he had never heard before." Here Bede gives a Latin paraphrase of Caedmon's Creation Hymn. On awakening, Caedmon found he could compose other verses. His miraculous talent was called to the attention of the learned monks of Streanes Healh. Thereupon, they instructed him from Scripture in the events of sacred history. He meditated and composed verses until he had versified the principal events in the Old and New Testaments. Many imitated Caedmon, but none could equal him. Bede clearly regarded him as the father of vernacular Christian poetry in England.
Of Caedmon's apparently very extensive composition in English, only the Creation Hymn (nine lines) is extant. A version in Northumbrian English is found in the oldest MS of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica. The translation of Bede's Historia made in King Alfred's time (849–899) contains a related version in West Saxon. The Biblical poems of the Junius Manuscript, Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, can no longer be regarded as the work of Caedmon. The older portions of the poems—Genesis, at least, is certainly composite—may be later developments of the kind of composition based on Scripture that Caedmon introduced. In that sense, they are of his school, Caedmonian.
Feast: Feb. 11.
Bibliography: e. v. k. dobbie, The Manuscripts of Caedmon's Hymn and Bede's Death Song (New York 1937), detailed account of the versions of the Creation Hymn. g. p. krapp, ed., The Junius Manuscript (New York 1931), ed. of the Caedmonian poems. c. w. kennedy, tr., The Caedmon Poems (New York 1916). c. l. wrenn, The Poetry of Caedmon (London 1947), best study of significance of the Creation Hymn in the tradition of early English poetry. s. mundahl-harris, Brother Caedmon (Whitby, U.K.1982). s. h. v. gurteen, The Epic of the Fall of Man: A Comparative Study of Caedmon, Dante, and Milton (New York 1964). g. r. isaac, "The Date and Origin of 'Caedmon's Hymn."' Neuphilologische Mitteilungen no. 3 (1997) p. 217.
[c. j. donahue]