Borges on the English tradition of versifying in one’s sleep

In Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum [Church History] of the English People, Bede talks about the first Christian poet of England, of whom only a few lines have been preserved. His name was Caedmon and his story is quite strange; we will return to it later when we talk about Coleridge and Stevenson. Here’s the story: Caedmon was well along in years, a shepherd in a monastery, and a shy old man. The custom then was for the harp to be passed around from hand to hand after meals and for each of the diners to play it and sing. Caedmon knew he was equally unskilled at music and lyrics. One night among many, Caedmon, who was dining with his companions in the hall of the monastery, watched the feared harp come toward him. And then, so as not to say what he had said so many times before, what everybody knew he would say, he rose without any pretext whatsoever and left. It must have been winter, because he went to the stable and lay down to sleep with the stable animals, who probably were few in number. It was the seventh century, and England was a poor country, marshy, with winters even harsher than they are now. Poor Caedmon fell asleep, and in his dreams he saw someone, probably an angel, and this someone—psychologists can easily explain this, and those of us who are not psychologists can as well—this someone gave him a harp and told him, “Sing.” In his dream, poor Caedmon spoke as he had so often with his fellows, saying “I don’t know how to sing.” And the other said, “Sing of the origin of creation.” So Caedmon, in wonderment, composed a poem. Then he awoke and remembered the poem he had composed. The poem has been preserved, and it is not very good. It is basically the first verses of Genesis, which he must have heard, more or less amplified and with some words changed. They were all so astonished by this that they had him go speak with the monastic authorities. The abbess heard the verses, she thought they were very good, but she wanted to carry out a test. She ordered one of the priests to read Caedmon the following verses of Genesis and told him to versify them. The next day, Caedmon, who was illiterate, came with a verse version of the passage, which they transcribed, and Caedmon continued versifying the Pentateuch until the day he died. Bede says that in England, many have sung well, but that nobody sang as well as he did, because the others had men as teachers, and he had God or his angel as his teacher. And Caedmon predicted the hour of his death, and he was so certain of it and his posthumous fate that just before this hour, he was asleep rather than in prayer. And so he passed from one dream to another—from sleep to death—and it has been said that we should rest assured that he met his angel in the other world. So Caedmon dies, leaving behind some mediocre verses—I’ve read them—and a beautiful legend. And as we shall see later, when we read the work of Coleridge and Stevenson, this is part of a literary tradition that seems to be deeply rooted in England: the tradition of versifying in one’s sleep.
Translated by Katherine Silver

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Argentinian riddler and fantasist Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) was also, briefly, a Professor of English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires.  These lecture notes were transcribed by his students to help one another, edited, researched, and annotated by Martín Arias and Martín Hadisand, and translated by Katherine Silver. Katherine Silver is an award-winning literary translator and the co-director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC). Her translations include works by César Aira, Elena Poniatowska, and Martín Adán, among others.





From Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 2000 by Maria Kodama. Copyright © 2000 by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis. Copyright © 2000 by Grupo Editorial SAIC. Copyright © 2013 by Katherine Silver.


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