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Denise Levertov
All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
hunch myself
close by the door:
then when the talk began
I'd wipe my
mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
I'd see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the poem of the week.
This week, we’re reading Denise Levertov’s “Caedmon,” in which she takes on the voice of Caedmon, who is honored as the first known poet to write in the English language.  Scott Webster will read the poem, then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Thank you, Scott.
It is thanks to St. Bede the Venerable, the 7th and 8th-century English monk and historian, that we know Caedmon’s story. Caedmon was a herdsman, entrusted with the care of animals at the abbey presided over by St Hilda in Whitby. Under her leadership, the arts flourished, and Bede describes evenings when the harp would go round the room, with each person singing and playing to the best of their ability.
I think many of us can identify with Caedmon, who, when he saw his turn coming, would slip quietly away and go back to his place among the animals. But one night, he had a dream in which an angel appeared to him and asked him to sing about God’s creation. And Caedmon did. When he woke from this dream, he remembered what he had sung. Not only that, he found the gift persisted, and he was able to compose verse on all kinds of sacred subjects. At Hilda’s invitation, he became a monk of the abbey, and the author of many poems.
Levertov tells Caedmon’s story in the first person. Talk, he says, is a dance, something the others do gracefully, but he is just a clodhopper, getting in the way. He seems to be more at home among the animals—“dumb,” that is, silent, “among body sounds,” not voices. But he is not quite comfortable there, either. He is “at home and lonely,” “both in good measure.” He is drawn both to the lighted hall and to the dark stable. Caedmon sleeps among the animals, but I think we can sense that Caedmon is already a poet - he can see by the light of a rush bits of chaff from the hay, floating in the breath of the animals like motes of gold.
Into this peaceful scene comes an angel—a fiery vision, with feathers of flame, a forest of torches and sparks. But nothing is on fire—except Caedmon himself. The fire touches his mouth, scorches his tongue, and Caedmon joins the dance.
Levertov uses here an image right out of scripture. In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, we hear of the prophet’s call. In a vision, an angel takes a burning coal from the altar of God, and touches the prophet’s mouth with it. It is a purifying fire, but also suggests the urgency of his mission. He will speak God’s words, in his own voice. The poet’s call is like the prophet’s call, a collaboration between God and the individual. And like other prophets—Jonah, for example—Caedmon runs from his call, a reluctant prophet, until at last, with some prompting from God!, he lets himself be “pulled… into the ring of the dance.” Caedmon’s story is a story of vocation—where our gifts and abilities meet God’s mission.
To conclude our reflection, let us listen to the poem traditionally called “Caedmon’s hymn”—considered the oldest poetry in the English language, and the only poetry of Caedmon that survives. This translation from Old English is the work of Elaine Treharne of Stanford University.
Now we ought to praise the Guardian of the heavenly kingdom,
The might of the Creator and his conception,
The work of the glorious Father, as he of each of the wonders,
Eternal Lord, established the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men
Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;
Then the middle-earth, the Guardian of mankind,
The eternal Lord, afterwards made
The earth for men, the Lord almighty.





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