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For such a small town Whitby has its fair share of famous associations. It has been the source of inspiration for many successful authors, explorers and poets who have either lived or visited our charming town. Most of us know the more well known names such as Bram Stoker and Captain James Cook yet there are other literary names that have found the atmospheric town on the coast influential that are a little less recognised for their contribution to history.
If feels only right to start with Caedmon, an English poet whose words have survived centuries of upheaval. It’s pretty impressive that the earliest surviving poem was written in our charming seaside town.
As far as we know, Caedmon is one of the first to be inspired in Whitby. He was an English poet who began his working life as an Anglo-Saxon herdsman. He was the shy, retiring type who tended to the animals who belonged to the Northumbrian monastery of Streonæshalch, which then became as we all know it, Whitby Abbey. It was St Hilda who was the Abbess during this time between 657 - 680AD.
According to the legend, Caedmon felt as though he was unable to sing and was unfamiliar with poetry. So much so that he would leave the mead hall during the time when the harp began to be passed around. One evening he dozed off amongst the animals and dreamt that an apparition appeared asking for him to sing the principium creaturarum - ‘the beginning of created things.’ Once awake he had a beautiful voice that he used to sing the holy verses for Hilda and her close circle. Caedmon felt that his new confidence and ability to write sacred poetry was a gift from God leading for him to take his vows and become a monk. As he began learning his scriptures and the history of Christianity, he was inspired to create wonderful poetry. For the remainder of his life, he was devoted to the Church. No one knows the exact date of his passing but they do know he died at a similar time of a great fire at Coldingham Abbey, which happened between 679 - 681 AD.
Originally written in Old English, Bede, one of the greatest scholars known as the ‘Father of English History,’ published Caedmon’s Hymm in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia ecclesiastical gents Anglorum) in Latin. Many believe his decision was to appeal to a wider audience across the globe. Versions that have been published since the eight century include the Hymn translated back to Old English from Bede’s Latin interpretation. However, via these many translations some of the words and meanings may have been lost.
These nine lines below are all that has survived of Caedmon’s poetry, which are the words that he sang in his dream. It is a modern translation taken from The Earliest English Poems, Third Edition, Penguin Books, 1991.
Praise now to the keeper of the kingdom of heaven,
the power of the Creator, the profound mind
of the glorious Father, who fashioned the beginning
of every wonder, the eternal Lord.
For the children of men he made first
heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.
Then the Lord of mankind, the everlasting Shepherd,
ordained in the midst as a dwelling place,
Almighty Lord, the earth for men.
Whether you believe the legend or not, Caedmon is the first Old English poet that spent all of his life in Whitby, in our opinion that’s pretty impressive!