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.