One thing leads to another. I had the occasion in my last post to mention the ancient grammarian Macrobius in his capacity as “dream expert”. Having piqued my own curiosity, I was led, later in the week, to take from its shelf the first volume of his Saturnalia, a volume I last touched probably twenty years ago when I was binding it. I didn’t get all that far with it before wandering off into this week’s effort.
The “digestion” of literary texts has in our old culture a particular association with the text of the Bible. Jesus, sorely hungered at the end of a long and unbroken fast, is tempted by the devil to use his extraordinary powers to break his fast by turning the stones of the desert into loaves of bread; but Jesus rebukes him thus: “Scripture says that ‘Man cannot live on bread alone; he lives on every word that God utters’.” It was for this reason that in the medieval monastic tradition the repetitious and meditative reading of Scripture known as the lectio divina was often described as rumination—literally, a chewing of the cud. Our wonderful tradition of English poetry had its origin in such an instance of spiritual alimentation. We know this from the lovely story of the poet Caedmon preserved for us by the Venerable Bede. Caedmon was an illiterate cowherd in the coeducational monastery at Whitby presided over by the Abbess Hilda (614–680). One night at a beer party with his fellow boors he was embarrassed by his inability to take his turn with the harp and compose an extemporaneous song. He retired to his bovine billet in confusion. But an angel there appeared to him and ordered him to sing something, and he complied: Nu sculon herian heofonrices weard...“Now let us praise the guardian of the heavenly kingdom”, the short hymn that is the first known poem in the English language. Angels don’t commission all that much poetry, and word got around. Waiving his illiteracy, Hilda immediately nominated Caedmon to monkhood and appointed him as the first poet in residence in the history of Whitby Abbey. One of the brothers would read him something from the Bible; he would think for a while about what he had heard; then he would turn it into Old English alliterative verse.