Once when he had done thus, and gone from the feast to the stable where he had that night charge of the cattle, there appeared to him in his sleep One who said, greeting him by name, ' Sing, Caedmon, some song to Me.' 'I cannot sing,' he answered; 'for this cause left I the feast and came hither.' He who talked with him answered,' However that be, you shall sing to Me.' 'What shall I sing?' rejoined Caedmon. 'The beginning of created things,'replied He. In the morning the cowherd stood before Hild and told his dream. Abbess and brethren alike concluded 'that heavenly grace had been conferred on him by the Lord.' They translated for Caedmon a passage in Holy Writ, ' bidding him, if he could, put the same into verse.' The next morning he gave it them composed in excellent verse, whereon the abbess, understanding the divine grace in the man, bade him quit the secular habit and take on him the monastic life." Piece by piece the sacred story was thus thrown into Caedmon's poem. "He sang of the creation of the world, of the origin of man, and of all the history of Israel; of their departure from Egypt and entering into the Promised Land; of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ, and of his ascension; of the terror of future judgment, the horror of hell-pangs, and the joys of heaven".
To men of that day- this sudden burst of song seemed a thing necessarily divine. " Others after him strove to compose religious poems, but none could vie with him, for he learned the art of poetry not from men nor of men, but from God." It was not indeed that any change had been wrought by Caedmon in the outer form of English song. The collection of poems which is connected with his name has come down to us in a later West-Saxon version, and though modern criticism is still-in doubt as to their authorship, they are certainly the work of various hands. The verse, whether of Caedmon or of other singers, is accented and alliterative, without conscious art or development or the delight that springs from reflection, a verse swift and direct, but leaving behind it a sense of strength rather than of beauty, obscured too by harsh metaphors and involved construction. But it is eminently the verse of warriors, the brief passionate expression of brief passionate emotions. Image after image, phrase after phrase, in these early poems, start out vivid, harsh and emphatic. The very metre is rough with a sort of self-violence and repression; the verses fall like sword-strokes in the thick of battle.
The love of natural description, the background of melancholy which gives its pathos to English verse, the poet only shared with earlier singers. But the faith of Christ brought in, as we have seen, new realms of fancy. The legends of the heavenly light, Baeda's story of "The Sparrow," show the side of English temperament to which Christianity appealed - its sense of the vague, vast mystery of the world and of man, its dreamy revolt against the narrow bounds of experience and life. It was this new poetic world which combined with the old in the so-called epic of Caedmon. In its various poems the vagueness and daring of the Teutonic imagination pass beyond the limits of the Hebrew story to a "swart hell without light and full of flame," swept only at dawn by the icy east wind, on whose floor He bound the apostate angels. The human energy of the German race, its sense of the might of individual manhood, transformed in English verse the Hebrew Tempter into a rebel Satan, disdainful of vassalage to God. "I may be a God as He," Satan cries amidst his torments. "Evil it seems to me to cringe to Him for any good."' Even in this terrible outburst of the fallen spirit, we catch the new pathetic note which the Northern melancholy was to give to our poetry. "This is to me the chief of sorrow, that Adam, wrought of earth, should hold my strong seat - should dwell in joy while we endure this torment.
Oh, that for one winter hour I had power with my hands, then with this host would I - but around me lie the iron bonds, and this chain galls me." On the other hand the enthusiasm for the Christian God, faith in whom had been bought so dearly by years of desperate struggle, breaks out in long rolls of sonorous epithets of praise and adoration. The temper of the poets brings them near to the earlier fire and passion of the Hebrew, as the events of their time brought them near to the old Bible history with its fights and wanderings. " The wolves sing their dread evensong; the fowls of war, greedy of battle, dewy-feathered, scream around the host of Pharaoh," as wolf howled and eagle screamed round the host of Penda. Everywhere we mark the new grandeur, depth, and fervour of tone which the German race was to give to the religion of the East.
But even before Caedmon had begun to sing, the Christian Church of Northumbria was torn in two by a strife whose issue was decided in the same abbey of Whitby where Caedmon dwelt. The labours of Aidan, the victories of Oswald and Oswiu, seemed to have annexed England to the Irish Church. The monks of Lindisfarne, or of the new religious houses whose foundation followed that of Lindisfarne, looked for their ecclesiastical tradition, not to Rome but to Ireland: and quoted for their guidance the instructions, not of Gregory, but of Columba. Whatever claims of supremacy over the whole English Church might be pressed by the see of Canterbury, the real metropolitan of the Church as it existed in the north of England was the Abbot of Iona. But Oswiu's queen brought with her from Kent the loyalty of the Kentish church to the Roman see, and a Roman party at once formed about her. Her efforts were seconded by those of two young thegns whose love of Rome mounted to a passionate fanaticism. The life of Wilfrid of York was a series of flights to Rome and returns to England, of wonderful successes in pleading the right of Rome to the obedience of the Church of Northumbria, and of as wonderful defeats.