‘Cædmon’s Hymn’ is an example of Old English poetry, one of the few pieces that survives and one of the very few that isn’t a fragment. The majority of these poems were oral, meaning that they were exchanged only through recitation. This piece was written down by the Venerable Bede around 731.
Bede also wrote about what led Cædmon to write this piece and compose the others that he became known for at the time. He was once a cowherd, a simple man, who fell asleep drunk one evening and woke up filled to the brim with religious verse. Cædmon was illiterate, Bede adds, saying that he kept verses from the Bible in his head as well as his own poetry.
Explore Cædmon's Hymn
Throughout the lines of this piece, the speaker calls God by a variety of names. He praises his deeds without failing to remind the reader that he is in control of their lives. God created both heaven and earth, he concludes, and that’s something that tone has to b thankful for.
The poet engages with themes of religion and gratitude in ‘Cædmon’s Hymn.’ He makes it very clear from the start that God and God’s works are what he’s interested in. This poem is fairly short, especially for Old English poetry, and therefore gets to the point quickly and succinctly. The speaker praises God for the world he made for humankind throughout the piece while also lavishing devotional names on him. Readers should leave this poem with a clear understanding of how the importance of religion in this speaker’s life and the lives of those around him.
Structure and Form
‘Cædmon’s Hymn’ by Cædmon was originally written in Old English, meaning that the translation below is quite different from how those at the time it was written would’ve heard or recited it. Old English poetry did not rhyme, and this piece is no exception. Poets of the time used what is known as alliterative verse, manning that the lines were organized according to alliteration. In the original, one will also note the way that the lines are split down the middle. There is a large gap between one side of a line and the other.
The poet used several interesting literary devices in ‘Cædmon’s Hymn.’ These include alliteration, caesura, and allusion. Throughout the lines, the speaker praises God without going into any detail about stories in the Bible or how his own life was affected when he became devoutly Christian. All this is alluded to, though, meaning that a reader should pick up on it through the references to “the Glory-Father” and “Master almighty.”
Alliteration is an incredibly important technique in Old English poetry. The poets of the time structured their pieces around the repetition of consonant sounds. In this translation, much of that is lost, but there are still a few examples. For instance, “Measurer’s might” and “mind” in the second line and “middle-earth” and “mankind” in line seven.
Caesurae are pauses in the middle of lines, another prominent feature in Old English poetry. The original version of the poem makes these pauses incredibly obvious, but a close reader can still find them in this condensed version. For example, line three reads: “The work of the Glory-Father, when he of wonders of every one” as well as line nine, which reads: “For men earth, Master almighty.”
Analysis of Cædmon’s Hymn
Now we must praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian,
The Measurer’s might and his mind-plans,
The work of the Glory-Father, when he of wonders of every one
Eternal Lord, the beginning established
In the first lines of ‘Cædmon’s Hymn, the speaker uses the first-person plural to refer to the praise that has to be given to God. The poet uses several different names for God throughout the poem, from “heaven-kingdom’s Guardian” to “the Measurer.” “Heaven-kingdom” is an example of an Anglo Saxon compound word, known as a kenning. A kenning is a combination of words that works as a simple metaphor for something else, in this case, God. The next line describes God as the “Measurer,” the one who balances and creates the world. He makes “mind-plans,” or thinks the world into being. Readers should also take note of the use of alliteration in this line.
God is now described as the “Glory-Father,” meaning he is the parent or creator of all the glory there is in the world. The next phrase, which is syntactically complex, describes the world as having its origins with God. He established their beginnings.
He first created for men’s sons
Heaven as a roof, holy Creator,
Then middle-earth mankind’s Guardian,
Eternal Lord, afterwards made-
For men earth, Master almighty.
The idea of creation continues into the next lines as the speaker says that God created Heaven first, as “a roof.” Then, after that, he created “middle-earth,” or the world that humanity lives on. (Middle-earth is another example of a kenning.) Throughout these lines, he continues to refer to God with different names, like “mankind’s Guardian” and “holy creator.” In the ninth and final line, he calls God “Master almighty.” The final line sums up what the poet said in the previous, that God created the earth for humanity.
Readers who enjoyed this Old English poem should also consider reading some of the other best-known pieces from the period. For example,
- ‘The Sea-Farer’ – is a poem about solitude, specifically about the kind of loneliness experienced by a man who travels the sea.
- ‘The Wanderer’ – another poem that focuses on solitude and journeying. The speaker has lost everything that means something to him and is now on his way to try to start over.
- ‘The Wife’s Lament’ – a sorrowful poem told from a female perspective. It describes the loss of the speaker’s master, her depression, and her eventual, strange exile.