Saturday, December 19, 2009

They Say Everyone Has a Double...


...and Caedmon is St. Romanos'--in a narrative sense, their trajectories are, if not exactly "double," at least strikingly similar.

Here is the story of Romanos ("my" saint, even though I am female!), followed by Caedmon's, both copied and pasted from various sources:


Romanos was ordained a deacon and served in the Church of the Resurrection in Berytus (Beirut). Most sources agree that he went to Constantinople during the reign of the Emperor Anastasius I (491-518).

Church legend has it that during this time, Romanos’ voice was quite harsh and rasping and he was also tone deaf. It is said that the congregation cringed at hearing his voice. It was in the Church of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Blachernae quarter of Constantinople, that he received the gift of sacred poetry. After a religious retreat there, in his sleep on Christmas eve, he saw a vision of the Most Holy Theotokos who told him not to despair. Blessing him with her right hand, she held forth a scroll with her left hand, saying, “Take the scroll and eat it”. The saint, in his dream, opened his mouth and swallowed the parchment. It was Christmas Day, and immediately he awakened and marveled and glorified God. According to an account by Poulos, the service commenced as usual and when it came time for the voice of Romanos to be heard, the participants braced themselves for the accustomed cacophony that would ensue. Then, mounting the pulpit in the church, Romanos began the strains of his kontakion: Today the Virgin gives birth to the one who is above all living things. But when the tone rolled across the church like the sound of a heavenly angel, the stunned listeners stood transfixed. When he had finished, the confused priest signaled him to continue and once again the resonant voice reverberated in the house of God. Then it dawned on one and all that a miracle had occurred. He was now hailed as the “Melodist”.

CAEDMON (Bede's account)

The man was established in worldly life until the time when he was of advanced age, and he had never learned any songs. And consequently, often at a drinking gathering, when there was deemed to be occasion of joy, that they all must in turn sing with a harp, when he saw the harp nearing him, he then arose for shame from that feast and went home to his house. Then he did this on a certain occasion, that he left the banquet-hall and he was going out to the animal stables, which herd had been assigned to him that night.

When he there at a suitable time set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: 'Caedmon, sing me something.' Then he answered and said: 'I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.' Again he said, he who was speaking with him: 'Nevertheless, you must sing.' Then he said: 'What must I sing?' Said he: 'Sing to me of the first Creation.' When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard:

Now we must praise the Protector of the heavenly kingdom, the might of the Measurer and His mind's purpose, the work of the Father of Glory, as He for each of the wonders, the eternal Lord, established a beginning. He shaped first for the sons of the Earth heaven as a roof, the Holy Maker; then the Middle-World, mankind's Guardian he eternal Lord, made afterwards solid ground for men, the almighty Lord.

Then he arose from that sleep, and all of those (songs) which he sang while sleeping he had fast in his memory, and he soon added in the same manner to those words many words of songs worthy of God.

Then in the morning he came to the town-reeve, who was his alderman. He said to him which gift did he bring, and he directly lead him to the abbess and made it known and declared to her. Then she ordered all of the most learnèd men and scholars to assemble, and to those who were present commanded him to tell of that dream and sing that song, so that it might be determined by the judgement of all of them: what it was and whence it had come. Then it was seen by all even as it was, that to him from God himself a heavenly gift had been given. Then they spoke to him and told some holy story and divine words of knowledge; they bade him then, if he could, that he turn it into poetical rhythm. Then, when he had undertaken it in this manner, then he went home to his house, and came again in the morning, and with the best adorned song he sang and rendered what he was bid (to recite).

Then the abbess began to embrace and love the gift of God in that man, and she exhorted and adviced him that he should abandon the worldly life and accept monkhood, and he readily agreed to this. And she accepted him into the monastery, with his goods, and united him into the community of God's servants, and ordered that he be taught the (entire) series of holy stories and narratives. And he was able to learn all that he heard, and, keeping it all in mind, just as a clean animal chewing cud, turned (it) into the sweetest song. And his songs and his poems were so beautiful to hear, that his teachers themselves wrote and learned at his mouth. He sang first about the creation of the world and about the origin of mankind and all of the history of Genesis--that is the first book of Moses--, and afterwards about the exodus of the Israeli people from the land of Egypt and their entry into the promised land; and about many other stories of the holy writ of the books of the canon; and about Christ's incarnation, and about his suffering and about his ascension into the heavens; and about the coming of the Holy Ghost, and of the lore of the apostles; and after about the day of impending judgement, and about the terror of the torturing punishment, and about the sweetness of the heavenly kingdom, he wrought many songs. And so also many others he made about divine mercy and judgement. In all of them he eagerly sought to pull men away from love of sin and criminal deeds, and to love and to zealously awake to (the doing) of good deeds. For he was a very devout man, and humbly subjected himself to regular service. And against those who wished to do otherwise, he burned with surging of great ardour. And he for this reason with a beautiful end he closed and ended his life.

For when the time of his departure and going-forth neared, he was for fourteen days before (his death), that he was afflicted and encumbered by bodily weakness, yet so moderately that he all the time could both speak and move about. There was in the neighbourhood a house for sick men, in which it was the custom to carry in those who were ill and those who were near to death, and minister there to them together. He bade that his servant--in the evening when (the time) of his leaving the world was nearing--that he prepare for him a place in that house, that he might rest (there). Then the servant wondered why he bade thus, because he thought that his end was not so near, but nevertheless did as he said and commanded. And when he went there to rest, and he in a happy mood was jesting and speaking about various things with those who were gathered together with him, those who were in (the sickhouse) before (him); when it was past midnight he asked, if they had any housel within. Then they answered and said: 'What need of the housel? Your passing is not so near, when now you are this cheerfully and this pleasantly speaking to us.' He said again: 'Bring to me the house.' When he had it in his hand, he asked whether they had peaceful minds and happily beared him no ill-will. Then they all answered, and said that they knew no ill-will towards him, but they all were very happily disposed towards him. And they in turn asked him if he was happy with all of them. Then he answered and said: 'My brothers, my beloved ones, I am very blithe of mind towards you and all men of God'.' And he was thus strengthening himself with heavenly provisions, and he prepared himself for entry into the other(/next) life. Then yet he asked how near the time was to when the brothers must arise, and offer up praise to God and sing their matins. They answered, 'It is not long til then.' He said: 'Good, let us fully wait that time.' He then prayed and blessed himself with the sign of Christ's Rood, and inclined his head to the bolster, and in a small space of time, he fell asleep -- and thus ended his life in stillness.

And so it came to pass that as he served God with pure spirit and with mild and serene devoutness, that he likewise left this middle-earth by a serene death, and he arrived in His sight. And the tongue which had set so many healing words in praise of the Maker, so likewise (uttering) its last words to praise Him--as he crossed himself and offered up his spirit into His hands--ceased.

Here is the poet Susan Mitchell's mediation on Caedmon's story in her beautiful poem "Rapture":

'Sing me something'' is what the other keeps saying

night after night, regular as a pulse.

...who keeps

urging, making impossible demands

of him? 'Come on,''

the other one is saying like

a faucet dripping, like a branch beating the window.

The window in his head. He opens it.

'Come on, Caedmon, sing me hwaethwugu.'...

I can't, he says, filling his mouth

with a big hole. Refusing, it begins for him.

Protesting, it swings itself up, it gets

going. It comes to him coming.

Or, it comes to her. What she lacks.

What hasn't happened in her

entire life, now it's coming, its absence

spread everywhere like a canyon in waves

of magenta and purple and gold.

The voice spreading before her...


So the song begins in the impossible as poet Allen Grossman points out:

[Grossman: On Cædmon's song and other impossible things]: Caedmon ... composed his precisely impossible poem, the precise work of which he knew himself incapable, asleep, in response to a second, mysterious demand ..."Caedmon, sing me something" (canta mihi aliquid).... Caedmon's "hymn" is sung, impossibly by a singer who knew no songs and could not sing, about a (likewise) unknown Lord, master of first making who did the prototypal impossible thing (that is why he is remembered and praised)--which was not however, as in Judeo-Christian text (Caedmon, of course, would have known the Creeds), precisely to make something out of nothing. Rather, Caedmon's "Wuldorfaeder" is praise-worthy because he constructs out of existing materials a house for human beings, and donates it to their keeping. (Grossman 1997:4-5)

On poetry and world-making]: Poetic vocation always remembers the moment before the calling, before the making of the maker... but not I think before the making of the maker's discourse, which is the condition of the knowability even of making....The making of persons, like the making of the worlds persons know, refers in any case to a possible state of affairs. There are both persons and worlds, though there once was not...But the analogy of world making and person making depends on the likeness of the two actions, and that likeness rests in the impossibility of producing in either case the difference between the not-being and the being of the world... [P]oetic vocation is like world making and person making in that it is both possible and impossible: possible in fact--there are, as I say, both persons and poems--but strictly, logically, materially, as a matter of deliberation, impossible--destined to fail. The poet is the artisan (skilled worker) whose work it is to tell of this state of affairs. Poetics the science of the weight and implications of the resistance that produces not any world but just this one.

(Grossman 1997:15)

More on Caedmon and Romanos another time, I hope... They must be the saints of verbal blunderers and fumblers, the tongue-tied, the mute, those who feel (momentarily or ongoingly) that whatever they say is wrong or lacking, those who think they have no song, those who are "blocked" or sparkless in expression, those who feel as if there's something fundamentally wrong or lacking in them, those who are self-outcast from the community hearth...

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