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This article is taken from PN Review 168, Volume 32 Number 4, March - April 2006.

The Word in Time (1): 'More like masonry than music' Chris McCully

I: 'More like masonry than music'

It's one of the ironies of literary history that the first English poet on record was an illiterate stockman from Whitby. Perhaps it's not quite an irony, but it's rather like finding that the inventor of a famous designer beer was a founder member of the Temperance League. Not for the first time, the face hanging over the glass, or in this case, over the page, wears a wry, if secretly delighted, grimace.

Cædmon - pronounced 'Cad-mun' not 'Kyed-mon' - wasn't, of course, the first English poet. Nor was he the inventor of English poetry. English poetry, and its Germanic cognates, had flourished orally for centuries before Cædmon's interrupting angel prompted him into song. The poetry of war, of revenge, of treachery there was, as there was poetry of heroic loss and personal disconsolation, of genealogy and grief. From the dark and unreconstructable backward of time until the seventh century, the poets of the Germanic tribes had sat at the feet of kings and praised their epics of endurance, uncomfortably aware of the brevity of their lives. 'As that passed away, so shall this,' lamented the poet of 'Deor', mourning the loss of his lord and his own station as court bard. For the verse-maker of a fractured, often short-lived and pagan society, the only permanence was transience, and the allure of a good name, a reputation that would last after death - the sort of ...


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