Cynewulf and His Kind

Out of the Northern revival emerges a figure more shadowy than that of Alcuin, but greater. It is the one Old English poet to any extent identified by his English works. A poem called Elene, of 1300 lines, was found in an Old English manuscript which had strangely made its way to Vercelli in Italy. Into this poem were curiously wrought old forms of letters called runes, which when deciphered in order revealed the name of the poet–Cynewulf. A fragment called Fates of the Apostles is signed in like manner. In the other chief manuscript of Old English poetry, the “Exeter Book” at Exeter Cathedral, are two other poems, the Christ, of some 1700 lines, and ]uliana of 700. In these occurs the same hidden signature; so that we here have three long poems and done short of whose authorship we are sure. Cynewulf has given us more than his signature. In the Elene, he has interwoven with it a few personal notes, which, taken together with less direct evidence, and the qualities of his poetry, project for us a substantial idea of the man. He was born an Anglian of the North and lived his life approximately between 750 and 825. In some way, he acquired the best education of the times, either at York or in a monastic school. In his youth he seems to have been a lively thane in a noble or royal household, receiving gifts of gold, and a horse on which he dashed exultantly over the “mile-paths.” He had at some time mingled in battle and had come to know the sea with poet’s eye.

Then change overtook him–sorrow, disillusionment, conversion – and he became dedicated to the religious life, especially, it would seem, to the praise and adoration of the Cross. Whatever the experience, it enlisted for the rest of a long life all his wide-reaching and ingathering powers in poetry of high ardour and intensity.

Elene tells the tale of St. Helen’s recovery of the Cross. It opens with the battle scene in which Constantine saw his famous vision, followed by an equally lively account of his mother’s voyage to Judea in search of the Cross. Then takes place a highly dramatized encounter with the wary wise men of the land, which gives ample play to eloquence and the parry of debate. At last one poor Jew, who has craftily guarded the secret of the hiding-place until he is overwhelmed by conversion to the new faith, on Calvary itself proclaims the recovered Cross in an ecstatic outpouring of soul. Appended is the autobiographic signature already described.

Like Elene, Juliana seizes upon critical moments in a saint’s life. It tells a cruder tale of conflict between this beleaguered but loquacious maiden saint and her father, her lover, and Satan in person, and ends in a martyrdom gruesome enough. But the Fiend slinks away to Hell: “he knew better, that sower of sin, than to tell his fellows, thanes of torment, how he fared on that trip.”

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Towering far above these poems in grandeur and elaborate proportions is the Christ. It is like a great triptych, for it exhibits in its three parts the Birth, Ascension, and Last Judgment of Christ. But into each part the poet, like an old painter, has wrought miniatures of various scenes in sacred history which reinforce his main themes; or like a composer has interspersed these themes with high rhapsodies drawn from old canticles of the church. Thus, in Part, I, between the lyric prelude and postlude out of an ancient Christmas service, is set an idyll of Mary explaining to the troubled Joseph the coming of the mysterious child. Part II follows a different scheme. It opens with the grand scene of the Ascension amid throngs of angels and the sudden burst of heavenly music. This wakens reminiscences of other sacred events, back and forwards, from Advent to the Second Coming, with thanksgiving for God’s varied gifts to men–to one, eloquence; to another, wisdom; to another, skill in song before warriors; to others, prowess in battle, or good seamanship, or physical strength, or knowledge of stars or topography or sword-forging. For in life we are as if on our sea-steeds headed far over the cold, perilous, heaving, trackless sea until God’s Spirit-Son brings our ocean-stallions into a safe haven.

Part III reaches heights not overpassed by any other English religious poetry. The dominant theme of Doomsday, beginning furtively, rise in sudden crescendo—of trumpets, the last sunrise, confusion of men, devils, and angels, rush of wind and flame—to the coming of Christ in glory to judgment. In grand lyric volume, the terrible theme reverberates and crashes forward and back, touching again events in sacred history, and surging about the Cross which towers fixed and unmoved above the tumult. The Cross streams red and sends its blaze far down into the dark places. Again both righteous and wicked stare at the Crucified, dumb with a new sense of the sacrifice. Then follows Christ’s terrible indictment of the doomed, who at the sweep of his sword sink into the pit. But the righteous enter into their new life, a glad multitude. No more cold, nor heat, nor darkness, nor hunger or thirst, nor bodily suffering, nor old age; no more quarrels, no separation, no weariness of heart; but, forever shining, the dear face of the Lord.

These old severities seem distasteful to us, in our comfortable, subtle, modern life, yet they reveal the sharp values of Cynewulf’s eighth-century world, its hardships, its crudities and cruelties, its insecurity, its fears, the blackness of its treacheries and violence, and, by contrast, the shining whiteness of its virtues.

Other poems, unsigned, have been regarded as Cynewulfian, though his authorship cannot be proved, and in the case of the Andreas is now rejected. One of these, close in theme to Elene and Part III of the Christ, is The Dream o/the Rood, wherein to the poet appeared the Cross transfigured in shifting colour, now gold, now blood-red, now glancing with varied jewels. Then the Cross spoke and told how

A young hero stripped–it was God Almighty–
Stout and steadfast, climbed the high cross,
Bold in sight of all, when he would free mankind.
I trembled as the hero embraced me yet dared I not bend to earth,
Fall flat to the ground, but had to stand fast.
As the Rood I was reared; I lifted the great King,
Lord of the Heavens–I could not bow down.

Another poem of the group sings the life and death of a young English saint, Guthlac, of Bede’s generation, who renounced the pride of life and retreated to the most desolate spot in the fen country, where he, good thane of God, wrestled day and night with shrieking fiends, amid torture of body and soul. At length, his protector, St. Bartholomew, brought him news of his release, and he emerged into fifteen years of calm. Fiends still shrieked helpless in the offing, but many a heartsick man sought comfort from the saint, and even the birds fluttered about him for food. When he was ill unto death, he sent loving messages to a devoted sister, gave thanks for the good angel-thane whom God had daily sent to succour him, and in the arms of a comrade yielded up his spirit. Both in the story and the figure of Guthlac the type of the Irish hermit saint, passionate, stormy, winsome, exalted, as foreshadowed by Columba and his kind, seems still to persist.

One more work which some scholars still assign to Cynewulf is the Phoenix. It recounts the well-known myth of the Arabian bird rejuvenated at long intervals by fire. The poet follows a countless number–reaching down to this very moment.

The Andreas is another matter. Who wrote it? Cynewulf, or Bishop Acca of Hexham, or some poet forever unnamed? The question is too complex and unsettled to detain us now. But a great poet he was without dispute. The poem has been called a “Christian Beowulf,” and with some reason; for while it ostensibly sets forth with pious intention to recount the perseverance of St. Andrew in his mission to the cannibal Mermedonians, the poet takes the delight in adventure and battles and hairbreadth escape for their own sake that pervades any great epic or romance. Indeed, he was clearly a devoted reader of Beowulf and of the Aeneid of Virgil.

Andrew, the Apostle, was called by God to go to the rescue of Matthew, whom the Mermedonians had imprisoned and threatened to devour. He makes difficulties. There is no ship. Yet he is no coward. At dawn, where the billows thunder on the beach, is riding a wide-bosomed ship outbound to Mermedonia. Three are the crew, of whom one is no less than Christ himself in guise of the captain. The ensuing dialogue between him and Andrew, leading to a fine recognition at the end of the voyage, shows in this early poet no little dramatic power. Would the captain take Andrew to Mermedonia? Alas, it is no place for an alien. Yet if he is bent on it, he must pay first. “But I have no money.” “No money, and travelling? Then food and drink perhaps.” “We are God’s thanes, on his business.” “Then come.” “God reward you, Sir, for your kindness.”

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A fine ship with that heroic company, she put out only to run into a terrific storm, the fiercest in Old English poetry. Yet Andrew ate a hearty meal, with grace after meat, though hi “thanes” were so terrified that the Captain offered to put back. “Not we. What! to be lordless, loathed, and ashamed when in council the warriors ask which with hand and brand best succoured his lord in the battle-game?” But Andrew comforted then with recollection of Christ on Galilee, the storm subsided, and they sank into a deep slumber.

Then Andrew admired the Captain’s skill: “This is my seventeenth voyage, but I never saw your equal. In a rough sea, this boat keeps her speed, flies foamy-necked, almost like a bird. And yet you are very young. Would you teach me?” And the Captain replies in effect: “We sailors, exposed to storm and mishap naturally believe in God. I can see that you are a thane of God and the waves saw it too and subsided.” Then Andrew thanks God that he has given this youth not only skill but wit. The Captain asks him about this Christ, and Andrew reviews the whole story until he falls asleep, and he and his thanes are borne by angels to Mermedonia. There the young seafarer reappears, now the manifest Christ, and Andrew sinks down in humiliation that he had not known him before.

But he rises to new strength, and through a rapid succession of miracle, menacing mob, torture, libels by Satan and the thanes of Hell, exhaustion, despair, he, at last, comes forth to invoke a terrible flood and fire upon these savages, which overwhelms many and frightens the rest into conversion.

The nameless poet of the Andreas has taken the simple marvels of the old legend, and by his energy and insight transformed them to poetry which is at times very noble. In such moments as the storm at sea, or Andrew’s recognition of his Lord, or the bitter winter’s night in prison as he awaited his doom, or when exhausted and bleeding he cried out, mindful of his Master’s word: “Why hast thou forsaken me?” or when the floods came streaming into the streets, bearing down warriors and cup-bearers, driving crowds to the hills, whence they were thrust back by unseen hands, and a confused wail rose above the din–in such moments the poet reveals not only his schooling in poetic tradition both English and Roman but the power of genius which dominates its schooling to great artistic ends.


  • Charles Grosvenor Osgood, The Voice of England, 2nd Ed., 1935, 1952 Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York.

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