(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Cynewulf c. 770-c. 840

Anglo-Saxon poet.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Textual History

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

* 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.

Principal English Translations

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Modern English Anglo-Saxon Poetry (translated by R. K. Gordon) 1970

Stopford A. Brooke (essay date 1898)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9160 words.)

Charles W. Kennedy (essay date 1949)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12243 words.)

Albert S. Cook (essay date 1964)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8768 words.)

Stanley B. Greenfield (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 7529 words.)

James H. Wilson (essay date 1974)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13575 words.)

Joseph Wittig (essay date 1975)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10068 words.)

Robert C. Rice (essay date 1977)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7208 words.)

Earl R. Anderson (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8245 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 589 words.)