At Caedmon’s Grave
by Michael R. Burch
At the monastery of Whitby,
on a day when the sun sank through the sea,
and the gulls shrieked wildly, jubilant, free,
while the wind and time blew all around,
I paced those dusk-enamored grounds
and thought I heard the steps resound
of Carroll, Stoker and good Bede
who walked there, too, their spirits freed
—perhaps by God, perhaps by need—
to write, and with each line, remember
the glorious light of Cædmon’s ember,
scorched tongues of flame words still engender.
Here, as darkness falls, at last we meet.
I lay this pale garland of words at his feet.
Originally published by The Lyric. “Cædmon’s Hymn,” composed at the Monastery of Whitby (a North Yorkshire fishing village), is one of the oldest known poems written in the English language, dating back to around 680 A.D. According to legend, Cædmon, an illiterate Anglo-Saxon cowherd, received the gift of poetic composition from an angel; he subsequently founded a school of Christian poets. Unfortunately, only nine lines of Cædmon’s verse survive, in the writings of the Venerable Bede. Whitby, tiny as it is, reappears later in the history of English literature, having been visited, in diametric contrast, by Lewis Carroll and Bram Stoker’s ghoulish yet evocative Dracula. Keywords/Tags: Caedmon, hymn, first English poem, Anglo-Saxon, Bede, cowherd, monk
Bede's Death Song (circa 731 AD)
ancient Anglo-Saxon/Old English lyric poem
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
Facing Death, that inescapable journey,
who can be wiser than he
who reflects, while breath yet remains,
on whether his life brought others happiness, or pains,
since his soul may yet win delight's or night's way
after his death-day.