‘Caedmon’ by Denise Levertov is a re-telling of Saint Bede’s story of the herdsman, Caedmon, who was not fluent in the art of versification or singing. Levertov’s poems are known for religious themes and her devotion to God. Her poetry contains beautifully descriptive story-telling. In this piece, after a fortunate encounter with an angel, the herdsman finds himself singing a hymn, now known as ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’. It is one of the earliest attested examples of writing from the Old English period.
‘Caedmon,’ Levertov’s re-telling of a simple herdsman’s account is emotive and thrilling. She uses bold imagery to narrate his story of divine inspiration.
In the beginning, it seems as though the herdsman is present in a social event where people are gathered and talking beautifully. The speaker compares this to elegant dancing. He says that he is a clodhopper, someone who is clumsy and cannot dance. Thus, he stumbles in the middle of speaking once a conversation begins. He silently leaves and hunches back to the barn. It is the only place where he feels at home yet completely alone.
Furthermore, Caedmon describes how the cows in the stable are fast asleep, while he thinks he can see small flickers of golden light. He looks to find an angel there, with light so bright that it almost blinded him. Touched by the angel’s igniting grace, he gets inspired to sing in praise of God. The night helped him to transform into a person with great oratory skills.
You can read the full poem here.
All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
close by the door:
Denise Levertov begins the poem by describing the night where Caedmon finds himself surrounded by people who spoke elegantly and poetically. They talked as if it was a regal dance. However, maintaining the metaphor, the speaker says that he was a “Clodhopper,” meaning a clumsy person who trips over things and falls. Here, Levertov tries to establish that Caedmon was not a good poet and he was feeling inferior to others. Almost like a reflex, he “hunched” himself up the ground near the door from where he could easily escape.
then when the talk began
I’d wipe my
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
Caedmon narrates that once the elegant, poetic conversation began, he would wipe his mouth as the words did not come out. Then he found his way back to the barn quietly in utter anguish. He could be with the animals in the barn who were not expected to be intelligent in speech. Those “simple” creatures would not judge his manner of speaking either. Besides, they did not speak the language of humans. So, he did not have to indulge in a conversation at all.
I’d see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
In these lines, the speaker (Caedmon) depicts how he felt as if he was seeing little specks of gold moving in the dark and silence of the night. The movement of the strange, heavenly particles enlightened the shadowy nooks of the barn. Furthermore, he recounts that the animals were all in a deep sleep. The golden specks were slow, almost careful as if they were living creatures. Here, Levertov uses personification to invest the “motes of gold” with human attributes.
munched or stirred or were still. I
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
Levertov uses auditory imagery in “cows/ munched” and kinesthetic/visual imagery in the stirring of fast asleep cows. In this way, she describes Caedmon’s surroundings right at the moment before the angel’s arrival. The speaker narrates how he was at home yet lonely as he felt isolated for not being able to speak or sing poetically. The poet uses the word “until” to evoke a sense of anticipation in the readers’ minds. She builds up the suspense of what is coming next.
In the following lines, Caedmon describes seeing an angel that was shining so brightly that its light temporarily seemed to blind him. He paints the image of the angel by using the phrases “a forest of torches,” “feathers of flame” – from which the sparks were flying up.
but the cows as before
into the ring of the dance.
In the last lines, Caedmon describes how even though an angel had appeared in front of him, the cows were calm as if nothing had changed. It seemed nothing happened around them. Nothing burnt despite the angel’s wings being made of flame.
He then goes on to say that everything was the same except him because the angel’s hand “touched” his lips and “scorched” his tongue. Levertov uses metonymy in “lips” and “tongue” to explain how the angel inspired Caedmon to sing in the original story. It is described in the lines, “pulled my voice/ into the ring of the dance.”
The poem ‘Caedmon’ is written in the free-verse form. It does not follow the traditional rules of poetry and has no regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem does, however, have a few internal rhymes; for example, “The cows/ munched or stirred or were still./ was at home and lonely,/ both in good measure. Until”. Alongside that, this piece is written from the perspective of Caedmon in first-person. It seems the Anglo-Saxon poet himself narrates his own story. The presence of his voice imbues lyrical quality to the overall poem.
Levertov makes use of the following literary devices in this poem.
- Metaphor: In the beginning, the speaker compares talking to dancing: “All others talked as if/ talk were a dance.”
- Alliteration: The poet uses similar sounds in neighboring words; for example, “unnoticed back to the barn,” “with the warm,” “shadow to shadow/ slow,” “angel affrighted,” “feathers of flame,” etc.
- Enjambement: This device is used to connect the lines internally. It occurs in “I’d see by a twist/ of lit rush the motes/ of gold moving,” “The cows/ munched or stirred or were still. I/ was at home and lonely,” etc.
- Allusion: In the ending lines, “as that hand of fire/ touched my lips and scorched my tongue/ and pulled my voice/ into the ring of the dance.” – the poet alludes to this incident to illustrate Caedmon’s angelic inspiration, which helped him perform the divine hymn.
- Imagery: The poet draws upon contrasting images like the stillness of the cows and the blazing wings of the angel to invoke life into the original story: for instance, “a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:/ but the cows as before/ were calm, and nothing was burning.”
The central theme of this poem is divine inspiration. Caedmon is known for his hymn about God and the miracle of creation. This story alluded to in the poem takes place before he started writing verses. As a shepherd in 657 – 684 AD, he did not have the eloquence to write poetry or the needed education. This fascinating account is about his encounter with an angel who inspired Caedmon to write.
Levertov beautifully illustrates this story in her poem as if it was unraveling before her own eyes. It touches upon the fact that after running away from a crowd, ashamed of not being able to speak as elegantly as other people, he received divine inspiration from an angel to sing the praise of God. In Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, it is recorded that Caedmon “was wont [able] to make religious verses.” Even today, this story is revered in the literature and remembered by Christians and critics alike.
Caedmon is an Anglo-Saxon poet. He is best remembered for the hymn he composed right after that night. Caedmon is the earliest English poet to be known. His story of how he began singing and writing is known from Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” which tells the same story Denise Levertov’s poem narrates. Bede’s account reads: “[t]here was in the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in Old English, which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven.”
This poem is about the herdsman, Caedmon, who received inspiration from an angel to start composing poetry and singing hymns in praise of God. It is a retelling of the story mentioned in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731 AD).
Caedmon is the earliest English poet known in the history of English literature. He was first a caretaker of the animals at the double monastery of Streonaeshalch. After having a vision one night, he began writing poems and hymns out of his devotion to God. His only surviving work is Caedmon’s Hymn, a nine-line alliterative verse that he learned to sing in his first dream.
This narrative poem is written in a story-telling manner from the perspective of Caedmon himself. For the most part, the tone is filled with anguish and sadness. After Caedmon is touched by divine grace, the tone becomes awe-struck and joyous.
The poetic devices used in the poem are metaphor, alliteration, imagery, personification, etc. Collectively, the devices make Levertov’s account of Caedmon more appealing to readers.
The theme of this poem is divine inspiration, as it follows the story of Caedmon, who became a devotional poet upon receiving inspiration from an angel. It also taps on themes of anguish and inferiority complex.
The following poems tap on the themes present in Denise Levertov’s narrative poem ‘Caedmon’.
- ‘The Dream of the Rood’ — This Old English poem is about a speaker’s vision of the cross on which Christ was crucified.
- ‘How Poetry Comes to Me’ by Gary Snyder — This thoughtful poem is about receiving inspiration to write poetry.
- ‘How I Discovered Poetry’ by Marilyn Nelson — This piece is a tribute to the classroom where Nelson was introduced to poetry.
You can also explore these raw poems about anxiety.