The story of Cædmon is well-known from Book IV, Chapter 24 of the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History, which should be consulted for the context of this poem. A convenient account of the poem’s genesis in context, with references, appears in S.A.J.Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: Dent, 1982). Visitors to Westminster Abbey in London will see the stone placed to the memory of Cædmon in “Poets’ Corner”.
Salient to a modern reader will be the sustained use of alliteration, which is structural in OE verse, just as rhyme is basic to much later verse. The basic metrical unit in OE poetry was the half-line, linked together in pairs by alliterating syllables. Although there were distinct licences allowed for the purposes of stylistic foregrounding, nevertheless pairs of lines such as heofon toµ hroµfe and haµlig Scieppend were commonplace. This poem indicates the basic pattern; in the four stressed syllables of a prototypical pair of alliterative half-lines, the first three should alliterate. The poem also illustrates, amongst other things, the formulaic nature of OE verse, exemplified here by the number of synonyms for GOD. On verse-form in OE, see Mitchell and Robinson 1995.
sculon herian heofonrices Weard,
Metodes mihte and his modgeþanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder, swa he wundra
ece Dryhten, or onstealde.
He ærest scop eorþan bearnum
heofon to hrofe halig Scieppend.
þa middangeard mancynnes Weard
ece Dryhten, æfter teode
firum foldan Frea ælmihtig.
[we] must praise [the] Guardian of [the] heavenly kingdom, [the power]
of God and his conception,
[the] work of [the] Father of Glory, in that He, eternal Lord, established [the] beginning of every marvellous thing.
He, holy Creator, first created
heaven as a roof for children of men.
Then [the] Guardian of mankind,
eternal Lord, almighty Master, afterwards adorned [the] earth for living beings.