Dr J. J. McFarlane, April, 2018
Whitby Abbey 1 by Chris Kirk 1 License: CC BY 2.
Caedmon’s Hymn or Song (c.660-680) is celebrated as the fount of English vernacular poetry. The story of Caedmon and a prose summary of his Hymn, together with a note on the translation, appear in the Latin versions of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731); the poem exists as a poem in Old English Northumbrian and West Saxon versions of the Bede. In Three Northumbrian Poems (1978) the editor, A.H. Smith, observes that ‘the poem represents the beginnings of…a diction and its freshness and originality must have been felt a generation or more after its composition’ (p.15).
The joyful responsive feeling conjured by Caedmon’s hymn has endured well beyond the time limit of a few generations. For twenty-first century poets the primal and primary poetic quality of the piece still demands homage, as well as providing sustenance for the poet’s own practising voice: U.A. Fanthorpe in her own idiomatic version of the song in Queueing for the Sun (2003), for example. Geographical, linguistic and poetic identities continue to push through the earth of Caedmon’s poem, its oral resonance.
As noted in an earlier post on Cecily Daune, I am a writer currently engaged in doctoral creative work exploring and conjuring renditions of women’s voices in the Paston world. In terms of the wider reading field, it is Abbess Hild, the enabling power behind Caedmon, who interests me. In 657 she founded the double monastery whose livestock Caedmon tended: Streonshalh, built on the east cliff above the Esk estuary at Whitby – ‘the bay of the lighthouse’, as Bede explains. Great-niece to King Edwin, Hild served in his court and was baptised with him by his Roman priest. After he was killed, she became a nun and served with a small community on the north bank of the River Wear where she learnt from a visiting bishop, Aidan, the traditions of Celtic monasticism: scholarship, cultural patronage and care for the very poor. She became an abbess at Hartlepool, ‘the island of the hart’ (Bede again), and a little later established Streonshalh, or Whitby Abbey, where she was loved for her peacefulness, her charity, and was known to all as ‘mother’, a favourite term of praise for women saints (St. Anne and Elizabeth of Hungary, for example).
Bede’s Hild, for me, engages the imagination because of her perspicacity. She sent for Caedmon after the steward had reported to her what Caedmon had told him of an extraordinary dream. And when, at her request, Caedmon sang for her and for the company of learned church worthies she had called in, when he sang the God-bidden Creation song which he had dreamed, she recognized and honoured both the words and the man. She gave him a position in her religious house and encouraged his gifts and talents.
In terms of symbolic imagery around Hild, the legend of her mother’s sense of her unborn daughter as a bringer of light to the world, taken up in Nicola Griffith’s novel, Hild (2013), is a powerful one. Light meshes in special ways with the presence of waters in Hild’s life too: the Wear, the Esk and the North Sea.
Two new poems posted here inhabit Hild’s experience both before and during her time at Streonshalh, concentrating down to that extraordinary morning with Caedmon. Her voice is both more thoughtful and more brisk in the second piece, imbued by a growing sense of God’s immanence and by the necessity to attend to it. There is a deliberately structured play on time with the ‘Before’ piece framed as a present tense experience and the ‘Towards’ piece composed as a present tense dialogue that invites the Abbess to look back. Human and other realities live, move on, pass and live again, just like her rivers and the sea.
After the Hild pieces come two other new works which might also be of interest, one on (from) St. Margaret of Antioch, the other on (from) Julian of Norwich. A kind of polyphonic build, or prismatic stained glass effect, is beginning to be intended as I write, a composed scatter of significant early and medieval women’s voices. A reader might approach the more secular but equally uniquely voiced world of the Paston women through these – and might also hear some unexpected echoes.
A few texts directly relevant
Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. trans. Bertram Colgrave , eds. Judith McClure & Roger Collins. 1999. Oxford: OUP.
Fanthorpe, U. A. 2003. Queueing for the Sun. Cornwall: Peterloo Poets
Griffith, Nicola. 2014. Hild. London: Blackfriars
Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love, ed. Frances Beer. 1998. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer
Salih, Sarah, ed. 2010. A Companion to Middle English Hagiography. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer
Smith, A. H. ed. 1933, revised 1978. Three Northumbrian Poems (Caedmon’s Hymn, Bede’s Death Song and The Leiden Riddle). Exeter: University of Exeter Press
Before Streonshalh and on the River Wear
The river bank pulses with tangled ranks
of hawthorn and their red berries are
like sweat upon the light’s bright skim.
Rage and grief attend in silence. Good
days say King Edwin is with the God
of our old tonsured priest, Paulinus.
Yet when I take a walk, the evergreen
against the red is like green grass upon
the untombed dead. The river body’s
flexed, it shivers in its stretch towards
the sea. Slow and slow, an unsaid
bitterness of soul must be assuaged.
Bishop Aidan sails down from Iona. He
turns my heart from what has been and
calms my prayers to all that is not me:
the homeless and the poor, the loveliness
of words both read and heard, how to tend
the garden of a soul. How to be whole.
I wait upon the world for my Lord’s sake.
Towards Streonshalh and Caedmon’s Hymn
You were some kind of seer.
That’s what I’ve read.
Child of a mother who knew
that whilst she had a politic mind
behind her beauty, you had
something else that would carry
further. Always on watch –
clear eyes – a special sight
which looks both ways at once –
but something more subtle than
two-way Janus, and for always,
not just for the shortening
deep night of the year.
I keep free with what God gives. I know the value of what is
perceived and heard. And I know the value of the written word.
It does not pass, like the east wind’s fret and drip, or like what
a man says the day fishing boats come in with news of strange
ships further north, or like the tidal rips beneath exhausted migrant
birds. The written word. It arrived with priests in Latin and in Greek
but it is all of ours as well. It is what we tell of others and ourselves.
What did you see in Caedmon, then,
the gentle cowman, who understood
his kine better than fireside songs, who
slept in the byre and who had that soft
toothed whistle and gentle touch
for any unsettled animal? Did you intuit
how he was somehow different, already
marked, like you, for more than mud and
milk and meat? Marked, like you, for what
lies beyond and underneath?
It was a day like any other: the chanting of the early morning Offices,
matters of accounts, a problem with the Abbey’s stonework that had
to be addressed. Then a moment with a Novice, heart-sore for home.
Time for private prayer. The diurnal round. It is given by God and I
give back to Him with all that is in me so to give, always with waiting
joy, even when stung by hunger or fatigue or cold (winds confound
the very soul at Whitby). And then our steward delivered news of
something different and strange – what Caedmon had said or sung
to him on waking. And so I sent for Caedmon. In that short wait,
with many learned churchmen gathered, as they were told to be, I
felt aware of subtle shifts and lifts of light, and of a quiet. It held
the world at bay. Then Caedmon came, tuft-haired, raw-boned,
tousled – every inch the practised cowherd, not a boy. He looked
about a little, open-mouthed. When asked, he simply threw back
his head, and out it came. And no words thereafter were the same.
St Margaret of Antioch
Your hands are tired? Just a thumb’s touch on
one page of any book about my life will do:
then begone, bad bones and rheumy lungs,
begone, the patched and blistered skin.
Listen, Osbern Bokenham used a ring that had
once touched my poor old relic foot back
in Reading Abbey as a sort of flare to find his
way out of a foggy swamp in the Veneto:
he writes of how I lit his path by proxy. It’s
a fine thing, just to manage to do good for
God by the simple fact of being, or having
been…I’m not quite sure what it all means.
But there’s no doubt that the big event was
my fight to freedom from the dragon’s belly.
There was no thread of light there, only an
unseen purple blow of sac, behind which
pumped the flow of blood through spools of
viscera. To be, to be in a place where there
is not one thread of light. I dreamed the world
and its realities before He came to us, before
He came home. Beauty without a thread of
light. Well, I got out of there. The test was
to be here, and to be of use, in the name of
our Lord Jesus. I broke through the dragon,
away from sickness, suffocation, the untrue.
These are small and serious miracles I do.
‘I know what I am saying’ – Julian of Norwich
By a kind of liminal light
upon my soul’s sadness
the world seems sometimes far,
so far as to be quite away
and soul itself’s a shade
unpinned from this body
and from God. But God
taught His Son that all
travails and agonies are
And so, then, let it come.
This static ache suffered
is just an indrawn breath,
a pause, before the follow
and the flowering into
Paradise. Then let it come.
In my mother’s house they gather by my bed.
The curate’s here, he calls me ‘daughter’.
The crucifix he raises glows and is the one
object beyond and in my body’s sluice and
draining down of pain. Like a fish hook,
the Cross catches my lips and heart and
draws me in towards Him.
So cold, so cold but Christ has come down. I
feel the blood’s hot drip from His forehead
meet the flail and fail of me. He draws
me in, and more, and I begin to sweat a
raw and heat-filled agony and I begin to
thaw away the frozen thresh of pain.
He shares this with me. And He
tells me all is as it should be, for pain passes
and we live in Love and we shall live in
Love, always and all. He is my Mother
Jesus, from whom I come and into whose
arms I fall. Ah, there is an unexpected
grace in this hard thrall.