Cynewulf’s name is known to students of Old English poetry because, in the conclusions of the four poems that can be attributed to him with certainty, he “signed” his name in runic letters. The name, however, was not deciphered until 1840. Cynewulf did not write his name directly, but wove the runes into the concluding meditations of his poems, so that they can be read not only as letters spelling his name, but also as symbols representing words that form part of the poetry. This riddling device—with both personal and poetic purposes—is typical of Cynewulf’s poetry, which often applies devices used in earlier heroic and secular poetry to his meditative religious verse.
Cynewulf’s four poems are extant in two of the four major manuscript collections of Old English poetry, both copied around the year 1000 in the West Saxon dialect. The Exeter Book, now in the Exeter Cathedral Library, contains Christ II and Juliana; the Vercelli Book, located in the northern Italian cathedral library of Vercelli, includes The Fates of the Apostles and Elene. Nineteenth century scholars, driven by the rare discovery of a poet’s name from a period of general anonymity, attributed all the religious verse in these two manuscripts to Cynewulf. Just as Caedmon was considered to be the author of the poems dealing with Old Testament subjects extant in the Junius manuscript, so Cynewulf became the author of the saints’ lives and allegorical poetry of the Exeter and Vercelli manuscripts. Only Beowulf (c. 1000), found in the fourth major manuscript, escaped being attributed with confidence to Cynewulf.
This poetry does in some respects share stylistic and thematic features with the four poems of Cynewulf. The two Guthlac poems (“A” and “B”) treat the life and death of the eighth century hermit Saint Guthlac. Like Juliana, Cynewulf’s account of the martyrdom of Saint Juliana, these poems deal with a saint who was challenged and harassed by demons. Guthlac is a Mercian saint associated with Croyland Abbey in Lincolnshire, an area perhaps connected with Cynewulf. Furthermore, Guthlac B, based on the Latin Vita Guthlaci by Felix of Croyland, shares several stylistic devices with the “signed” poems. Because in the Exeter Book its conclusion is missing, it is possible that it may have closed with a passage containing Cynewulf’s name.
Also stylistically related to Cynewulf’s poetry is The Dream of the Rood. Found not only in the Vercelli Book but also in fragments inscribed in runes on the Ruthwell Cross (located in southwest Scotland), this dream vision shares certain descriptive passages with Elene. Whereas Elene describes Constantine’s conversion and Saint Helena’s discovery of the cross, The Dream of the Rood concentrates on Christ’s crucifixion; nevertheless, both share a devotion to the glorious cross of victory. Now usually dated earlier than Cynewulf’s poetry, The Dream of the Rood has been called one of the greatest religious lyrics in the English language. It certainly is the best of the “Cynewulfian group,” those poems associated with, but not now attributed to, Cynewulf.
The other poems attributed by nineteenth century scholars to Cynewulf share fewer stylistic and thematic elements with the four signed poems. Andreas, a saint’s legend based on the apocryphal Latin Acts of Saints Andrew and Matthew, was long tied to The Fates of the Apostles, a summary description of the deaths of Christ’s disciples. Because The Fates of the Apostles—considered to be an epilogue to Andreas, which precedes it in the Vercelli Book—contained the runic signature, scholars reasoned that Andreas must also be by Cynewulf. Similarly, Christ I (Advent) and Christ III (Last Judgment) were attributed to Cynewulf before critical analysis subdivided Christ into three distinct poems. Although the three may be thematically related and perhaps were even brought together by Cynewulf, only Christ II (lines 441-866) concludes with the runic signature. It is a meditation on, and explication of, the significance of Christ’s Ascension. Christ I, a series of antiphons for use in Vespers during the week preceding Christmas, is, according to Claes Schaar, “fairly close to Cynewulf’s poetry,” whereas Christ III, a rather uneven picture of the Last Judgment and the terrors awaiting the sinful, is definitely not by Cynewulf. The Phoenix, an allegorical treatment of Christ’s Resurrection; Physiologus, a series of allegorized interpretations of natural history; and Wulf and Eadwacer, once understood as a riddle containing Cynewulf’s name, are today not associated with Cynewulf.
Nineteenth century understanding of the Cynewulf canon had a certain balance and symmetry, which is attractive. If Caedmon dealt with the epic themes of the Old Testament, Cynewulf emphasized themes more exclusively Christian: allegories of salvation, events in the life of Christ, and the stories of the early martyrs. This poetry spanned Christian history from Palestine in the first century to England in the eighth; from Christ’s birth (Christ I) to his death (The Dream of the Rood), Resurrection (The Phoenix), and Ascension (Christ II); from the foundation of the church by the first missionaries (The Fates of the Apostles and Andreas) to the suffering of the martyrs (Juliana), the official recognition of Christianity by the Roman Empire (Elene), and the continuity of the tradition of the hermit saint in England (Guthlac). This broad survey of Christian history not unexpectedly concluded with a description of the Last Judgment (Christ III).
The analyses of S. K. Das and Schaar in the 1940’s, however, have limited Cynewulf’s canon to the four poems containing his name, leaving one to wonder whether even these rather varied and differing works would have survived the complex and thorough stylistic and linguistic analyses if they had not concluded with a runic signature. Resembling the effect of higher criticism of the Bible, Old English scholarship has reduced Cynewulf from being the author of a large and diverse body of verse to being the composer of 2,600 lines: The Fates of the Apostles (122 lines), Juliana (731 lines), Elene (1,321 lines), and Christ II (426 lines).
The four poems
Cynewulf’s four poems vary in length, subject, complexity, and style, yet they may be characterized as sharing similar source materials, purposes, and themes. All four are essentially didactic Christian poems, based on Latin prose originals, probably composed with the liturgical calendar in mind, and perhaps to be read as poetic meditations accompanying other monastic readings. The poems are didactic and specifically Christian in that their major purpose is to teach or celebrate significant events of salvation history. The four reflect a variety of Latin originals and specific types of monastic readings, meditative practice, and exegetical thought. In The Fates of the Apostles, Cynewulf notes that he borrowed from many holy books, and he clearly takes pride in his knowledge and use of the “authorities” throughout his work.
Thematically, Cynewulf’s poems reflect an interest also typical of his time and of monastic literature, the cosmic conflict between the forces of good and evil. This conflict is portrayed in both human and supernatural terms, sometimes in brief summaries of Christian suffering, sometimes in long debates and complaints. To highlight this conflict, Cynewulf establishes polarities of good and evil. The devil and his cohorts are clearly opposed to Christ and his faithful. Emperors and the wealthy persecute martyrs and the poor, and the headstrong Jews oppose the reasonable Christians. Idols contrast with Christian worship; lust attacks virginity; the law cannot conquer grace.
Characters are either black or white, symbols of good or evil rather than individual. While imprisoned, Juliana is suddenly visited by a demon pretending to be an angel. Her suitor, who in the Latin sources is merely a pragmatic Roman official, is portrayed by Cynewulf as a champion of paganism. There must be no hesitation, no sense that characters may have a divided mind. When the actors in this cosmic drama do change, they do not develop characters but flip from one extreme to another, as if shifting masks. In Elene, Judas shifts from being a miracle-working Christian bishop. Paralleling the career of Saul in the New Testament, whose conversion from persecutor to persecuted is signaled by a change of his name to Paul, Judas’s name is changed to Cyriacus. As in the New Testament, which lies behind Cynewulf’s Latin sources, there definitely is no place for the lukewarm.
Cynewulf’s poems draw on the recorded victories of the faithful in the past to teach Christians in the present to uphold their inheritance of truth. This didactic purpose is accomplished by two means: Cynewulf portrays past events as types or symbols that can...
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