When you think of the great poets of English literature, names like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Keats might come to mind. But long before any of those writers were born, there was a man named Caedmon who was making his mark on the English language.
Caedmon was a monk who lived in the 7th century in what is now North Yorkshire. According to the Venerable Bede, an early English historian, Caedmon was an illiterate cowherd who had a talent for singing and composing songs.
One night, as Caedmon was sleeping in the barn where he worked, he had a dream in which he was visited by an angel. The angel told him to sing a song about the creation of the world, and when Caedmon woke up, he found that he had the ability to compose beautiful poetry in English.
Caedmon’s poetry was different from anything that had been written in English before. Unlike the epic poems of Anglo-Saxon literature, which were usually about warriors and battles, Caedmon’s poetry focused on religious themes and was meant to be sung in church.
Some of Caedmon’s poems have survived to this day, including his hymn of creation, which begins:
“Now let us praise the Maker of heaven’s bright canopy,
The power of the Creator and His counsel, the work of the Father of glory,
As He, the eternal Lord, established the beginning of all wonders.
He, the holy Creator, first created heaven as a roof for the children of men.”
Although Caedmon’s poetry may seem simple and unadorned by modern standards, it was a significant achievement for its time. Not only was Caedmon one of the first poets to write in English, but he also helped to establish a tradition of religious poetry that would continue to flourish in England for centuries to come.
So the next time you read a poem by Wordsworth or Keats, remember that they owe a debt of gratitude to Caedmon, the humble cowherd who became the first great poet of the English language.