Cædmon is the earliest English poet whose name is known. An Anglo-Saxon herdsman attached to the double monastery of Whitby (Streonaeshalch) during the abbacy of St. Hilda (657–680).
According to Bede he was originally ignorant of “the art of song but learned to compose one night in the course of a dream. He later became a zealous monk and an accomplished and inspirational religious poet.
Cædmon is one of twelve Anglo-Saxon poets identified in medieval sources, and one of only three for whom both roughly contemporary biographical information and examples of literary output have survived.
St. Bede wrote, “In the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in English, which was his native language”
Cædmon’s only known surviving work is Cædmon’s Hymn, the nine-line alliterative vernacular praise poem in honour of God which he supposedly learned to sing in his initial dream. The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English.
Cædmon died like a saint: receiving a premonition of death, he asked to be moved to the abbey’s hospice for the terminally ill where, having gathered his friends around him, he expired just before nocturns.
Although often listed as a saint, this is not confirmed.