Old English Poetry



The story of Cædmon, the first English poet

According to Bede, Cædmon was a shy cowherd who leaves a banquet ashamed that he can't take a turn singing, goes home, falls asleep, and has a dream. Literary dreams are always significant, and in Cædmon's dream a man, or angel, appears to him and says,

"Cædmon, sing me hwæthwugu."

Cædmon replies, "Ne con ic noht singan; and ic for žon of þeossum gebeorscipe ut eode ond hider gewat, for þon ic naht singan ne cuðe."

(I can sing nought [nothing] and for that reason I went out from this banquet and came hither [here], because I did not know how to sing.)

But the man insists, "Hwæðre þu meaht me singan."
                               (However you can sing for me)

Cædmon asks, "Hwæt sceal ic singan?"

And the answer, "Sing me frumsceaft."

Cædmon's Hymn

Nu sculon herigean   heofonrices Weard,
Meotodes meahte   on his modgeðanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder,   swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece Drihten,       or onstealde.
He ærest sceop    eorþan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,  halig Scyppend;
þa middangeard  moncynnes Weard,
ece Drihten,       æfter teode
firum foldan,     Frea ælmihtig.

Now (we) should praise   of the kingdom of heaven  the Warden,
Of the Creator the might,  and his mind-thought (purpose),
the work of the Gloryfather,  just as he of wonders,
eternal Lord, created the beginning (of each).
He first created  for the children of earth
heaven as a roof,  holy Shaper;
then Middle Earth  mankind's Warden,
eternal Lord,   after created
for men the earth,  Ruler almighty.


Two Riddles

Riddle no. 65, from the Exeter Book

Cwico wæs ic, ne cwæþ ic wiht,   cwele ic efne seþeah.
Ær ic wæs, eft ic cwom.   Æghwa mec reafaþ,
hafaþ mec on headre,   ond min heafod scireþ,
biteþ mec on baer lic,   briceþ mine wisan.
Monnan ic ne bite,   nympðe he me bite;
sindan ðara monige   ðe mec bitaþ.

I was alive, and I provoked no one;   however, I am killed.
First I was, then I came.   Everyone robs me,
binds me, and cuts off my head,
bites my bare body,   breaks my being.
I don't bite men,   unless he bites me;
there are many who bite me.

an onion



Caedmon's hymn

Manuscript of Bede's History of the English Church and People, showing Cædmon's Hymn, written out in prose.



Riddle no. 66

Ic eom mare þonne þes middangeard,
læsse þonne hondwyrm, leohtre þonne mona,
swiftre þonne sunne.  Sæs me sind ealle
flodas on fædmum   ond þes foldan bearm,
grene wongas.   Grundum ic hrine,
helle underhnige,   heofonas oferstige,
wuldres eðel,  wide ræce
ofer engla eard,   eorðan gefylle,
ealne middangeard   ond merestreamas
side mid me sylfum.  Saga hwæt ic hatte.

I am greater than this world,
less than a hand-worm, lighter than the moon,
swifter than the sun.  All the floods of the sea
are in my embraces, and the bosom of this earth,
the green fields.  I touch the depths,
I plunge beneath hell, climb over the heavens,
the abode of glory,  far I extend
over the dwelling of the angels,    I fill the earth
the whole world and the ocean streams
far and wide with myself.  Say what I am called.