The first recorded poem in the English language is called Cædmon’s Hymn, and is related to us by the notable saint, monk, and historian, the Venerable Bede in his work Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). In this text, Bede tells us that Cædmon was a worker at a monastery, who was reluctant to sing. Miraculously, however, he was commanded to do so, and produced a beautiful song, praising God in His role as creator, as well as the beauty of all that is.
The poem is not only the first recorded “song” in English but is also notable for its structure, which speaks of the Lord’s creation of all things for men, their protection, and their prosperity, all while praising the source of all beauty and safety. One modern translation reads so:
Now [we] must honor the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator.
Then the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.
Note the emphasis on God as “guardian of heaven,” (1) and “father of glory” (3). God’s might, love, and grandeur are to be found in His creation, which has been made as a “roof” (6) for our protection, “lands” (9) for our keeping, “appointed…for men” (8-9). Various aspects of the divine are emphasized: His protective nature (1), His creative faculties (2), His ability to elicit wonder and praise (4), even His love for us as manifested in His decision to create us and our home (9).
The poem then walks us through a variety of the Lord’s qualities in a short space, reminding us that we ourselves are simultaneously created and loved, both subordinate to God and stewards of His earth, “appointed” for us, but ultimately entrusted to us, for only the Lord Himself is “almighty” (9).
I cannot help but read this poem in light of Laudato Si, in light of the call to a renewed commitment to God as creator, protector, and lawgiver, a god who has entrusted us with the preservation of the beauty He ordained. In this sense, Cædmon’s Hymn is worth knowing, worth repeating, and worth remembering. It is a part of our history as English-speaking Catholics, and remains an example of loving praise balanced with starry-eyed wonder. Let us, then, like Cædmon, be obedient, let us then remember our created-ness and duty to “honor the guardian of heaven” (1).