Study Guide

Caedmon's Hymn Form and Meter

By Caedmon

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Form and Meter

Hymn in Alliterative, Four-Stress Verse

It's obvious the modern English translation of Caedmon's Hymn doesn't rhyme, but if you look more closely at the Old English original, you'll notice that it doesn't rhyme either. In fact, none of Old English poetry rhymes. Instead, lines are organized according to alliteration (when several words begin with the same sound) and stress. Each line is split in the middle by a large space, signifying a strong pause, or a caesura. The two half-lines have two stresses each, often with the first letter bolded.

Stressful much? It's actually pretty simple. It all comes together with the alliteration. Here are the ground rules for the same sounds (eh? eh?) in Old English poetry. And by "rules" we mean that in the same way that a sonnet or a haiku has rules: if enough poets follow the same techniques for long enough, those techniques will eventually define that type of poem. Dudes in medieval tights write enough 14-line poems with a startling change occurring at the eighth line, and presto—a sonnet becomes exactly that.

The same thing happened to Anglo-Saxon poetry. This pattern of stress and alliteration became so widespread among the Old English literary elites that writing any other way would have been seriously weird. Just ask the Beowulf poet. Or you can click here for some helpful instructions about how to write your own poetry in the Anglo-Saxon style.

On to Caedmon! To simplify things, we're going to number the stresses, which are bolded in the line below. "Sculon" and "heriġean" are the first and second stresses; "heofonriċes" and "Weard" are the third and fourth stresses. All set? Okay, then let's take the first line of Caedmon's Hymn:

Nu sculon heriġean                     heofonriċes Weard

And now let's count!

  • Rule one: At least two stresses must alliterate but three is also common. Four is not common.
  • Rule two: If a line has only 2 alliterative stresses, they will either be the second and third or the first and third stresses.
  • Rule three: If a line has 3 alliterative stresses, they will be the first, second, and third stresses.
  • Rule four: The fourth stress is rarely alliterative. 
  • Rule five: All vowels are alliterative. This means that in line 4 "eċe" alliterates with"or," even though in modern English "ear" would not be considered alliterative with "oar."

So what's with all these rules, pauses, and alliteration? Well, think about it. Folks in Caedmon's day weren't exactly bumping around the internet to find their favorite poem. Very few of them could even read or write. So the sonic linkages and patterns in a poem would need to follow a predictable pattern to make it stick in the listener's mind. This is a hymn, after all, which was meant to be passed on orally. For that to happen, a set form had to be in place to make it "catchy"—like any top 40 hit.

Depending on how "faithful" the translation, modern English versions may try to replicate the alliteration and the stresses. To see what this translation does, head down to the "Sound Check" section.

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