Cynewulf Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The discovery of Cynewulf’s name has not meant the discovery of a biography for the poet. Working from a name deciphered from runes, scholars have made tortuous attempts to discover a Cynewulf in historical records who could be identified as the poet. Candidates have included Cenwulf, an abbot of Peterborough (died 1006); Cynewulf, a bishop of Lindisfarne (c. 780); and Cynewulf, a priest of Dunwich (c. 803). None of these identifications has been accepted, and scholars are left with what meager data can be deduced from the four poems. Based on the poetry’s subject matter, dependence on Latin sources, and relationship to the liturgical calendar, scholars assume he was a literate poet, a cleric, and probably a monk. Based on dialect and linguistic analysis, Cynewulf is usually dated around the turn of the eighth and ninth centuries and placed within the broad area of the Anglian dialect, in northern and eastern England. Because the runes twice give the poet’s name as “Cynewulf” and twice as “Cynwulf,” suggesting a variation of spelling not known in texts from the north, scholars have further limited the dialect to Mercian. This conclusion is supported by the rhyming passages in Elene and Christ II, which are most effective when the Mercian, rather than the manuscript’s West Saxon, dialect is followed.

The evidence nevertheless remains scanty. Elaborate arguments based on what the “I” persona says in the poems have suggested that Cynewulf was a wandering minstrel or that he led a riotous and sinful life until, through conversion, he became a religious poet. Such arguments misunderstand the traditions of the elegiac wanderer in Old English poetry and conventional Christian humility motifs. Like other attempts to deal with the unknown poet rather than with his known poetry, they are fruitless. As Daniel Calder concludes, after surveying what little is known,Barring the discovery of wholly new evidence, the pursuit of Cynewulf’s identity and the spinning out of a biography remain idle tasks. He emerges from the anonymity of Anglo-Saxon poetry long enough to sign his name and then disappear again into that great obscurity he shares with all the other scops who left no trace.