Study Guide

Caedmon's Hymn Sound Check

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Sound Check

It's tough to experience the true sound of Caedmon's Hymn unless you hear it in the original Old English (see "Best of the Web" for some online recordings). A lot of the beauty of the original lies in the rich alliteration of Caedmon's words in their rugged, what-the-heck-is-that-letter, ancient English. Some translations try to replicate the alliteration of Anglo-Saxon poetry, since that is one of the fundamental organizing elements in each line (see "Form and Meter" for further discussion). But others opt for a more literal translation, preferring the most accurate to the more alliterative. And sometimes, since Old English is related to modern English (kind of like its great-great-grandparent), a translation can be both accurate and alliterative—booyah.

Let's take a closer look at our translation and how it stacks up to the original. In the first line, the Old English alliterates "heriġean" and"heofonriċes"; the translation gives us "praise" and "heaven-kingdom's." Not quite. What about the second line? In the original we've got three alliterative words:

"Meotodes,""meahte," and "modġeþanc." Right below the modern English delivers the same: "Measurer's," "might," and "mind-plans." Looking at the rest, you'll notice that this translation is mostly about the accuracy—it doesn't reach for the alliteration but doesn't say no when "middle-earth and "mankind's" fall in its lap.

So what's the effect of all these words with the same first letters? Most importantly, they serve as poetic bricks, structuring each line around the long caesura or pause that splits it in the middle (see "Form and Meter"). It's easy to lose your momentum in such a cavernous poem-hole, but the familiar sound of the words in the second half haul you back to safety. They keep you firmly located.

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