There was in the Streaneshalch monastery a certain brother, Caedmon, particularly remarkable for the grace of God, who was wont to make pious and 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 English, which was his native language. By his verses the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven. Others after him attempted in the English nation to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men but from God, for which reason he never could compose any trivial or vain poem. Only those which relate to religion suited his religious tongue, for having lived in a secular habit till he was well advanced in years, he had never learned anything of versifying—for which reason being sometimes at entertainments, when it was agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turns and when he saw the instrument come toward him, he rose up from table and returned home.
Having done so at a certain time and gone out of the house where the entertainment was to the stable—where he had to take care of the horses that night—he there composed himself to rest at the proper time. A person appeared to him in his sleep, and saluting him by his name, said, “Caedmon, sing some song to me.” He answered, “I cannot sing, for that was the reason why I left the entertainment and retired to this place—because I could not sing.” The other who talked to him replied, “However, you shall sing.” “What shall I sing?” he rejoined. “Sing the beginning of created beings,” said the other. Hereupon he presently began to sing verses to the praise of God, which he had never heard, the purport whereof was thus:
Now sing the glory of God, the king
Of heaven, our Father’s power and His
Labor, the world’s conception, worked
In miracles as eternity’s Lord made
The beginning. First the heavens were
formed as a roof
For men, and then the holy Creator,
Eternal Lord and protector of souls,
Shaped our earth, prepared our home,
The almighty Master, our Prince, our God.
This is the sense but not the words in order as he sang them in his sleep; for verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness. Awaking from his sleep, he remembered all that he had sung in his dream and soon added much more to the same effect in verse worthy of the Deity.
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