Cædmon's Hymn: a Modern English Translation of the First Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Poem
"Cædmon's Hymn" was composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD; it appears to be the oldest extant poem in the English language. According to the
Venerable Bede (673-735) the poem's author Cædmon―often spelled Caedmon―was an illiterate herdsman who was given the
gift of poetic composition by an angel. As the word "hymn" in the title
suggests, the lyric was for a song, but the music has been lost if it ever
existed. However, the poem has been preserved in 19 different ancient
manuscripts and in a Latin translation by Bede, so it appears to be authentic,
and to have been very popular and admired in its day. In the original poem, hardly a word is
recognizable as English because Cædmon was writing in a somewhat Anglicized form of
ancient German. The word "England" derives from Angle-land: the Angles were a
Germanic tribe that migrated to the British isles, as were the Saxons and the
Jutes. Cædmon wrote his poem in the Anglo-Saxon tongue, which was still largely
Germanic. Nevertheless, by Cædmon's time the foundations of English poetry
were being laid, particularly in the areas of accentual meter and alliteration.
At the time the poem was composed, poets were considered to be "Makers" (as in
William Dunbar's poem "Lament for the Makaris"), and poetry was considered to
have a divine origin, so the poem may express a sort of affinity between the
poet and his God, with a mortal maker praising his immortal Maker―poet to Poet.
Cædmon's Hymn (circa 658-680 AD)
loose translation by
Michael R. Burch
Humbly let us honour heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the Measurer's might and his mind-plans,
the goals of the Glory-Father. First he, the Everlasting Lord,
established earth's fearful foundations.
Then he, the First Scop, hoisted heaven as a roof
for the sons of men: Holy Creator,
mankind's great Maker! Then he, the Ever-Living Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth: Master Almighty!
Translator's Notes: "Cædmon's Hymn" is one of the oldest surviving examples of
Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. Below, I have indicated the alliteration in one
translations, with underscores:
Now let us honour
Guardian, [n, h, g, d]
the might of the Architect and his
mind-plans, [m, a, t]
the work of the Glory-Father.
First he, the Everlasting
Lord, [g, f, l]
established the foundation of wonders.
[d, e, s]
Then he, the
Poet, created heaven
as a roof [e, a, p]
for the sons of men, Holy Creator,
[e, s, r]
Maker of mankind! Then he, the
Entity, [m, n, e]
[m, t, r]
While some experts may quibble with my interpretation that Caedmon may have had a vision
of God as a Poet-Creator, please allow me to point out that the original poem
employs the words scop and haleg scepen. The word scop
can definitely mean "poet," as Anglo-Saxon poets were called scops. The term
haleg scepen could then mean something like "Holy Poet" or "Holy
Creator/Maker" because poets were considered to be creators and makers.
Also the verb tīadæ has been said to mean
something like "creatively adorned." I don't
think it is that much of a stretch to suggest that a Christian poet may have
small act of creation as a pale imitation of the far greater acts of creation of
his Heavenly Father.
As in the original poem, each line of my translation has a caesura: a brief
pause denoted by white space. In each line, there are at least three repeated
vowel/consonant sounds. This alliteration gives alliterative verse its name. The
original poem is also accentual verse, in that each line has four strong
stresses, and the less-stressed syllables are not counted as they are in most
other forms of English meter (such as iambic pentameter). My translation is not
completely faithful to the original rules. For instance, I have employed a
considerable amount of internal alliteration (which gives me more flexibility in
the words I can employ). And some of my lines contain more than four stresses,
although I think there are still four dominant stresses per line. For instance,
in the first line: HONour, HEAVen, KINGdom's GUARDian. In the second line:
MIGHT, ARCHitect, MIND-PLANS. And so on. I don't think the technique is
all-important. The main questions are whether the meaning is clear, and whether
the words please the ear. Only you, the reader, can decide that, and you don't
need a high-falutin' critic to tell you what you like!
I believe the poem is very "biblical" in its vision of creation. According to
the Bible, the earth was set on an immovable foundation by the hand of God.
(Little did the ancient writers know that the earth is actually a spinning globe
whizzing through space at phenomenal speeds!) We see this foundation in line
four. Next, in line five, we see the hand of God creating the heavens above,
where according to the Bible he then set the sun, moon and stars in place. (The
ancient writers again got things wrong, saying that the earth existed first, in
darkness, and that the sun, moon and stars were created later; we now know that
the earth's heavier elements were created in the hearts of stars, so the stars
existed long before the earth. The writers of Genesis even said that plants grew
before the sun was formed, but of course they had never heard of
photosynthesis.) The poem's last line sounds a bit more Germanic or Norse to me,
since Middle Earth is a concept we hear in tales of Odin and Thor (and later in
the works of J. R. R. Tolkien). But that makes sense because when Saint
Augustine of Canterbury became the first Christian missionary to evangelize
native Britons, I believe it was the policy of the Roman Catholic Church to
incorporate local beliefs into the practice of Christianity. For instance,
because sun gods were worshiped in Rome, the Sabbath day became Sun-day, and the
birth of Christ became December the 25th (the day the winter sun is
"resurrected" and the days begin to lengthen, heralding spring). So in northern
climes we should expect to see some "fusion" of Norse and Germanic myths with
Christianity. For instance, there was never a mention of "hell" in the Hebrew
Bible; the Hebrew language did not even have a word that meant "hell" at the
time the books of the Old Testament were written. The closest Hebrew word,
Sheol, clearly means "the grave" and everyone went there when they died,
good and bad. The Greek word Hades also means the grave, and likewise
everyone went there when they died. Hades had heavenly regions like the
Elysian Fields and Blessed Isles and thus was obviously not hell! "Hell" is a
Norse term. If this subject interests you―for instance if
someone has said you are in danger of "hell" and need to be "saved" from it―you
many want to read my simple, logical proof that
There Is No Hell in the Bible.
The original Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem and a word-by-word literal
Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard,
Now let's honor
metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc,
measurer's might and his mode/method
uerc Uuldurfadur, suē hē uundra gihwaes,
work (of the) Glory-Father and his wonders praiseworthy (which)
ēci dryctin ōr āstelidæ
(the) Eternal Lord established in the beginning.
hē ǣrist scōp aelda barnum
He first (poetically) created (for) people-children/the sons of men
heben til hrōfe, hāleg scepen.
heaven as roof (our) holy creator/poet!
Thā middungeard moncynnæs Uard,
Then middle-earth mankind's Guardian
eci Dryctin, æfter tīadæ
(our) eternal Lord afterwards creatively adorned (with)
firum foldu, Frēa allmectig.
firm earth (our) Father almighty!