If you say “moncynnæs uard” out loud (hard “c”), you can hear that it means “keeper of mankind”—or the “middungeard” (soft “g” like “y”), middle-ground, or Earth, the place that God made to keep man. This all from “Cædmon’s Hymn,” the 7th-century poem considered the first recorded poem in English (in this case, a Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon):
Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes
eci dryctin or astelidæ
he aerist scop aelda barnum
heben til hrofe haleg scepen.
tha middungeard moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin æfter tiadæ
firum foldu frea allmectig
My 11th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Hodgman—the same woman who taught us always to staple papers diagonally so that the paper doesn’t tear when you flip the page, advice I follow religiously to this day—came to class for weeks carrying a portable record player on which she would play a recording of “Cædmon’s Hymn” several times at the beginning of each class until each and every student had it permanently emblazoned in his or her memory. I know it to this day. I recited it at Nightbird Books to get a 5% discount on my purchase during National Poetry Month. And I woke up with it playing on a loop my head at 5:30 this morning.
There’s an audio recording at the Norton Anthology website (follow link, scroll down to #2) that sounds remarkably like the recording Mrs. Hodgman used to play us. Maybe it’s the same one. In any case, I highly recommend subjecting yourself to this exercise of memorizing—really, fast hard memorizing—a poem in a foreign form of English. First of all, as Mrs. Hodgman told us from the beginning, if you force yourself to hear the words, you will hear the English in Anglo-Saxon, and it is really cool when the lines begin to release their meaning to modern ears. Secondly, there is no greater comfort to someone (like me) constantly worried about her ability to retain information in this, the Google Age, within the hard drive of her own brain, than to be able to call up nine lines of Early English poetry at any time. In fact, I have decided to spend more time memorizing poetry just because I can, so you can expect more posts along these lines.
The text of the poem above is from the University of Toronto’s Representative Poetry Online—follow the link for more information on Cædmon and his Hymn, as well as a modern English translation, though I seriously recommend listening to the recording linked above several times before you translate.