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An Irish precursor of Caedmon.

Critics acknowledge Bede's account of Caedmon's composition of a poem in praise of the Creator as the first recorded Old English poetry. The event took place at the monastery of Whitby on the Cleveland coast between 657 and 680 during the reign of Abbess Hild. Bede's account in the Historia Ecclesiastica(1) provides a detailed description of how an Anglo-Saxon poet produced divinely inspired verse.

Colman mac Leneni was an Irish poet who died c. 606. He was a contemporary of St Columba of Iona. Several fragments of religious and secular verse attributed to him survive.(2) Based on internal evidence from the fragments, Colman would have been active as a poet between 565 and 604. Both Caedmon and Colman relied on 'inspired sleep' to produce verse. The purpose of this note is to compare Bede's account of Caedmon's inspired sleep with a poetic fragment by Colman.

In the past critics have sought worldwide for analogues to the Caedmon story. Examples have been cited from Classical tradition, from other Germanic literatures, from non-literate cultures on other continents, as well as from Celtic tradition.(3)

Bede's account of Caedmon need not be retold in full here. Briefly, it relates that, rather than attend a convivium, Caedmon went off to a cattle byre to watch over the livestock. As he slept in the byre a voice commanded him to compose a song in praise of the Creator. Caedmon reluctantly composed his 'hymn' at the behest of the voice.

Caedmon's Hymn was approved at the monastery 'in the presence of a number of the more learned men'.(4) He produced more verses on biblical and religious topics when they were recited to him. No one could do this better than he. Abbess Hild urged him to enter monastic orders, which he did. Caedmon was a humble, uneducated layman who 'did not learn the art of poetry from men nor through a man but he received the gift of song freely by the grace of God'.(5) Furthermore, he 'had lived in the secular habit until he was well advanced in years and had never learned any songs'.(6) Bede deliberately distanced Caedmon from secular, vernacular poetic practice.

By contrast, Colman mac Leneni had been a professional fili 'poet' before becoming a monk. Fragments of Colman's secular praise poetry and religious verse survive in a variety of con.texts. James Carney tentatively set out a chronology of his life and career in six stages.(7)

(1) Colman mac Leneni was born c. 530.(8)

(2) Colman wrote a poem thanking Domnall mac Muirchertaig, king of Tara (reigned 565/6),(9) for the gift of a sword.(10)

(3) Colman met St Brendan of Clonfert c. 568 and, under his influence, became a monk.(11)

(4) Sometime between c. 568 and c. 580 Colman founded the monastery of Cluain Uama (Cloyne, Co. Cork) on land that he received from Cairpre Cromm mac Crimthainn (died c. 580),(12) king of Cashel.

(5) Colman wrote a poem on the death of Aed Slaine (c. 604), high-king of Tara.(13)

(6) Colman died c. 606, probably as abbot of Cloyne.(14)

Of the twenty lines identified by Rudolf Thurneysen which can be attributed to Colman mac Leneni, the following four-line fragment of religious verse refers to 'inspired sleep' which results in a poem. It can be compared to Caedmon's 'inspired sleep' in the cattle byre as described by Bede.
Ni fordiuchtror       for duain indlis
iar cotlud      chain bindris.
briathar chorgais      cen nach ndichmaircc
deog nepnairc(15)     rath rigmaicc(16)


[I do not awaken to an unworthy poem after beautiful and sweet-dreamed sleep. (It is) a Lenten word without anything unpermitted, (it is) a present drink of the grace of Christ.]

Difficulties in translation arise from the lack of a larger context, legal terminology, and a hapax legomenon. The Christian message, nevertheless, is clear with corgus (gen. sg. corgais) 'Lent', and rigmacc (gen. sg. rigmaicc) 'royal son, kingly son', a kenning for Christ.

Both Caedmon and Colman relied on 'inspired sleep' to produce religious verse. Learned persons at the monastery of Whitby examined and approved Caedmon's verse as compatible with Christian practice. The contents of Colman's verse itself places it firmly within a Christian context. By way of contrast, Caedmon was an uneducated layman, while Colman was a trained, professional poet. Note also that Colman's verse may have been composed as much as a century before Caedmon's.

COLIN IRELAND Beaver College CEA, Dublin

1 Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1960), bk iv, ch. 24, 414-21.

2 Rudolf Thurneysen, 'Colman mac Leneni und Senchan Torpeist', Zeitschrift fur celtische Philologie, xix (1933), 193-209.

3 The following works are cited in chronological order and are not intended to be exhaustive. Nellie S. Aurner, 'Bede and Pausanias', MLN, xxxxi (1926), 525-36; Fr. Klaeber, 'Analogues of the Story of Caedmon', MLN, xxxxii (1927), 390; Louise Pound, 'Caedmon's Dream Song', in Studies in English Philology: A Miscellany in Honor of Frederick Klaeber, ed. Kemp Malone and Martin B. Ruud (Minneapolis, 1929), 232-9; Louis Chappell, 'The Caedmon Story', Englische Studien, lxix (1934-5), 152-4; Leslie Whitbread, 'An Analogue of the Caedmon Story', RES, xv (1939), 333-5; G. Shepherd, 'The Prophetic Caedmon', RES, 2nd series, v (1954), 11322; G. A. Lester, 'The Caedmon Story and its Analogues', Neophilologus, lviii (1974), 225-36; Colin Ireland, 'The Celtic Background to the Story of Caedmon and his Hymn', diss., UCLA (1986).

4 multis doctioribus uiris praesentibus: Colgrave and Mynors, Ecclesiastical History, 416-17.

5 ipse non ab hominibus neque per hominem institutus canendi artem didicit, sed duinitus adiutus gratis canendi donum accepit: ibid., 414-15.

6 in habitu saeclari usque ad temopra prouectioris aetatis constitutus, nil carminum aliquando didicerat: ibid.

7 James Carney, 'Three Old Irish Accentual Poems', Eriu, xxii (1971), 63-5.

8 Sean Mac Airt, The Annals of Inisfallen (MS. Rawlinson B. 503) (Dublin, 1944), 68-9.

9 Sean Mac Airt and Gearoid Mac Niocaill (ed.), The Annals of Ulster (To A.D. 1131) (Dublin, 1983), 84-5.

10 Thurneysen, 'Colman und Senchan', Zeitschrift fur celtische Philologie, xix (1933), 198-9.

11 Charles Plummer (ed.), Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (Oxford, 1910), I, 102 [section] viii; idem (ed. and trans.), Bethada Naem nErenn, Lives of Irish Saints (Oxford, 1922), I, 47 [sections] 19, 20 (Irish), II, 47 [sections] 19, 20 (English); Whitley Stokes (ed. and trans.), Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore (Oxford, 1890), 103-4 lines 3449-83 (Irish), 251 (English).

12 Mac Airt, Annals of Inisfallen, 76-7.

13 Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, 100-3.

14 Mac Airt, Annals of Inisfallen, 82-3.

15 This hapax legomenon has not been explained. I follow Thurneysen's suggestion and translate frecndairc 'present (in time), actual'. Thurneysen's own translation is: 'gegenwartiger Trunk aus den (kunftigen) Gnadengaben Christi': 'Colman und Senchan', Zeitschrift fur celtische Philologie, xix (1933), 203.

16 ibid., 202.
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Title Annotation:English poet
Author:Ireland, Colin
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Mar 1, 1997
Words:1141
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