The Father of English Song
Although there are lines of Beowulf which seem to show that the writer of the poem was a Christian, they must have been added by some one who copied or retold the story long after the Saxons had come to Britain, for the poet who first told the tale must have been a heathen, as all the Saxons were.
The Britons were Christian, for they had learned the story of Christ from the Romans. But when the Saxons conquered the land they robbed and ruined the churches, the Christian priests were slain or driven forth, and once more the land became heathen.
Then, after many years had passed, the story of Christ was again brought to England. This time it came from Ireland. It was brought from there by St. Columba, who built a church and founded a monastery on the island of Iona. And from there his eager, wandering priests carried the story far and wide, northward to the fortress of the Pictish kings, and southward to the wild Saxons who dwelt amid the hills and uplands of Northumbria.
To this story of love and gentleness the wild heathen listened in wonder. To help the weak, to love and forgive their enemies, was something unthought of by these fierce sea-rovers. Yet they listened and believed. Once again churches were built, priests came to live among the people, and the sound of Christian prayer and praise rose night and morning from castle and from hut.
For thirty years and more St. Columba, the passionate and tender, taught and labored. Many monasteries were founded which became, as it were, the lighthouses of learning and religion. There the monks and priests lived, and from them as centers they traveled out in all directions teaching the heathen. And when at last St. Columba closed his tired eyes and folded his weary hands, there were many more to carry on his work.
Then, also, from Rome, as once before, the story of Christ was brought. In 597, the year in which St. Columba died, St. Augustine landed with his forty followers. They, too, in time reached Northumbria; so, side by side, Roman and Celt spoke the message of peace on earth, goodwill toward men.
The wild Saxon listened to this message, it is true. He took Christianity for his religion, but it was rather as if he had put on an outer dress. His new religion made little difference to his life. He still loved fighting and war, and his songs were still all of war. He worshiped Christ as he had worshiped Woden, and looked upon Him as a hero, only a little more powerful than the heroes of whom the minstrels sang. It was difficult to teach the Saxons the Bible lessons which we know so well, for in those far-off days there were no Bibles. There were indeed few books of any kind, and these few belonged to the monks and priests. They were in Latin, and in some of them parts of the Bible had been translated into Latin. But hardly any of the men and women of England could read or understand these books. Indeed, few people could read at all, for it was still the listening time. They learned the history of their country from the songs of the minstrels, and it was in this way, too, that they came to learn the Bible stories, for these stories were made into poetry. And it was among the rugged hills of Northumbria, by the rocky shore where the sounding waves beat and beat all day long, that the first Christian songs in English were sung. For here it was that Caedmon, the "Father of English Song," lived and died.
At Whitby there was a monastery ruled over by the Abbess Hilda. This was a post of great importance, for, as you know, the monasteries were the schools and libraries of the country, and they were the inns too, so all the true life of the land ebbed and flowed through the monasteries. Here priest and soldier, student and minstrel, prince and beggar came and went. Here in the great hall, when work was done and the evening meal over, were gathered all the monks and their guests. Here, too, would gather the simple folk of the countryside, the fishermen and farmers, the lay brothers and helpers who shared the work of the monastery. When the meal was done the minstrels sang, while proud and humble alike listened eagerly. Or perhaps "it was agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turn."
But when, at the monastery of Whitby, it was agreed that all should sing in turn, there was one among the circle around the fire who silently left his place and crept away, hanging his head in shame.
This man was called Caedmon. He could not sing, and although he loved to listen to the songs of others, "whenever he saw the harp come near him," we are told, "he arose out of shame from the feast and went home to his house." Away from the bright firelight out into the lonely dark he crept with bent head and lagging steps. Perhaps he would stand a moment outside the door beneath the starlight and listen to the thunder of the waves and the shriek of the winds. And as he felt in his heart all the beauty and wonder of the world, the glory and the might of the sea and sky, he would ask in dumb pain why, when he could feel it touch his heart, he could not also sing of the beauty and wonder, glory and might.
One night Caedmon crept away as usual, and went "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. A person appeared to him then in a dream and, calling him by name, said, 'Caedmon, sing some song to me.'
"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 cannot sing.'
"The other who talked to him replied, 'However, you shall sing.'
" 'What shall I sing?' rejoined he.
" 'Sing the beginning of created things,' said the other.
"Whereupon he presently began to sing verses to the praise of God, which he had never heard, the purport whereof was thus:—
'Now must we praise the guardian of heaven's kingdom,
The creator's might and his mind's thought;
Glorious father of men! as of every wonder he,
Lord eternal, formed the beginning.
He first framed for the children of earth
The heaven as a roof; holy Creator!
Then mid-earth, the Guardian of mankind,
The eternal Lord, afterwards produced;
The earth for men, Lord almighty.'
"This," says the old historian, who tells the story in Latin, "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 (that is word for word) translated out of one language into another without losing much of their beauty and loftiness."*
*Bede, Ecclesiastical History.
Awakening from his sleep, Caedmon remembered all that he had sung in his dream. And the dream did not fade away as most dreams do. For he found that not only could he sing these verses, but he who had before been dumb and ashamed when the harp was put into his hand, could now make and sing more beautifully than could others. And all that he sang was to God's glory.
In the morning, full of his wonderful new gift, Caedmon went to the steward who was set over him, and told him of the vision that he had had during the night. And the steward, greatly marveling, led Caedmon to the Abbess.
The Abbess listened to the strange tale. Then she commanded Caedmon, "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 came."
So the simple farm laborer, who had no learning of any kind, sang while the learned and grave men listened. And he who was wont to creep away in dumb shame, fearing the laughter of his fellows, sang now with such beauty and sweetness that they were all of one mind, saying that the Lord Himself had, of His heavenly grace, given to Caedmon this new power.
Then these learned men repeated to Caedmon some part of the Bible, explained the meaning of it, and asked him to tell it again in poetry. This Caedmon undertook to do, and when he fully understood the words, he went away. Next morning he returned and repeated all that he had been told, but now it was in beautiful poetry.
Then the Abbess saw that, indeed, the grace of God had come upon the man. She made him at once give up the life of a servant which he had been leading, and bade him become a monk. Caedmon gladly did her bidding, and when he had been received among them, his brother monks taught to him all the Bible stories.
But Caedmon could neither read nor write, nor is it at all likely that he ever learned to do either even after he became a monk, for we are told that "he was well advanced in years" before his great gift of song came to him. It is quite certain that he could not read Latin, so that all that he put into verse had to be taught to him by some more learned brother. And some one, too, must have written down the verses which Caedmon sang.
We can imagine the pious, humble monk listening while another read and translated to him out of some Latin missal. He would sit with clasped hands and earnest eyes, intent on understanding. Then, when he had filled his mind with the sacred story, he would go away by himself and weave it into song. Perhaps he would walk about beneath the glowing stars or by the sounding sea, and thank God that he was no longer dumb, and that at last he could say forth all that before had been shut within his heart in an agony of silence. "And," we are told, "his songs and his verse were so winsome to hear, that his teachers themselves wrote and learned from his mouth."
"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."
As has been said, there are lines in Beowulf which seem to have been written by a Christian. But all that is Christian in it is merely of the outside; it could easily be taken away, and the poem would remain perfect. The whole feeling of the poem is not Christian, but pagan. So it would seem that what is Christian in it has been added long after the poem was first made, yet added before the people had forgotten their pagan ways.
For very long after they became Christian the Saxons kept their old pagan ways of thought, and Caedmon, when he came to sing of holy things, sang as a minstrel might. To him Abraham and Moses, and all the holy men of old, were like the warrior chieftains whom he knew and of whom the minstrels sang. And God to him was but the greatest of these warriors. He is "Heaven's Chief," "the Great Prince." The clash and clang of sword and trumpet calls are heard "amid the grim clash of helms." War filled the greatest half of life. All history, all poetry were bound up in it. Caedmon sang of what he saw, of what he knew. He was Christian, he had learned the lesson of peace on earth, but he lived amid the clash of arms and sang them.