Thursday, June 30, 2011

The 'Cædmon Manuscript'

Cædmon is the earliest English poet whose name is known. An Anglo-Saxon herdsman attached to the double monastery of Streonæshalch (Whitby Abbey) during the abbacy of St. Hilda (657–680), he was originally ignorant of "the art of song" but learned to compose one night in the course of a dream, according to the 8th-century monk Bede. He later became a zealous monk and an accomplished and inspirational religious poet.

It was not until the seventeenth century that any existing poems were attributed to Cædmon. In 1651 Archbishop Ussher presented a unique manuscript of Anglo-Saxon poems from about the year A.D. 1000 to the Dutch scholar Francis Junius. Junius was serving as librarian to the Earl of Arundel, and had devoted himself to the study of Anglo-Saxon. The poems in the manuscript fit Bede's description of Cædmon's work very well -- they included poetic paraphrases of Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, and a group of poems concerning the Fall of the Angels, Christ's Descent into Hell, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Last Judgment, and the Temptation in the Wilderness. And so after he returned to Holland, Junius published an edition of this manuscript in which he attributed the poems to Cædmon. The manuscript thus became known as the 'Cædmon Manuscript.' It is now in the Bodleian Library, and designated Codex Junius 11. Today most Anglo-Saxon scholars doubt that these poems (in their present form) were in fact written by Cædmon. Instead, they theorize that the poems are the remaining work of a whole school of poets which flourished somewhat later. Nevertheless, there is good reason to suppose that parts of the poems, at least, are the work of Cædmon.

Whether or not these poetic paraphrases contain the work of Cædmon, they are valuable relics of the Anglo-Saxon age. They indicate the manner in which the Bible was popularly known and interpreted at the time, and they continue to be excellent devotional literature. As one scholar concludes, "Bede tells us that many English writers of sacred verse had imitated Cædmon, but that none had equalled him. The literary value of parts of the Cædmonian poems is undoubtedly of a high order. The Bible stories are not merely paraphrased, but have been brooded upon by the poet until developed into a vivid picture, with touches drawn from the English life and landscape about him. The story of the flight of Israel resounds with the tread of armies and the excitement of camp and battle. The Genesis and the Christ and Satan have the glow of dramatic life, and the character of Satan is sharply delineated. The poems, whether we say they are Cædmon's or of the school of Cædmon, mark a worthy beginning of the long and noble line of English sacred poetry."

Below is a small sample of Cædmon's poetic paraphrase of the book of Genesis, followed by a modern English translation.

"Yet the Almighty Father would not take away from Adam and from Eve, at once, all goodly things, though He withdrew His favour from them. But for their comfort He left the sky above them adorned with shining stars, gave them wide-stretching fields, and bade the earth and sea and all their teeming multitudes to bring forth fruits to serve man's earthly need. After their sin they dwelt in a realm more sorrowful, a home and native land less rich in all good things than was their first abode, wherefrom He drove them out after their sin. Then, according to the word of God, Adam and Eve begat children, as God had bidden. To them were born two goodly sons, Abel and Cain: the books tell us how these brothers, first of toilers, gained wealth and goods and store of food."

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