Bede’s telling of the story of Cædmon’s miracle has a freshness in Old English that is as sharp on the mind as the iodine of seaweed is on the tongue and in the nose here in Whitby. We meet in this untutored farm worker a confrontation between lack of self confidence and grace, between establishment and creativity – and the birth of vernacular English poetry. Whatever the truth of this story, when even its location is in doubt, I just want to record my gratitude to this moment when the stress of politics and belief found some release in a moment of creativity.
In the well worn story, the unmusical, unpoetic Cædmon who has skulked off to avoid singing, is commanded to sing by the miraculous dream-visitor:
Eft he cwæð, se ðe wið hine sprecende wæs: ‘Hwæðre þu meaht singan.’ Þa cwæð he: ‘Hwæt sceal ic singan?’ Cwæð he: ‘Sing me frumsceaft.’
Sing to me of the beginning-making.
Sing of creation, sing of Nature: sing into English the glorious hymnody, the great Nature poets: sing John Clare, Rob MacFarlane, Wendell Berry, Ralph Emerson, sing Maya Angelou and Alice Oswald and Keats and Hopkins and Thomas and…
… and here I am in Whitby and conscious of all the ambiguity in this story, but nevertheless wanting to say thank you for the burgeoning of beauty that gave us the tale of the night-watchman who changed us for ever.