See The Poems of Cynewulf (tr. by C. W. Kennedy, 1949); E. R. Anderson, Cynewulf: Structure, Style, and Theme in His Poetry (1983).
(flourished 9th century AD, Northumbria or Mercia) Anglo-Saxon poet. He is the author of four Old English poems from late 10th-century manuscripts: Elene, about St. Helena; The Fates of the Apostles, on the mission and death of each Apostle; The Ascension, part of a trilogy by different authors; and Juliana, a life of St. Juliana. Nothing is known of the poet outside of the text; its evidence suggests he was a learned cleric of Northumbria or Mercia. Runic characters woven into the text are thought to spell his name.
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Cynewulf is one of twelve Anglo-Saxon poets known by name today, and one of four whose work survives today. He is famous for his religious compositions, and is regarded as one of the pre-eminent figures of Old English Christian poetry. Posterity knows of his name by means of runic signatures that are interwoven into the four poems which comprise his scholastically recognized corpus. These poems are: The Fates of the Apostles, Juliana, Elene, and Christ II (also referred to as The Ascension).
Unlike his literary predecessor, Caedmon, whose biography is solely derived from Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Cynewulf's life is a veritable mystery to scholars. Furthermore, the “facts” that have been gleaned from the literature of Cynewulf “somewhat reverse” what we know of Caedmon's own writings. The four signed poems of Cynewulf are vast in that they collectively comprise several thousand lines of verse. In comparison, Caedmon's only known work, his Hymn, is quite succinct at nine lines. Thus, while scholars have little insight into Cynewulf’s life, they can analyse the poet’s verse to its deepest roots, uncovering a stock of evidence that can shed light onto the poet’s being. Despite new discoveries, Cynewulf remains “the shadow of a name.”
This is shown through linguistic and metrical analysis of his poems, i.e. Elene, where in the poem’s epilogue (beginning l.1236) the “imperfect rhymes” become corrected when Anglian forms of the words are substituted for the West Saxon forms. For instance, the manuscript presents the miht:peaht false rhyme which can be corrected when the middle vowel sounds of both words are replaced with an æ sound. The new maeht:paeht rhyme shows a typical Anglian smoothing of the ea. Numerous other “Anglianisms” in Elene and Juliana are indicative of an original Anglian dialect underlying the West Saxon translation of the texts. Any definite conclusion to Cynewulf being either Northumbrian or Mercian has been hard to come by, but linguistic evidence suggests that the medial e in the signed Cynewulf would have, during the broad window period of Cynewulf’s existence, been characteristic of a Mercian dialect.
The date of Cynewulf is an even more debatable subject for scholars. Any attempt to link the man with a documented historical figure has met failure or resulted in an improbable connection. What can be deduced is that Cynewulf’s date is no later than the dates of the Vercelli and Exeter manuscripts, which are approximately in the second half of the tenth century. However, the presence of early West Saxon forms in both manuscripts means that it is possible an Alfredian scribe initially translated Cynewulf’s verse, placing him no later than the turn of the tenth century.
Even more puzzling, the two textual variations of Cynewulf’s name, Cynewulf and Cynwulf, come after a time when the older spelling of the name was Cyniwulf. Dr. Sisam points out that the "i" tends to change to an "e" about the middle of the eighth century, and the general use of the "i" phases itself out by the end of the century, suggesting Cynewulf cannot be dated much before the year 800. Moreover, it has been argued that the “cult of the cross,” which can find ground in Cynewulf’s Elene, achieved its cultural apex in the eighth century. This last assumption has been discounted due to evidence that hints that the intense worship of the cross was much more prolonged. Also deserving consideration is the argument that the acrostic was most fashionable in ninth century poetry and Cynewulf’s own acrostic signature would have followed the trend during this time. All the evidence considered, no exact deduction of Cynewulf’s date is accepted, but it is likely he flourished in the ninth century.
Nevertheless, several things can be surmised by examining his works. Cynewulf was without question a literate and educated man, since there is no other way we can "account for the ripeness which he displays in his poetry." Given the subject matter of his poetry he was likely a "man in holy orders," and the deep Christian knowledge conveyed through his verse implies that he was well learned in ecclesiastical and hagiographical literature, as well as the dogma and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. His apparent reliance on Latin sources for inspiration also means he knew the Latin language, and this of course would correlate with him being a man of the Church.
All four of Cynewulf's poems contain passages where the letters of the poet’s name are woven into the text using runic symbols that also double as meaningful ideas pertinent to the text. In Juliana and Elene, the interwoven name is spelled in the more recognizable form as Cynewulf, while in Fates and Christ II it is observed without the medial e so the runic acrostic says Cynwulf. All four poems draw upon Latin sources such as homilies and hagiographies (the lives of saints) for their content, and this is to be particularly contrasted to other Old English poems, e.g. Genisis, Exodus, and Daniel, which are drawn directly from the Bible as opposed to secondary accounts. The poems, like a substantial portion of Anglo-Saxon poetry, are sculpted in alliterative verse.
In terms of length, Elene is by far the longest poem of Cynewulf’s corpus at 1,321 lines. It is followed by Juliana, at 731 lines, Christ II, at 427 lines, and The Fates of the Apostles, at a brisk 122 lines. Three of the poems are “martyrolical,” in that the central character(s) in each die/suffer for their religious values. In Elene, Saint Helena endures her quest to find the Holy Cross and spread Christianity; in Juliana, the title character dies after she refuses to marry a pagan man, thus retaining her Christian integrity; in Fates of the Apostles, the speaker creates a song that meditates on the deaths of the apostles which they “joyously faced.” Elene and Juliana fit in the category of poems that depict the lives of saints. These two poems along with Andreas and Guthlac (parts A and B) constitute the only versified saints’ legends in the Old English vernacular. The Ascension is outside the umbrella of the other three works, and is a vehement description of a “devotional subject.”
The exact chronology of the poems is not known. One argument asserts that Elene is likely the last of the poems because the “autobiographical” epilogue implies that Cynewulf is old at the time of composition, but this view has been doubted. Nevertheless, it seems that Christ II and Elene represent the cusp of Cynewulf’s career, while Juliana and Fates of the Apostles seem to be created by a less inspired, and perhaps less mature, poet.
On one hand, Cynewulf’s use of runic inscriptions is of astounding importance to students of the history of literature. The practice of claiming authorship over one’s poems was a break from the tradition of the anonymous poet, where no composition was viewed as being owned by its creator. It had been customary of classical poets to hand down their versified works with the expectation the work would be modified and changed so as to lose its original structure. Cynewulf devised a tradition where authorship would connote ownership of the piece and an originality that would be respected by future generations. Furthermore, by integrating his name, Cynewulf was attempting to retain the structure and form of his poetry that would “undergo mutations” otherwise.
From a different perspective, Cynewulf’s intent was not to claim authorship, but to "seek the prayers of others for the safety of his soul." It is contended that Cynewulf wished to be remembered in the prayers of his audience in return for the pleasure they would derive from his poems. In a sense his expectation of a spiritual reward can be contrasted with the material reward that other poets of his time would have expected for their craft.
Then he who created this world…honoured us and gave us gifts…and also sowed and set in the mind of men many kinds of wisdom of heart. One he allows to remember wise poems, sends him a noble understanding, through the spirit of his mouth. The man whose mind has been given the art of wisdom can say and sing all kinds of things.
By looking at Cynewulf’s autobiographical reflection in the epilogue of Elene, it is evident that he believes his own skill in poetry comes directly from God, who "unlocked the art of poesy" within him.
Hopkins and Cynewulf: "The Wreck of the Deutschland," "The Windhover," "The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe," and the Christ
Mar 22, 2005; cynewulf's Christ is a title given in the mid-nineteenth century to a series of three poems that appear together and open...