The unassuming little poem of nine lines known as Cædmon’s Hymn, despite its pint-sized scale, is a miliarium aureum, a literary milestone arguably greater than any other in the history of the English language: it is the first hymn, the first poem, and in fact the first composition of any kind in any form of English which is preserved to the present day. Like the zero-mile post in the Roman Forum, all paths that any reader may take through English Literature and Poetry begin with this humble little work.
For its size, the poem is not only uncommonly important, but also uncommonly variable — there are about twenty surviving copies of the poem from the Old English period, representing at least a dozen different variations on the text, not only on the level of varying regional pronunciations (and hence, spellings), but also on the level of wording — probably because the poem and the famous story surrounding it remained popular for centuries, allowing ample opportunity for the drift and re-honing that enrich the textual traditions of primarily oral literary cultures to take effect. (Several more variants, for that matter, including the versions most likely to be encountered by students, are owed to the recombinatory creativity of modern editors seeking to present a single, quintessential, and of course grammatically and dialectally tame text.) I’ll reproduce just two of the variants here, one in early Northumbrian Old English from the “Moore Bede” Manuscript held at Cambridge (codex Kk. 5. 16), and one in Late West Saxon Old English taken from the Bodelian Hatton 43 Manuscript held at Oxford. I’ve chosen these two because they agree fairly closely (though still not perfectly) in their wording, and also with the Latin gloss in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum of Bede — which, ironically, is a text at least a few decades older than any surviving written copy of the native Old English text of the poem, and so probably points in the direction of the version(s) that Cædmon recited in his own lifetime — while at the same time showing the wide divergence in phonology between regions and periods, and even the grammatical reinterpretation that can be triggered by such phonological change.
All punctuation is modern addition, while the spelling exactly reproduces the manuscripts, and will be discussed below. The right-hand columns contain my best attempt to represent (using the International Phonetic Alphabet) what is commonly believed to be the pronunciation which would be represented by each text, although I should stress here that there’s ample opportunity for error both in the existing consensus on the phonology of each of these varieties of Old English at this level of detail, and also in my attempt to apply that consensus to these texts. Sound values which I’m particularly uncertain of are enclosed in square brackets, while footnotes on this phonological reading can be found separately. Differences in meaning between these two versions are indicated in the word-by-word translation with square brackets giving (N) the Northumbrian translation /(W) the West Saxon translation, while in the fluent translation, one or the other meaning is selected and the alternative simply omitted. Footnotes on the differences in wording and meaning between these two texts are at the bottom, below the translations. The alliterating segments in each line have been underlined in each text; it is this alliteration on stressed syllables, along with restrictions regarding the number of stressed syllables in each line and half-line, that constitute the formal bounds of the poetic genre that Cædmon composed in.
Word-by-Word Modern Translation
Now [(W) we] shall praise Heaven-kingdom’s ward,
measurer’s might, and his mind-consideration,
work glory-father’s, as he of wonders [(N) of each /(W) each],
eternal Lord, [(N) origin /(W) starting point] established.
He first shaped for men’s sons
heaven for a roof, holy [(N) judge?/(W) shaper],
[(N) then] [(N) Middle-world /(W) in the Middle-world], mankind’s ward,
eternal Lord, after [(N) arranged /(W) times],
for people [(N) the land /(W) on the lands], Lord almighty.
Fluent Modern Translation
Now we shall praise the Heaven-kingdom’s protector,
the measurer’s might; thoughts of his mind;
the Glory-father’s work, as he each wonder’s
— eternal Lord — origin established.
He first formed for men’s sons
the heavens for a roof, — holy wright —
then the Middle-world mankind’s ward,
eternal Lord, afterward arranged
for men on the land, Lord almighty.
(1) This word is generally taken to be simply a variant spelling of <ærest> i.e., “first”, which agrees with the spelling in most manuscripts and also with Bede’s gloss of the poem, and hence is virtually certainly the original reading. However, if so, then this spelling is anomalous and without any obvious linguistic explanation, and the possibility exists that this particular recension of the poem could be introducing a novel variation on the poem, substituting <ærist> “arising, resurrection” (in its perfectly standard spelling), and thus making the poem read “He made the resurrection for men’s sons; the heavens for a roof; … then the Middle-world … afterward arranged for men on the land.”
(2) While <scepen> is usually read as an anomalous spelling of <scippend> “shaper, creator”, it has been pointed out (O’Donnel 1996, p. 52 non vidimus) that this could also be a hapax legomena– the only attestation in English of a word for “judge (n.)” which is attested in Old High German <scaffin> or <sceffin> and Frisian <skeppena>. Again, while this is interesting, and linguistically possible, Bede’s gloss supports “creator”, however, it may be worth noting that if <scepen> were a rare word, doomed to soon drop completely out of use in English, and perhaps restricted to a poetic register, it may be that Bede himself did not know it, and misunderstood Cædmon’s text.
(3) Our two versions use two different words here, but both mean essentially “each” in this context, though the Northumbrian <gihuaes> is in the genitive case, while the West Saxon <gehwilc> is in the accusative, slightly changing the reading of the sentence.
(4) Here again, the two versions have synonymous and similar, but actually unrelated, words. The Northumbrian text has <or> “an origin”, while the West Saxon version has <ord>, literally “a point”, but in Old English often used without modification specifically in the sense of “a starting point, a point of origin, a spring”.
(5) Here the West Saxon and Northumbrian texts vary in meaning enormously from one another: the Northumbrian has the third-person singular indicative past tense verb <tiadæ> “fashioned, arranged”, making the half-line read “afterward [he] arranged” — a wording which is also attested in numerous West Saxon manuscripts which have the equivalent <teode> — however, the West Saxon text here has the noun <tida> “times, periods, whiles, intervals of time”, in the plural of either the nominative, accusative, or genitive case. This has generally been read as the object of the preposition <æfter> “after”, making the half-line read “after whiles”, but another reading is also possible, in which <tida>, along with <heofon>, is the direct object of the verb <gesceop> “shaped, formed”, and <æfter> functions adverbially (as it is attested to elsewhere), so that the latter part of the poem reads “He first created for men’s sons heaven for a roof, — holy shaper — on this Earth, –mankind’s ward, eternal Lord — afterward, (created) times, for men on the lands — Lord almighty.” This reading, fascinatingly, seems to picture God as creating not only the physical stage of the universe, but also of creating “times”, i.e., either the natural cycles of time, such as day and night, or perhaps even as actively creating the history itself that would play out on the stage (s)he had set.
(6) Here again, a slight difference in wording between the two texts forces a difference in interpretation: The Northumbrian version has <foldu> “land” with an anomalous ending; folde ordinarily declines as a weak feminine noun, however, this makes /foldu/ or anything similar ungrammatical; this form would seem to imply that the Northumbrian version represents a lect in which folde has been reinterpreted as a strong feminine U-stem noun, in which case /foldu/ would be the nominative or accusative singular; only the latter would be logical, which would give the reading of “land” as an elliptical direct object of the verb <scop>, so that the half-line indicates the creator forming “the land for the people”, along with the heavens. By comparison, the West Saxon text given <foldum> in the dative plural with the preposition <on>, requiring the half-line to be read as a prepositional phrase “for people on the lands”.