It brings me great joy to read Caedmon’s Hymn for you. But first, let me give you some background. When I was a child, I stumbled across a book that changed my life. It was a dusty, moth-eaten copy of Sweet‘s Anglo-Saxon Primer. The author of this book, Henry Sweet, was a 19th century philologist. Philologists study the life of words (yes, they have lives). We are preoccupied with etymology and all the colourful twists and turns of meaning through history. Perhaps the most famous philologist is Friedrich Nietzsche. The word itself is actually a transliteration of the Greek Φιλολογία, literally “word love”. So we philologists are word-lovers. This is very apt, because this book helped me to fall in love with the English language, a love without which my life would not be complete.
In the book, Sweet lays out the form of the Old English language. He does so in a way that is easy to understand and engaging. It is a rare textbook that can achieve this effect. As I paged through the paradigms, exemplars and explanations of grammatical phenomena, I felt I was making contact with my own remote past. I had been taught, as all children are, that the English language is a tool of “oppression”. Worse, the angry illiterates that were put in authority over me at school believed that English was in some way bland or uninteresting. Thankfully my English mother has never felt this way and I’m eternally grateful to her for giving me this invaluable gift, the English tongue.
English: Change and Renewal
The English language is famously flexible and dynamic. The great linguist Otto Jespersen praised it for what he saw as its masculinity, it’s no-nonsense, minimal approach to meaning. Many people who are learning English are genuinely surprised that it’s acceptable to say something like “long time no see” – where’s the grammar in that? But native English speakers are equally surprised, usually, to learn that their language has a very ancient lineage and it has changed its form multiple times. Some of these changes are truly radical.
Old English, the language of Caedmon’s Hymn, and the language that Henry Sweet was describing to me, is very different to our Modern English. It’s so different, in fact, that native English speakers today cannot comprehend it to any meaningful degree. They might recognise some words, but even these have very different pronunciations. There are many reasons for this, some historical and some linguistic. One of the most important concerns the Norman Invasion. This happened when William the Bastard landed in England in 1066 AD. As part of this conquest, he brought his dialect of French across the English Channel. It would take about three centuries after that before an English speaking king would sit on the throne of England.
A Tree Nourished by Two Roots
So, for a long time, a foreign elite dominated a native peasantry. As is usual under a colonial regime, the indigenous people and their language occupy the role of “savage”. The dominant class in such a relationship usually characterises the majority language as rough, rude, base. So for example, the peasants eat lamb (English) while the nobles eat mutton (from the French mouton). George Orwell noted that one of the more unfortunate results is a modern tendency to form new words by adding Latinate stems. This absolves a poor writer of the responsibility of knowing the English word. In our own times, think of words that can only be said through clenched teeth, like “problematize”. Even trying to say that word makes me heave. Vile.
There is an upside, though (let’s be honest, who doesn’t love the French language?). Through this process, the English language absorbed the foreign vocabulary, just as the country itself absorbed the foreign elite caste. What subsequently emerges in the Renaissance is a fusion of Latin, via the French influence, and Germanic heritage. As a result, English poets have a huge array of options available for rhyme and meter. Similarly, English prose writers can home in on meaning with tight precision.
But Sweet’s book concerns the English tongue before all of this happened. In other words, he is looking at the Germanic half of what we know as English. What he provided for me was a way to understand the deeper of the two roots, the one that is often hidden from view but which permeates the entire language.
This was a language of cases, elaborate declensions and free word order. It was structurally more similar to Russian than to the English we speak today. It told the story of a hardy, seafaring people who found a home in the British Isles. They made mead and sang on lyres. They defeated their cousins, the Vikings, who once menaced the shore of Lindisfarne. And they embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ while much of Europe was still in darkness. In the video, you will see a picture of Lindisfarne, as well as the text of the famed Lindisfarne Gospels.
And this is the context in which we find Caedmon’s Hymn. This is the oldest extant poem in the English language. It dates to somewhere in the 7th century AD. According to Bede the historian, Caedmon was a lay brother at the Benedictine Abbey whose modern name is Whitby Abbey. You can see its ruins in the picture above. In Bede’s report, Caedmon is illiterate and has no musical training. One night, he leaves the hall feeling a little ashamed of himself because he can’t play the harp and sing like the others. A man, perhaps an angel, appears and orders him to sing. He sings a hymn to God the Father.
Feeling rather pleased with himself, Caedmon reports his experience and recites his song to Hild, the abbess. The song catches on, others memorise it, eventually others write it down. We receive it in multiple manuscripts in both Latin and Old English. What’s really significant about it is that it gives us a snapshot of the Christianization of Britain in process. Caedmon is repurposing an Anglo-Saxon genre, alliterative poetry, and devoting it to the new God.
Text of Caedmon’s Hymn
The form of the poem is, as in all oral cultures, governed by an overall scheme that aids recitation and memory. Instead of rhyme, it uses alliteration to ground the meter. Each line divides into two roughly equal 5-syllable phrases, with a caesura (break) in the between:
Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard, metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc, uerc Uuldurfadur, suē hē uundra gihwaes, ēci dryctin ōr āstelidæ hē ǣrist scōp aelda barnum heben til hrōfe, hāleg scepen. Thā middungeard moncynnæs Uard, eci Dryctin, æfter tīadæ firum foldu, Frēa allmectig
I am fascinated by the use of the word “scop” meaning both “poet” and “maker”. This is an exact parallel to the Greek language, in which there is a clear link between the verb ποιεω (to make) and the thing that the maker makes: ποιημα. Poetry, then, is a concrete act, a making of something. Hardly intelligible to moderns, the ancients understood the power of language, the spoken word, λογος. I also enjoy the word “barn” meaning “child”, the root of that beautiful Northern word “bairn”.
Most of all, I love what this poem signifies. Caedmon invokes the God of the Bible as Uuldurfadur, literally “Glory Father”. What this communicates is the personality and fatherhood of the Triune God: Father, Son and Spirit. It signifies a departure from the pre-Christian (and post-Christian) universe of impersonal, brutal deities. In this new universe, human fatherhood is a kind of icon, or reflection, of this divine paternity. It is hard for us to imagine – although we may soon find ourselves closer to this reality than we’d like – a world whose fate is in the hands of an unjust, capricious tyrant. I suspect that those who hate the idea of a just, merciful Father in heaven are trying to enact revenge on an unjust, merciless father on earth.
Father’s Day 2020 AD
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with Father’s Day, much less Father’s Day in my family, which is half Armenian. Well, my dad will understand. And if you were around on Mother’s Day you’ll know that my parents are not humdrum. Like me, my dad is an eclectic polyglot. Also like me, he really loves England and English music. He brought me up on Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Nick Drake, the Beatles, and a broad spectrum of English folk artists. This music was always playing in my home.
All of this stems from a common root – the music of the British Isles, blending Celtic, Gaelic and AngloSaxon influences. This inheritance is alive and well in bluegrass, country, folk and even rock idioms. My dad loves England and he spent a number of years living there. It seemed fitting, then, to make this a tribute to English music, a celebration of fatherhood – and the Fatherhood of God – all at the same time. I’ve set the poem to two songs from Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies on English Folk Song. The first is Van Diemen’s Land, the second is As I walked over London Bridge.
Happy Father’s Day, dad.