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history of the monastery at Whitby, was doubtless the poetic rendering of an actual fact. The author of the Anglo-Saxon poem may, or may not, have had any such dream as the legend describes, but the existence of the poem is a fact ; and the tale of the bashful, super-sensitive hind leaving his companions because of his ignorance of music and falling into dreams of what he might have sung, is so true to nature that we may well regard it as the fanciful setting of a poetic age.
Nor is there anything strange in this development of legend-lore. The memory of the self-sacrificing life of the Lady Hilda has been preserved in story by the peasantry around her former home for more than a thousand years. An antiquary of Yorkshire tells us that when the sunbeams fall among the Abbey ruins, the spectators who stand on the west side of Whitby churchyard, so as just to see the most northerly part of the Abbey, imagine they perceive, in one of the highest windows there, the resemblance of a woman arrayed in a shroud; and it is commonly believed among the peasantry, to be an appearance of the Lady Hilda in her glorified state. And so, she, who among an untaught people diffused the light of the Gospel and the warmth of its charity, still appears to the half-taught of to-day as a vision of sunshine in the old place of her toil.
As to the poem itself, it is certain from Beda's own statement, that he translated the opening lines of Cædmon's poem, as he gives them in his Historia, either from some manuscript which he had consulted, or from some version which he had heard recited and had committed to memory; and further, it is clear from his own statement that he did not attempt to give an exact translation of the original Anglo-Saxon but only a paraphrase. After quoting the lines in question, he says: “Verses never so well composed cannot be literally translated out of one language into another without losing much of their beauty and loftiness."
In the extant historical writings of the time between Beda and King Alfred, we do not recall any reference to Cædmon or his poem ; but in King Alfred's translation of Beda's Historia we have Beda's narrative repeated, and the opening lines of Cædmon's poem given in Anglo-Saxon.
Whether King Alfred's Anglo-Saxon version is a re-translation of Beda's Latin, or a transcript from the original Anglo-Saxon, has been questioned; but on purely critical grounds we are convinced that King Alfred translated from the Latin, and did not copy from any Anglo-Saxon original.
This point will come out very clearly if we examine, side by side, the Latin wording of the His
toria and the wording of the Anglo-Saxon translation of King Alfred.
“ Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni cælestis, potentiam creatoris et consilium illius, facta patris gloriæ; quomodo ille, cum sit æternus deus, omnium miraculorum auctor extitit, qui primo filiis hominum cælum pro culmine tecti, dehinc terram custos humani generis omnipotens creavit."
So writes Beda in his Latin version of Cædmon's opening lines.
In King Alfred's translation this passage is rendered as follows:
Nu we sceolan herian
Anyone who is familiar with the structure and rhythm of Anglo-Saxon poetry, would have little, if any, hesitation in deciding that these lines are not, and could not be, a copy of any original AngloSaxon verses; while a comparison of these two passages in Latin and Anglo-Saxon, apart from any other evidence, would show that they resemble each other so closely as to warrant the opinion that the Anglo-Saxon version is simply a translation of the Latin. Indeed, that this is the case, might almost be inferred from a comparison of the two passages in a modern English rendering :
“Now are we to praise the Maker of the heavenly Kingdom, the power of the Creator and His counsel, the deeds of the Father of Glory; how He, being the eternal God, became the author of all miracles, who first, as Almighty preserver of the human race, created Heaven for the sons of men, as the roof of the house, and next, the Earth."
Such is the English rendering of the opening lines of Cædmon's poem as given by Beda.
If, now, we compare this rendering with a literal translation of King Alfred's Anglo-Saxon version, the point which we are making will stand out in a very clear light:
Now must we praise
The Creator's might,
We thus possess historic testimony, of the highest authority, that during Beda's boyhood a sacred poem on the subject of the “ Fall of Man" had been produced by an inmate of the double monastery of the Lady Hilda at Whitby; a poem so remarkable as to have commanded, in after years, the notice of a cleric and critic as learned as the Venerable Beda, and of such poetic excellence as to have elicited his highest commendation.
It would seem inexplicable, if we did not know the history of this early age, how a literary work of such importance should have been allowed to sink into total oblivion; and even the manuscripts of the