Now we must praise the Guardian of Heaven,
the might of the Lord and His purpose of mind,
the work of the Glorious Father; for He,
God Eternal, established each wonder,
He, Holy Creator, first fashioned
heaven as a roof for the sons of men.
Then the Guardian of Mankind adorned
this middle-earth below, the world for men,
Everlasting Lord, Almighty King.
This simple hymn is the earliest known poem in the English language. It is a strange fact that English literature began with a humble cowhand who could not read or write. His name was Caedmon, and he was not a poet until relatively late in life, when one night he dreamed that a stranger came to him and told him to sing. Caedmon replied, "But I don't know how." The stranger said, "But you will sing to me." Caedmon then asked what he should sing about, and the stranger told him to sing "of the Creation of all things." To his surprise, Caedmon found himself singing a song he had never heard before, and remembered the song when he awoke. (The above translation from the original Old English is by Kevin Crossley-Holland.)
The Anglo-Saxons, like any people, of course had composed poems before Caedmon came along. But their poetry, because of its pagan nature, was not deemed worthy of being written down by the scribes of the church. Caedmon forever changed this situation by taking the distinctive rhythms and feeling and flavor of his native Germanic poetry and using them to express Christian themes. His innovation influenced the whole art of Old English poetry, which reached its peak in the magnificent epic Beowulf, a powerful blend of the heroic and melancholic tones of pagan Germanic poetry with the moral and spiritual values of Christianity.
Since Caedmon, the Germanic dialect spoken by the Anglo-Saxons has become one of the most important languages in the world, as close to a universal language as we have come since the domination of Latin in the ancient and medieval worlds. It is stunning to think that this development owes itself at least in part to a poor, uneducated farmhand living in England in the Dark Ages, whose mind was illuminated by a dream.