The details of the life of Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf (flourished 8th or 9th century) are shrouded in mystery. What is known is that he was one of the earliest religious poets and wrote beautiful verses steeped in Christian belief.
Old English poetry can be identified in one of two styles: the Heroic, which is based in pre-Christian Germanic myth; and the Christian, which paraphrases biblical narrative in verse. Although very little of the Old English poetry survives, what does exist is considered by authorities to be of high literary quality. Christian poetry began to appear around the 7th century, with Caedmon and the subsequent school of Caedmon style. Cynewulf is recognized as the second Anglo-Saxon poet to write Old English Christian verse.
A Sketchy History
Cynewulf flourished around the mid-8th or early 9th century around the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria or Mercia. There are two schools of thought on his sketchy personal history. He is sometimes identified with Cynewulf, Bishop of Lindisfarne. Others claim an association with Cynulf, an ecclesiastic who may have been a priest of the Diocese of Dunwich, whose signature is found on the Decrees of the Council of Clovesho signed in 803. Regardless of which theory proves true, Cynewulf is undeniably the author of four poems, having signed his name to these manuscripts in runic letters. His writing is graceful and masters rhetoric. Yet his work is considered inferior to the heroic poems such as "Beowulf," which is dramatic in its presentation and depicts the human character.
Cynwulf speaks of gifts he received in a celebration, which leads one to believe that he may have been a gleeman or minstrel at the court of one of the Northumbrian kings. He was converted to Christianity as an adult and, throughout his life, devoted himself to writing religious poems. In the pieces that are unquestionably credited to him, he left 2,600 lines of poetry.
The four pieces with which Cynewulf is undoubtedly associated are the "Christ," the "Elene," the "Juliana," and the "Fates of the Apostles." The "Christ" is preserved in only one manuscript, The Exeter Book (a collection of poems in Exeter Cathedral, England, c. 975). This poem is a glorification of three themes. The first part relates to the Advent of Christ (Incarnation), and deals with a period of devout expectancy and longing. The second part relates to the Ascension and is a sermon on Pope Gregory the Great. The last part is a powerful description of Christ's Second Coming upon Doomsday (the Last Judgment) and His impassioned address to sinners. In the "Christ," he paraphrases several anthems known as the great O's in the Advent liturgy. Here he shows exceptional devotion to the Virgin Mary through beautifully written passages. This poem is also a testimony to the practice of confession. Cynewulf's poem "Juliana" is also preserved in The Exeter Book and is a poetical account of the acts of martyrdom of St. Juliana. It is a typical representation of the life of a saint that closely follows its Latin source.
The poem considered to be Cynewulf's masterpiece is the "Elene." This manuscript, uncovered in Vercelli, Italy in 1836 with the discovery of the Vercelli Book (a collection of Old English Manuscripts) was written in both prose and poetry. It contains a narrative based on the Latin legends of the discovery of the true cross by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. The subject would have had appeal to Cynewulf for two reasons—its deep religious roots and its adventurous location in faraway countries. In addition to "Elene," other works found in the Vercelli Book include "Andreas," "The Fates of the Apostles" and "The Dream of the Rood."
The final poem attributed to Cynewulf is the "Fates of the Apostles." What passes down to us is only a fragment. Its importance is recognized for its connection between Cynewulf and the poem "Andreas" in the Vercelli Book manuscript. Although "Andreas" can not be incontrovertibly ascribed to Cynewulf, many authorities still assign it to him. It is believed that since "The Fates of the Apostles" followed "Andreas" in the Vercelli Book, the one may well have been an epilogue to the other. If this were held true, then the runic signature in "The Fates of the Apostles" would assign both poems to Cynewulf. If "Andreas" is not the work of Cynewulf, its style places it in the school of Cynewulf poets.
A fifth poem attributed to Cynewulf is "Dream of the Rood." This work is an early example of a style known as "dream vision," a style that later became popular in Middle English literature. This poem is considered to be one of the most beautiful of Old English Christian poems. It talks of the radiant vision of the Crucifixion. Although there is no certainty to the poem's authorship, most authorities credit Cynewulf as the poet, based on the style, mood, and subject.
Cynewulf may also be the author of several other works including "The Wanderer," "Guthlac," "The Phoenix," "Physiologus," "The Ruin," "Wulf and Eadwacer" and "The Wife's Complaint (Lament)" but there is nothing more definite than style to associate these works with him. With the exception of "The Wife's Complaint," these poems are sorrowful. They are defined by their metre. Each line has two half-lines separated by a break and joined by alliteration. Each line is two feet and each foot has an accented part and varying numbers of unaccented syllables. The alliteration, which joins these half-lines, falls on the accented syllables. "The Phoenix" is a two-part poem. The first part describes the Earthly Paradise, the beauty of the Phoenix, its flight to the palm-tree in Syria, the building of its nest and its death and rebirth. It is based on the Latin poem "De Ave Phoenica" and has been attributed to Lactantius. In the second part, the phoenix is seen as a symbol of Christian life in this world and the next, and has no basis in the poetry of Lactantius.
In The Exeter Book there are more than 80 "riddles" which have been attributed to Cynewulf in the past, but authorities now believe that he probably wrote few, if any, of them. The solution to the "First Riddle," now known by the name "Wulf and Eadwacer" was originally credited to Cynewulf. As a result of this, many early authorities assumed that Cynewulf wrote the other riddles as well. Further study has raised questions about this assumption. Most students of Old English writing no longer hold this belief. Instead, it is thought that his work probably influenced later poets who wrote the remaining "riddles" found in The Exeter Book. Until additional information is uncovered, the true authorship of these last works will remain a mystery.
Further Reading on Cynewulf
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia HarperCollins, 1987.
Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Co., 1999.
Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, Columbia University Press, 1993.
English Literature to 1785, HarperCollins, 1992.
Gordon, R.K. Anglo-Saxon Poetry, Dutton, 1967.
Hutchinson Dictionary of the Arts, Helicon Publishing Ltd., 1998.
http://www.encarta.msn.com/ (October 13, 1999).