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 that dusk-enamored ground
and thought I heard the steps resound
of Carroll, Stoker and good Bede
who walked here too, their spirits freed
—perhaps by God, perhaps by need—
to write, and with each line, remember
the glorious light of Caedmon’s ember:
scorched tongues of flame words still engender.
He wrote here in an English tongue,
a language so unlike our own,
unlike—as father unto son.
But when at last a child is grown.
his heritage is made well-known;
his father’s face becomes his own.
He wrote here of the Middle-Earth,
the Maker’s might, man’s lowly birth,
of every thing that God gave worth
suspended under heaven’s roof.
He forged with simple words His truth
and nine lines left remain the proof:
his face was Poetry’s, from youth.
“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, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, oldest English poem, Whitby, Bede, Carroll, Stoker
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.