Cynewulf c. 770-c. 840
The only Old English poet from whom a significant body of work has survived, Cynewulf represents a transitional point from oral to literate culture in Europe. Although there is critical disagreement about the artistic value of Cynewulf's work, his poems demonstrate skill at descriptive detail and provide insight into the interaction of Anglo-Saxon spiritual and secular literature.
Scholars have struggled to establish the dates of Cynewulf's birth and death, which poems may be accurately attributed to him, his social position, the region of his birth, and even the spelling of his name. All that is known of him comes from four poems which contain runic signatures. In two of these poems the name is spelled "Cynwulf" and in the other two "Cynewulf," both of which were fairly common names in the eighth and ninth centuries in the British Isles. Scholars have placed the dates of his life at various times, ranging from 750 to 1006. Cynewulf has also been variously identified as Cenwulf, the Abbot of Peterborough (died 1006); Cynewulf, the Bishop of Lindisfarne (died c. 783); and Cynulf, one of four priests attending Tidfrith, Bishop of Dunwich, in 803. It is generally agreed that Cynewulf was from Northumbria or Mercia. His Roman Catholic faith dominates the tone and content of his poetry, and his knowledge of Latin spiritual literature indicates some education, and therefore a relatively high social status. From a supposedly autobiographical section of Elene, probably the last of the four signed poems, we learn that Cynewulf converted to what Charles Kennedy describes as a life of "religious contemplation" and applied his artistic skill to retelling tales of faith.
Although other poems—including the Phoenix, the second part of St. Guthlac, the Harrowing of Hell, Andreas, Physiologus, and the Dream of the Rood—are variously attributed to Cynewulf by critics, the four signed poems—Juliana, the second part of the Christ, the Elene, and the Fates of the Apostles—form the core of his extant work and a significant portion of early Anglo-Saxon literature. The influence of Christianity and a love of nature are most prominent in these spiritual narratives, which blend the heroic with the devotional and focus on religious figures and themes. A central motif is the tension between Christian and non-Christian faiths, particularly Judaism and paganism. Juliana, the earliest of the four poems, describes the martyrdom of the fourth-century St. Juliana, who was tortured for refusing to wed a Roman prefect. The poem reflects attention to descriptive detail and expresses spiritual passion. The second part of the Christ holds very closely to the orthodox account of Christ's ascension and is devotional in tone. Similarly, the Fates of the Apostles methodically describes the deaths of each of the apostles, with very little poetic license. By contrast, the Elene has a narrative structure and ends with an epilogue frequently assumed by critics to be autobiographical. The longest of the four signed poems, the Elene follows St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, on her journey to Jerusalem and her discovery of the Cross. For its descriptive and narrative strengths, The four signed poems are spiritual narratives, this poem is generally considered Cynewulf's finest work.
All poems signed by or attributed to Cynewulf were found in two tenth-century manuscripts, the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book. The Exeter Book was found in the Exeter Cathedral library and was published by Benjamin Thorpe in 1842. The Vercelli Book was discovered near Milan in 1832 and was published by John M. Kemble in two volumes in 1843 and 1856. Preserved in the old English vernacular, the poems are not conventionally signed. Instead, they contain Cynewulf's signature in epilogues; runic letters both spell Cynewulf's name and stand for words in the poem, so that until the nineteenth century critics did not recognize these as the name of the poet. Kemble is generally credited with descovering and decoding the runic signatures and with attributing three of the poems to Cynewulf. The runic signature of the fourth poem, the Fates of the Apostles, was discovered by Arthur Napier in 1888.
The inclusion of Cynewulf's poetry in the Exeter and Vercelli manuscripts attests to their importance for Cynewulf's contemporaries. Modern scholars, however—stimulated by a 1932 lecture by Kenneth Sisam—disagree on the artistic value of the poetry. Most cite Cynewulf s skill at setting scenes in detail, his expression of spirituality, and his use of rhetorical images, but, like other medieval literature, these tend to overwhelm the characterization and narrative structure of the poem. Cynewulf's characters are frequently reduced to symbolic generalizations rather than individuals, and the narratives are guided by religious purpose rather than by a desire to maintain a coherent plot. This emphasis instills didactic overtones into the poems, particularly because their content is deeply indebted to Roman Catholic theology.
* Elene (poetry) 1840
* Christ (poetry) 1842
* Juliana (poetry) 1842
* Fates of the Apostles (poetry) 1856
* Dates of the poems are approximately 800-825 and preserved in tenth-century manuscripts, but the poems were not published until the nineteenth century.
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Principal English Translations
SOURCE: Stopford A. Brooke, "Poems Attributed to Cynewulf," in English Literature: From the Beginning to the Norman Conquest, The Macmillan Company, 1898, pp. 180-202.
[In the following essay, Brooke discusses the five poems which were not signed by Cynewulf but have been attributed to him by various critics, with an emphasis on spiritual elements.]
The most important of these poems are the Phaenix, the second part of the St. Guthlac, the Harrowing of Hell, the Andreas, and the Dream of the Rood. They have all been attributed to Cynewulf, but with regard to the two last there has been much difference of opinion, and present criticism tends to remove them from his hand.
The Phenix is in the Exeter Book, and runs to 677 lines. Its source is a Latin poem by Lactantius. Cynewulf, to whom almost all the critics attribute the poem, leaves his original at verse 380, and then composes the story he has told into an allegory of the Resurrection. He uses, in this second part, the writings of Ambrose and Beda. He greatly expands, but sometimes shortens, the original Latin of the first part. His expansions are mostly when he is describing natural scenery or breaking into praise. The ending is somewhat fantastic in form—eleven lines, the first half of each in Anglo-Saxon, the latter half in Latin. The Latin is alliterated with the Anglo-Saxon....
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SOURCE: Charles W. Kennedy, "Introduction," in The Poems of Cynewulf, Peter Smith, 1949, pp. 1-42.
[In the essay that follows, Kennedy reviews what is known about Cynewulfs identity and the four poems signed with his name and suggests that the scholastic religious tradition which directs the primary content of Cynewulfs poetry is interlaced with more "romantic" overtones.]
Of the many problems arising from a study of Anglo-Saxon literature few are more confusing and baffling than those which connect themselves with the poems confidently or tentatively ascribed to Cynewulf. Of no one genius in the entire range of English literature do we know at once so little and so much. For when stripped of conjecture, surmise, and academic theory, our actual knowledge of Cynewulf, of his circumstances and life, is small. He is the merest shadow of a name given us in eight Anglo-Saxon runic letters. Scholars have had their way with him without dread of disproof, and pictured him a bishop or a wandering minstrel as they would. So ignorant are we of all that made his life.
Yet of the man himself we know much. The personal passages, in the poems signed with his name, give us swift gleams of insight into his nature in an intimate way such as is unique in the history of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Apparently some time during the life of this man there came a sharp and decisive change in his nature. The influence...
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SOURCE: Albert S. Cook, "The Theology of Cynewulf," in The Christ of Cynewulf, Archon Books, 1964, pp. lxxviii-xcix.
[In the excerpt that follows, Cook provides an account of the context of Cynewulf's poetry, including the political history and theology of ninth-century Britain. He also examines the poetic style of Cynewulf]
THE THEOLOGY OF CYNEWULF.—In general, Cynewulf is an orthodox believer, after the standard of the Western Church in his time, and, except for his doctrine of Purgatory, is no doubt in substantial agreement with Gregory the Great, the father of Roman Christianity in England.3
Not only does he frequently extol the Trinity,4 but he specifies the three Persons,5 even explicitly identifying the Father with the Son,6 and with the Spirit.7 The Father is thought of especially as the Creator,8 though this function is sometimes attributed to the Son,9 and sometimes exercised by him in conjunction with the Father.10 Christ, though God's Son,11 and conceived by the Holy Ghost,12 is God of God,13 without beginning,14 co-eternal and co-abiding with the Father,15 and eternally generated by him.16 He is called Emmanuel,17 and designated a priest after the order of Melchisedec.18 Of his life on earth, we have...
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SOURCE: Stanley B. Greenfield, "The Christian Saint as Hero," in A Critical History of Old English Literature, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 102-17.
[In Greenfield claims that the following essay, Cynewulf's "reflective" tone distinguishes him from other Anglo-Saxon poets of the time, such as the author of the Andreas, which depicts the struggles of a spiritual hero.]
The relation between the Germanic secular hero and the Anglo-Saxon saint as the latter appears in the Old English Christian epic has for the most part been oversimplified. This Christian epic hero has been viewed as garbed in the borrowed robes, or rather armor, of his Germanic counterpart, as a warrior venturing into battle against spiritual evil and the forces of Satan even as the secular lord and his comitatus engaged the armed forces of predatory enemies. There is, of course, much truth in this picture: as we shall see in this chapter and the next, Christ and His saints come marching in with many of the qualities of a Beowulf or a Byrhtnoth. And the phraseology and tone in which these qualities and the actions are depicted in the poetry are similar to those arraying the heroes of the Anglo-Saxon secular world. These "lives" are quite different from the Latin saints' lives written in the Age of Bede (see Ch. I). But recent understanding of verse composition by theme and formula, whether in oral or written form, has...
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SOURCE: James H. Wilson, "Cynewulf," in Christian Theology and Old English Poetry, Mouton, 1974, pp. 141-80.
[In the essay that follows, Wilson studies the Christ in detail and claims, in contrast to the conclusion reached by some critical scholarship, that the poem is arguably the work of a single author.]
Since Benjamin Thorpe brought out his edition of The Exeter Book in 1842, most of the scholarship on the material contained in the first 1664 lines of that Old English codex has been centered around two problems: one, the unity and authorship of the three sections into which the manuscript material is divided, and, two, the identity of Cynewulf, whose name appears in runes in the closing lines of the second section. There is still great lack of agreement as to the unity and authorship of the lines, and the identity of the man Cynewulf has never been established nor does it appear at this time likely to be.' I shall not deal here with the identity of Cynewulf; however, I will suggest in my conclusion that, in spite of the number of arguments to the contrary, I feel that there is strong evidence for the unity of the 1664 lines, which conclusion implies an acceptance of a likelihood of singleness of authorship.
The poem occupies folios 8a-32a of The Exeter Book and begins, apparently, in mid-sentence. The manuscript indicates breaks at lines 439 and 866. The breaks...
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SOURCE: Joseph Wittig, "Figural Narrative in Cynewulf's Juliana," in Anglo-Saxon: England, Cambridge University Press, Vol. 4, 1975, pp. 37-55.
[In the following essay, Wittig claims that the critical "dissatisfaction" with Cynewulf's Juliana neglects the poem's successful representation of the significance of the saint's passion.]
Old English saints' lives, as a group, have not generated a great deal of critical enthusiasm; and Cynewulf's Juliana has often been regarded as the worst of a bad lot. One of the poem's recent editors sees in it a 'uniformity verging on monotony' and finds it 'unrelieved by any emotional or rhetorical emphasis or by any other gradations in tone'.1 While critics concede that all Cynewulf's signed poems have a smooth texture and contain 'fine passages', they regard Juliana as something of an embarrassment and generally assign it to the poet's adolescence—or senescence.2
In her article on saints' lives in a recent survey of Old English literature, Rosemary Woolf reveals what seems to be the key to this dissatisfaction with Juliana and with hagiography in general. While admitting that the saint's life is a highly conventional form, Miss Woolf feels the need to apologize for the 'dissolution' and 'distortion' of history in the genre.3 Finding hagiography embarrassing as history, the Bollandist...
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SOURCE: Robert C. Rice, "The Penitential Motif in Cynewulf's Fates of the Apostles and in His Epilogues," in Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge University Press, Vol. 6, 1977, pp. 105-19.
[In the following essay, Rice defends the importance of the creative expression in Cynewulf's Fates of the Apostles, particularly in the depiction of spiritual atonement.]
In the past few years a real advance has been made in the appreciation of Cynewulf's shortest signed poem, the Fates of the Apostles, extant in the Vercelli Book. For most of the century and more since this poem was first published critical opinion has been almost unanimously unfavourable about its literary merit1 and until recently scholarly attention has been limited mainly to textual and source investigations. Today, however, illuminating studies, such as those by James L. Boren and Constance B. Hieatt,2 have made us aware of the poem's subtleties of image and structure. In particular, now that we have begun to apprehend the depth of the poem's meaning, I believe that we can use this understanding to gain further insight into the thematic concerns of Cynewulf's other three signed poems. This can be achieved, I suggest, through recognizing how the basic theme of the Fates reappears as a motif linking Cynewulf's epilogues.
The paradox central to the Fates is that of Christ's words...
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SOURCE: Earl R. Anderson, "Poetry and the Gifts of Men," in Cynewulf: Structure, Style, and Theme in His Poetry, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983, pp. 28-44.
[In the excerpt that follows, Anderson suggests that Cynewulf considered his creative talents as an instance of the "gifts of men," a theological concept that emphasizes the obligation to use such gifts in the service of faith.]
Some years ago in his Doctrine and Poetry, B. F. Huppe argued that Augustine's De doctrina christiana was a formative influence on Anglo-Saxon Christian views of poetry. The argument, by now familiar through so many attempts to apply allegorical interpretations to Old English poems, was that exegetical methods for understanding Scripture, as described by Augustine, were extended to poetry, and that the Anglo-Saxons, in consequence, began to compose poetry in an allegorical mode. The question whether or not exegetical principles can be applied to poems like Beowulf or The Husband's Message or The Ruin must be debated separately in each particular case, not my purpose here; but there is no doubt that an allegorical mode of composition was available to the authors of The Phoenix and Physiologus. More recently, Rollinson pointed out that early medieval views of poetry, as found in rhetorics, were more varied than Huppe had suggested, involving distinctions between history,...
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Anderson, George K. "The Old English Christian Epic." In his The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons, pp. 105-53. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949.
Locates the poems of Cynewulf within the context of the Christian heroic epic.
Blackburn, F. A. "Is the 'Christ' of Cynewulf a Single Poem?" Anglia 19 (1897): 89-98.
Contends that differences in "subject-matter, form, and method of treatment" suggest that the three parts of the "Christ" can be attributed to separate authors.
Calder, Daniel G. Twayne's English Authors Series: Cynewulf Edited by George Economou, Twayne Publishers, 1981.
Comprehensive overview of Cynewulf's work, including commentary on poems attributed to him by some critics.
Campbell, Jackson J. "Cynewulf s Multiple Revelations." Medievalia et Humanistica: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Culture 3 (1972): 257-77.
Describes the interpretive problems of Cynewulf's Elene and claims that the poem represents a "series of life-giving revelation."
Chase, Colin. "God's Presence through Grace as the Theme of Cynewulf's 'Christ II' and the Relationship of This Theme to 'Christ I' and 'Christ III'." Anglo-Saxon England 3 (1974): 87-101.
Explores Cynewulf's interpretation of Christ's ascension and suggests that the three parts of the poem...
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