History of Literature










English literature



 


Caedmon

flourished 658–680

first Old English Christian poet, whose fragmentary hymn to the creation remains a symbol of the adaptation of the aristocratic-heroic Anglo-Saxon verse tradition to the expression of Christian themes. His story is known from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which tells how Caedmon, an illiterate herdsman, retired from company one night in shame because he could not comply with the demand made of each guest to sing. Then in a dream a stranger appeared commanding him to sing of “the beginning of things,” and the herdsman found himself uttering “verses which he had never heard.” When Caedmon awoke he related his dream to the farm bailiff under whom he worked and was conducted by him to the monastery at Streaneshalch (now called Whitby). The abbess St. Hilda believed that Caedmon was divinely inspired and, to test his powers, proposed that he should render into verse a portion of sacred history, which the monks explained. By the following morning he had fulfilled the task. At the request of the abbess he became an inmate of the monastery. Throughout the remainder of his life his more learned brethren expounded Scripture to him, and all that he heard he reproduced in vernacular poetry. All of his poetry was on sacred themes, and its unvarying aim was to turn men from sin to righteousness. In spite of all the poetic renderings that Caedmon supposedly made, however, it is only the original dream hymn of nine historically precious, but poetically uninspired, lines that can be attributed to him with confidence. The hymn—extant in 17 manuscripts, some in the poet’s Northumbrian dialect, some in other Old English dialects—set the pattern for almost the whole art of Anglo-Saxon verse.
 

 

 


Caedmon manuscript

also called Junius Manuscript,

Old English scriptural paraphrases copied about 1000, given in 1651 to the scholar Franciscus Junius by Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh and now in the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. It contains the poems Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan, originally attributed to Caedmon because these subjects correspond roughly to the subjects described in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as having been rendered by Caedmon into vernacular verse. The whole, called Caedmon’s Paraphrase, was first published in 1655. Later studies make the attribution to Caedmon doubtful, because the poems seem to have been written at different periods and by more than one author.

Genesis is a poem of 2,936 lines. The first 234 lines describe the fall of angels and parts of the creation. Lines 235–851 give a second account of the fall of angels and tell of the fall of man. The sequence, style, and superior quality of these lines reveal them to be interpolated. This section, later identified as a translation of an Old Saxon original, is now known as Genesis B. Its many striking resemblances to Paradise Lost suggest that John Milton might have known of the manuscript. The remaining portions, Genesis A, carry the story up to the sacrifice of Isaac.

Exodus, an incomplete poem of 590 lines regarded as older than Genesis or Daniel, describes the flight of the Israelites with considerable dramatic power.

Daniel, an incomplete poem of 764 lines, is a scholarly work closely following the Vulgate Book of Daniel and much inferior to Exodus in poetic quality.

The 729-line piece known as Christ and Satan contains a lament of the fallen angels, a description of the harrowing of hell (Christ’s descent into hell after his death), and an account of the temptation of Christ by Satan. In spite of its anachronistic sequence, it is regarded by some scholars as a single poem, its unifying theme being the “sufferings of Satan.” It has a rude vigour and lack of culture and polish. The manuscript also contains drawings.
 

 
 
 
 
 

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