From Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. The monk and scholar Bede is often referred to as the father of English history. The nine-line invocation, known as “Caedmon’s Hymn,” is the earliest attributable poem in the English language.
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 perfect
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.
In the morning he came to the steward, his superior, and having acquainted him with the gift he had received, was conducted to the abbess, by whom he was ordered, in the presence of many learned men, to tell his dream and repeat the verses, that they might all give their judgment what it was, and whence his verse proceeded. They all concluded that heavenly grace had been conferred on him by our Lord. They expounded to him a passage in holy writ, either historical or doctrinal, ordering him, if he could, to put the same into verse. Having undertaken it, he went away and, returning the next morning, gave it to them composed in most excellent verse; whereupon the abbess, embracing the grace of God in the man, instructed him to quit the secular habit and take upon him the monastic life, which being accordingly done, she associated him to the rest of the brethren in her monastery and ordered that he should be taught the whole series of sacred history. Thus Caedmon, keeping in mind all he heard, and as it were chewing the cud, converted the same into most harmonious verse—and sweetly repeating the same, made his masters in their turn his hearers. He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis, and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from holy writ—also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven; besides many more about the divine benefits and judgments, by which he endeavored to turn away all men from the love of vice and to excite in them the love of and application to good actions. For he was a very religious man, humbly submissive to regular discipline but full of zeal against those who behaved themselves otherwise—for which reason he ended his life happily.