D Denise Levertov

Caedmon by Denise Levertov

Levertov’s ‘Caedmon’ retells the story of that night when an Anglo-Saxon simpleton transformed into the most-famous name of Old English literature.

Caedmon By Denise Levertov Visual Representation

‘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 by Denise Levertov


Summary

‘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.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-7

All others talked as if

talk were a dance.

(…)

hunch myself

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.

Lines 8-14

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.

Lines 15-20

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.

Lines 21-27

The cows

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.

Lines 28-33

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.”

Structure

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.

Literary Devices

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.”


Theme

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.

Historical Context

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.”

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Caedmon’ about?

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).

Who was Caedmon?

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.

What is the tone of ‘Caedmon’?

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.

What are the poetic devices used in ‘Caedmon’?

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.

What is the theme of ‘Caedmon’?

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.


Similar Poems

The following poems tap on the themes present in Denise Levertov’s narrative poem ‘Caedmon’.

You can also explore these raw poems about anxiety.

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Caedmon By Denise Levertov Visual Representation
Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap