February 11, 2005

Happy Cædmon's Day

I generally don't pay much attention to the traditional Christian liturgical calendar, apart from Christmas and Easter. I make two exceptions: as a musician, I make note of St. Cecelia's Day, the feast day of the patron saint of music; and as an English graduate, I pause briefly to observe the feast day of Cædmon, the earliest known English poet.

Cædmon was an 8th century cowherd at a monastery in Yorkshire. According to the traditional story, in a day when popular entertainment consisted of spontaneously composing and singing songs, he was untalented in this respect. Embarrassed, he would excuse himself from the fire when his turn came.

One night as he left his companions to tend to the herds, he was confronted by an angel.

"Sing for me," the angel said. Cædman protested that he could not.

"You must sing," the angel replied. "Sing about creation." Miraculously, Cædmon discovered himself spontaneously composing the following hymn to the Creator:

Now we should praise the heaven-kingdom's guardian,
The measurer's might and His mind-conception,
Work of the glorious Father, as He each wonder,
Eternal Lord, instilled at the origin.
He first created for men's sons
Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;
Then, middle-earth, mankind's guardian,
Eternal Lord, afterward made
The earth for men, Father Almighty.

(Adapted slightly from the translation given on Wikipedia.)

Tradition has it he was tested at the monastery, where it was indeed determined that he had received the gift of hymnody miraculously. He was encouraged to use his gifts and join the monastery. Many ancient Anglo-Saxon poems on Biblical themes are attrbuted to Cædmon.

One of the better Christian musical groups, Caedmon's Call, is named after the story of this early English Christian artist.