Cynewulf Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The known literary works of Cynewulf (KIHN-uh-woolf) remain the four poems attributed to him in the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Since the discovery of his name in the nineteenth century, Cynewulf’s reputation, like the size of his canon, has fluctuated widely. Certainly, a prolific poet who could count The Dream of the Rood among his works would deserve much respect, but the Cynewulf of the four signed poems has not fared so well. Scholars have always shown great interest in Cynewulf, primarily because of his runic signatures. Daniel Calder is probably right in suggesting that critical assessment of the poet has suffered “from the need to make him more important than he is.” General histories and surveys of Old English poetry, for example, devote much space to this poet with a name, but have been essentially unimpressed by the poetry itself. Some have seen it as a diluted version of the earlier heroic style, a breakdown of technique, and the end of a great tradition. Commenting on The Fates of the Apostles in his history of medieval poetry, Derek Pearsall states that the poem “has the characteristic nerveless orthodoxy of treatment which prompts one to think of Cynewulf’s poems in turn as the final product of a declining old age.” Even the editors of Cynewulf have not been admiring. Rosemary Woolf, editor of Juliana, sees the poem as bringing “Old English poetry into a blind alley.” What is not certain in these and numerous other such assessments of Cynewulf is the extent to which they reflect the quality of his poetry or the critic’s preference for the heroic style of earlier English poetry. The modern distaste for the hagiographic subject matter and overt didacticism of these Christian poems may also account for Cynewulf’s bad notices.

Later studies approaching Cynewulf’s poems within the contexts of Christian exegesis, hagiography, and iconography, however, have signaled a general reevaluation of the poems. Elene and Christ II have been especially praised. Scholars have been impressed by the “sophisticated handling” of patristic motifs...

(The entire section is 815 words.)


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Bjork, Robert E., ed. The Cynewulf Reader. New York: Routledge, 2001. A collection of essays that provide a comprehensive view of the Anglo-Saxon poet and his work.

Bredehoft, Thomas A. Textual Histories: Readings in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2001. This discussion of Anglo-Saxon chronicles contains a discussion of Cynewulf’s poetry.

Calder, Daniel G. Cynewulf. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This book-length critical analysis approaches its study by relating together all Cynewulf’s poems. Augmented by a selected bibliography, these poems are studied for structural and thematic similarities to establish a base for in-depth examination.

Cook, Albert S., ed. The Christ of Cynewulf. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1964. While concentrating on the poem Christ II, Cook provides extensive information on the life of Cynewulf, including his theology. Supplemented by grammatical notes and a glossary, this book offers indispensable insight into this Old English poet.

Frese, Delores Warwick. “The Art of Cynewulf’s Runic Signatures.” In Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975. Frese discusses how the runic signature of Cynewulf was intricately interwoven into the texts of...

(The entire section is 420 words.)