A story about Caedmon, from the “The Roots of Music”. [This lovely Irish Harp collection features fine poetry and wonderful stories about The Irish Harp.]

The three long poems in the collection, “The Roots of Music”, (–in the original Irish Gaelic with my facing page calligraphed translations–) give a wonderful insight into the special regard that Ireland had for the harp.
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In Ireland they had a saying:
“Caid cac ceol co cruit” –itself a marvel of compression– which translates to:
“All music is sweet until you hear the harp.”
–It makes a similar point.
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The stories or legends in the collection are equally fine. I have retold one or two of them in this blog.
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Here is another one that I regard highly, and that I hope you will like: I call it “Caedmon: Fear of Harping.”
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“CAEDMON: Fear of Harping.”

“Today Caedmon is regarded as the First Poet in the English language, but back in 680 AD he was a plain, shy working man, a lay brother at Abbess Hilda’s Whitby Monastery in Northumbria.
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At the time, Northumbria, in matters of religion, art and culture, was effectively an Irish province, converted by Celtic Christians (monks) from Iona. Hilda was a Celtic Christian; as was her cousin King Oswui; as were the last three bishops at Lindisfarne.
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Bede tells us that Caedmon had never learned “…anything about poetry. Indeed, it sometimes happpened at a feast that all the guests…would sing or entertain the company; then when he saw the harp coming his way, he would get up from the table and go home.”
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“On one such occasion he had left the house…and went to the stable where it was his duty that night to look after the beasts. There when the time came he settled down to sleep. Suddenly in a dream he saw a man standing beside him who called him by name. “Caedmon,” he said, “sing me a song.”
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Caedmon said he couldn’t sing.
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The man replied, “but you shall sing to me…sing about the creation of all things.”
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And Bede recounts that Caedmon began to sing verses in praise of God, and notes down his famous majestic lines: “Praise we the Fashioner now of Heaven’s fabric; the majesty of his might….”
Bede doesn’t say what kind of harp it was at the feast, but a contemporary illustration shows what seems to be a clairseac –the forerunner of the Irish Harp.
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What a lovely scene at the feast! “Passing the harp” seems to have been a regular, long-established and thoroughly Celtic procedure, in which everyone (–not just the stars–) could have a go at accompanying their own poetry with a bit of harpstrum.
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The shy man in the corner could turn out to be Caedmon.
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And here is the complete text of Caedmon’s poem:

“Now we must honour
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, the holy creator,
first created heaven as a roof
for the children of men.
Then the guardian of mankind
the eternal lord,
the lord almighty
afterwards appointed
the middle earth,
the lands, for men.”

[]Caedmon, circa 680 AD]
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My source on Caedmon is of course The Venerable Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”. It is a book that took me a long time to open up and read –something about that title that I suppose sounded a little dry.
What a revelation it was –an early contemporary account of his North of England world by a man of endearing equanimity. Bede was born in 673 and died in 735; he is known today as a historian, teacher, and theologian.
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He completed his famous history c.731.
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This appealing quote, which I like very much, gives us a sense of the man:

“The present life of men on earth, O King, as compared with the whole length of time which is unknowable to us, seems to me to be like this: as if when you are sitting at dinner with your chiefs and ministers in wintertime…one of the sparrows from outside flew very quickly through the hall; as if it came in one door and soon went out through another. In that actual time it is indoors it is not touched by the winter’s storm; but yet the tiny period of calm is over in a moment, and having come out of the winter it soon returns to the winter and slips out of your sight. Man’s life appears to be more of less like this, and of what may follow it, or what preceded it, we are absolutely ignorant.”
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[Just to disagree with Bede for a moment, concerning his statement “…of what may follow it, or what preceded it…”. We are not utterly ignorant –we have Bede’s account, and all the rest. “Littera scripta manet”.]
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[Write it down.]


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