Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

How Caedmon Sang, and How He Fell Once More on Silence

O NE of Caedmon's poems is called The Genesis.  In this the poet begins by telling of how Satan, in his pride, rebelled against God, and of how he was cast forth from heaven with all those who had joined with him in rebelling.

This story of the war in heaven and of the angels' fall is not in the Bible. It is not to be found either in any of the Latin books which the monks of Whitby may have had. The story did not come from Rome, but from the East. How, then, did Caedmon hear it?

Whitby, we must remember, was founded by Celtic, and not by Roman monks. It was founded by monks who came from Ireland to Iona, and from thence to Northumbria. To them the teaching of Christ had come from Jerusalem and the East rather than from Rome. So here again, perhaps, we can see the effect of the Celts on our literature. It was from Celtic monks that Caedmon heard the story of the war in heaven.

After telling of this war, Caedmon goes on to relate how the wicked angels "into darkness urged them their darksome way."

"They might not loudly laugh,

But they in hell-torments,

Dwelt accursed.

And woe they knew

Pain and sorrow,

Torment endured

With darkness decked,

Hard retribution,

For that they had devised

Against God to war."

Then after all the fierce clash of battle come a few lines which seem like peace after war, quiet after storm.

"Then was after as before

Peace in heaven,

Fair-loving thanes,

The Lord dear to all."

Then God grieved at the empty spaces in heaven from whence the wicked angels had been driven forth. And that they might at last be filled again, he made the world and placed a man and woman there. This to the chief of the fallen angels was grief and pain, and his heart boiled within him in anger.

"Heaven is lost to us," he cried; "but now that we may not have it, let us so act that it shall be lost to them also. Let us make them disobey God,

"Then with them will he be wroth of mind,

Will cast them from his favor,

Then shall they seek this hell

And these grim depths,

Then may we have them to ourselves as vassals,

The children of men in this fast durance."

Then Satan asks who will help him to tempt mankind to do wrong. "If to any followers I princely treasure gave of old while we in that good realm happy sate," let him my gift repay, let him now aid me.

So one of Satan's followers made himself ready. "On his head the chief his helmet set," and he, "wheeled up from thence, departed through the doors of hell lionlike in air, in hostile mood, dashed the fire aside, with a fiend's power."

Caedmon next tells how the fiend tempted first the man and then the woman with guileful lies to eat of the fruit which had been forbidden to them, and how Eve yielded to him. And having eaten of the forbidden fruit, Eve urged Adam too to eat, for it seemed to her that a fair new life was open to her. "I see God's angels," she said,

"Encompass him

With feathery wings

Of all folk greatest,

Of bands most joyous.

I can hear from far

And so widely see,

Through the whole world,

Over the broad creation.

I can the joy of the firmament

Hear in heaven.

It became light to me in mind

From without and within

After the fruit I tasted."

And thus, urged by Eve, Adam too ate of the forbidden fruit, and the man and woman were driven out of the Happy Garden, and the curse fell upon them because of their disobedience.

So they went forth "into a narrower life." Yet there was left to them "the roof adorned with holy stars, and earth to them her ample riches gave."

In many places this poem is only a paraphrase of the Bible. A paraphrase means the same thing said in other words. But in other places the poet seems to forget his model and sings out of his own heart. Then his song is best. Perhaps some of the most beautiful lines are those which tell of the dove that Noah sent forth from the ark.

"Then after seven nights

He from the ark let forth

A palid dove

To fly after the swart raven,

Over the deep water,

To quest whether the foaming sea

Had of the green earth

Yet any part laid bare.

Wide she flew seeking her own will,

Far she flew yet found no rest.

Because of the flood

With her feet she might not perch on land,

Nor on the tree leaves light.

For the steep mountain tops

Were whelmed in waters.

Then the wild bird went

At eventide the ark to seek.

Over the darling wave she flew

Weary, to sink hungry

To the hands of the holy man."

A second time the dove is sent forth, and this is how the poet tells of it:—

"Far and wide she flew

Glad in flying free, till she found a place

Fair, where she might rest. With her feet she stept

On a gentle tree. Gay of mood she was and glad

Since she sorely tired, now could settle down,

On the branches of the tree, on its beamy mast.

Then she fluttered feathers, went a flying off again,

With her booty flew, brought it to the sailor,

From an olive tree a twig, right into his hands

Brought the blade of green."

"Then the chief of seamen knew that gladness was at hand, and he sent forth after three weeks the wild dove who came not back again; for she saw the land of the greening trees. The happy creature, all rejoicing, would no longer of the ark, for she needed it no more."

Besides Genesis  many other poems were thought at one time to have been made by Caedmon. The chief of these are Exodus  and Daniel.  They are all in an old book, called the Junian MS.,  from the name of the man, Francis Dujon, who first published them. The MS. was found among some other old books in Trinity College, Dublin, and given to Francis Dujon. He published the poems in 1655, and it is from that time that we date our knowledge of Caedmon.

Wise men tell us that Caedmon could not have made any of these poems, not even the Genesis  of which you have been reading. But if Caedmon did not make these very poems, he made others like them which have been lost. It was he who first showed the way, and other poets followed.

We need not wonder, perhaps, that our poetry is a splendor of the world when we remember that it is rooted in these grand old tales, and that it awoke to life through the singing of a strong son of the soil, a herdsman and a poet. We know very little of this first of English poets, but what we do know makes us love him. He must have been a gentle, humble, kindly man, tender of heart and pure of mind. Of his birth we know nothing; of his life little except the story which has been told. And when death came to him, he met it cheerfully as he had lived.

For some days he had been ill, but able still to walk and talk. But one night, feeling that the end of life for him was near, he asked the brothers to give to him for the last time the Eucharist, or sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

"They answered, 'What need of the Eucharist? for you are not likely to die, since you talk so merrily with us, as if you were in perfect health.'

" 'However,' said he, 'bring me the Eucharist.'

"Having received the same into his hand, he asked whether they were all in charity with him, and without any enmity or rancour.

"They answered that they were all in perfect charity and free from anger; and in their turn asked him whether he was in the same mind towards them.

"He answered, 'I am in charity, my children, with all the servants of God.'

"Then, strengthening himself with the heavenly viaticum, he prepared for the entrance into another life, and asked how near the time was when the brothers were to be awakened to sing the nocturnal praises of our Lord.

"They answered, 'It is not far off.'

"Then he said, 'Well, let us wait that hour.' And signing himself with the sign of the cross, he laid his head on the pillow, and falling into a slumber ended his life so in silence."

Thus his life, which had been begun in silence, ended also in silence, with just a few singing years between.

"Thus it came to pass, that as he had served God with a simple and pure mind, and undisturbed devotion, so he now departed to His presence, leaving the world by a quiet death. And that tongue which had composed so many holy words in praise of the Creator, uttered its last words while he was in the act of signing himself with a cross, and recommending himself into His hands."

At Whitby still the ruins of a monastery stand. It is not the monastery over which the Abbess Hilda ruled or in which Caedmon sang, for in the ninth century that was plundered and destroyed by the fierce hordes of Danes who swept our shores. But in the twelfth century the house was rebuilt, and parts of that building are still to be seen.

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