In England there was once a famous abbey, called Whitby. It was so close to the sea that those who lived in it could hear the waves forever beating against the shore. The land around it was rugged, with only a few fields in the midst of a vast forest.
In those far-off days, an abbey was half church, half castle. It was a place where good people, and timid, helpless people could find shelter in time of war. There they might live in peace and safety while all the country round was overrun by rude and barbarous men.
One cold night in winter the serving men of the abbey were gathered in the great kitchen. They were sitting around the fire and trying to keep themselves warm.
Out of doors the wind was blowing. The men heard it as it whistled through the trees and rattled the doors of the abbey. They drew up closer to the fire and felt thankful that they were safe from the raging storm. “Who will sing us a song?” said the master woodman as he threw a fresh log upon the fire.
“Yes, a song! a song!” shouted some of the others. “Let us have a good old song that will help to keep us warm.”
“We can all be minstrels to-night,” said the chief cook. “Suppose we each sing a song in turn. What say you?”
“Agreed! agreed!” cried the others. “And the cook shall begin.”
The woodman stirred the fire until the flames leaped high and the sparks flew out of the roof hole. Then the chief cook began his song. He sang of war, and of bold rough deeds, and of love and sorrow.
After him the other men were called, one by one; and each in turn sang his favorite song. The woodman sang of the wild forest; the plowman sang of the fields; the shepherd sang of his sheep; and those who listened forgot about the storm and the cold weather.
But in the corner, almost hidden from his fellows, one poor man was sitting who did not enjoy the singing. It was Caedmon, the cowherd. “What shall I do when it comes my turn?” he said to himself. “I do not know any song. My voice is harsh and I cannot sing.”
So he sat there trembling and afraid; for he was a timid, bashful man and did not like to be noticed.
At last, just as the blacksmith was in the midst of a stirring song, he rose quietly and went out into the darkness. He went across the narrow yard to the sheds where the cattle were kept in stormy weather.
“The gentle cows will not ask a song of me,” said the poor man. He soon found a warm corner, and there he lay down, covering himself with the straw.
Inside of the great kitchen, beside the fire, the men were shouting and laughing; for the blacksmith had finished his song, and it was very pleasing.
“Who is next?” asked the woodman.
“Caedmon, the keeper of the cows,” answered the chief cook.
“Yes, Caedmon! Caedmon!” all shouted together. “A song from Caedmon!”
But when they looked, they saw that his seat was vacant.
“The poor, timid fellow!” said the blacksmith. “He was afraid and has slipped away from us.”
In his safe, warm place in the straw, Caedmon soon fell asleep. All around him were the cows of the abbey, some chewing their cuds, and others like their master quietly sleeping. The singing in the kitchen was ended, the fire had burned low, and each man had gone to his place.
Then Caedmon had a strange dream. He thought that a wonderful light was shining around him. His eyes were dazzled by it. He rubbed them with his hands, and when they were quite open he thought that he saw a beautiful face looking down upon him, and that a gentle voice said,—
“Caedmon, sing for me.”
At first he was so bewildered that he could not answer. Then he heard the voice again.
“Caedmon, sing something.”
“Oh, I cannot sing,” answered the poor man.” I do not know any song; and my voice is harsh and unpleasant. It was for this reason that I left my fellows in the abbey kitchen and came here to be alone.”
“But you must sing,” said the voice. “You must sing.”
“What shall I sing?” he asked.
“Sing of the creation,” was the answer.
Then Caedmon, with only the cows as his hearers, opened his mouth and began to sing. He sang of the beginning of things; how the world was made; how the sun and moon came into being; how the land rose from the water; how the birds and the beasts were given life.
All through the night he sat among the abbey cows, and sang his wonderful song. When the stable boys and shepherds came out in the morning, they heard him singing; and they were so amazed that they stood still in the drifted snow and listened with open mouths.
At length, others of the servants heard him, and were entranced by his wonderful song. And one ran quickly and told the good abbess, or mistress of the abbey, what strange thing had happened.
“Bring the cowherd hither, that I and those who are with me may hear him,” said she.
So Caedmon was led into the great hall of the abbey. And all of the sweet-faced sisters and other women of the place listened while he sang again the wonderful song of the creation.
“Surely,” said the abbess, “this is a poem, most sweet, most true, most beautiful. It must be written down so that people in other places and in other times may hear it read and sung.”
So she called her clerk, who was a scholar, and bade him write the song, word for word, as it came from Caedmon’s lips. And this he did.
Such was the way in which the first true English poem was written. And Caedmon, the poor cowherd of the abbey, was the first great poet of England.