The Oldest Poem in the English Language

My wife bought me Leland Ryken’s The Soul in Paraphrase for a Father’s Day gift. It begins with this gem, the oldest extant poem in the English language, which is fittingly about creation.

Now we must praise the Keeper of Heaven's Kingdom, 
The might of the Maker and his wisdom, 
The work of the Glory-Father, when he of every wonder, 
The eternal Lord, the beginning established. 

He first created for the sons of earth 
Heaven as a roof, Holy Creator, 
Then middle-earth the Protector of mankind, 
Eternal Lord, afterwards made, 
The earth for men, the Lord Almighty. 

The poet is Caedmon, an illiterate English farmhand in the 600s who did not know how to sing. When he fell asleep one day in a barn, someone in a dream told him to sing. Caedmon protested that he did not know how, so the voice told him that he should sing about creation. When he awoke, Caedmon was able to sing this song. Ryken says, “The new poetic gift never left Caedmon. English poetry thus began with a miracle of the word.”

I enjoyed the unique titles that Caedmon uses to speak of God, the “Keeper of Heaven’s Kingdom,” the “Glory-Father,” the “Protector of mankind.” This is one of the advantages of being exposed to the worship of God in other languages or in an archaic form of your own language – different kinds of titles are possible and prominent (For example, Acts 1:24 in Greek calls God “Lord Heart-Knower”). I also noticed how the verbs come at the end of some of the sentences, an old trait of Indo-European languages that has also held on in the Indo-European language we are learning in Central Asia. And I always find it interesting whenever I come across an account from church history where the Holy Spirit communicates in dreams, a phenomenon quite common among those who come to faith in Central Asia. Strange as it might seem to us now, dreams are more common in our own spiritual lineage than we might think.

As I read, I wondered if this first poem of the English language also hints at some influence of Celtic Christianity, the main cultural source of English Christianity, with its Patrick-esque emphasis on the goodness of creation (See this post on St. Patrick’s Breastplate). Like creation, English poetry has since been abused and broken in many ways, but it sure had a good and beautiful beginning.

For the linguistically curious, here is “Caedmon’s Hymn” in Old English and in Bede’s Latin translation.

Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard,
metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc,
uerc Uuldurfadur, suē hē uundra gihwaes,
ēci dryctin ōr āstelidæ
hē ǣrist scōp aelda barnum
heben til hrōfe, hāleg scepen.
Thā middungeard moncynnæs Uard,
eci Dryctin, æfter tīadæ
firum foldu, Frēa allmectig.
Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis,
potentiam creatoris, et consilium illius
facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille,
cum sit aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor exstitit;
qui primo filiis hominum
caelum pro culmine tecti
dehinc terram custos humani generis
omnipotens creavit.

-Ryken, The Soul in Paraphrase, pp. 19-20

-Marsden, Old English Reader, p. 80

-Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash

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