Cædmon, The First Great English Poet -- By: Daniel Seelye Gregory

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 056:222 (Apr 1899)
Article: Cædmon, The First Great English Poet
Author: Daniel Seelye Gregory

Cædmon, The First Great English Poet

Rev. Daniel Seelye Gregory

Twelve hundred years have passed since the first great English poet was laid to rest at Streanshalh in old Northumbria. Late in September, 1898, there was a notable gathering to unveil a memorial cross erected at Whitby, the old Streanshalh, in honor of Cædmon, “the divine ox-herd.” The address at the unveiling was delivered by Mr. Alfred Austin, the Poet-Laureate. For almost a millennium, Cædmon, with all the other representatives of that marvelous early English literary development, had been practically forgotten, only to be brought to mind again during the present century. To the last generation they were scarcely more than legendary names; but now that an admiring nation sets up a Cædmon Memorial, and a poet-laureate delivers an address affirming that Cædmon, rather than Chaucer, should be called “the morning star of English poetry,” the English-speaking peoples are naturally turning back to this primeval bard with awakened interest. Such questions as these are being asked: Who was Cædmon, and what is the story of his life? What was the poetry that gave him such renown? What was his influence upon his own age, and what has it been on later ages? Does he deserve to be so remembered and celebrated? Some of these questions will be answered directly and others incidentally in this article.

The History of Cædmon.—The story of the poet—

or the romance, if one prefers so to call it—has been preserved in brief by that illustrious church-historian, the Venerable Bede, or Beda, the early English church-historian, and in England at least, if not in the world, the greatest teacher of his age. Bede was born a. d. 673, ten years before the death of Cædmon. In his masterpiece, “The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation,” Bede briefly tells the story of the first great English poet, in Latin, the literary language of the world of that age. Eater it was translated into Anglo-Saxon and improved by King Alfred, in order to bring it within the reach of a larger number of his people.

The environment, as may be gathered from the history, was just fitted for the development of a great religious poet.

Cædmon lived when the overlordship of Northumbria extended over the major part of Britain, and when its period of greatest intellectual awakening was just at hand. His life-work was reaching out toward its highest at the very time when the religious conflict between Roman and Irish Christianity culminated in the Synod of Whitby. Never was the English religious nature more deeply stirred than in that age. That was a necessity to th...

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