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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

IV. Old English Christian Poetry

§ 10. Guthlac, The Phoenix, Physiologus, Riddles

We must pass on to other poems that have, with more or less show of reason, been attributed to Cynewulf. Of these, the longest is the life of the Mercian saint Guthlac. It falls into two parts, the first, apparently, having been composed during the lifetime of the anchorite who is the subject of the poem, the second being based upon the Latin Vita by Felix of Croyland. The main question that has been discussed has been whether both parts are by one and the same author or not, and whether Cynewulf can lay claim to one or both parts. If only one part can be attributed to him it should be part II (Guthlac B). Since the conclusion to this part is missing, it may, conceivably, have contained Cynewulf’s signature in runes. There is no gap in the MS. between the conclusion of Crist and the beginning of Guthlac, and Gollancz has assumed that the passage commonly read as the conclusion of Crist (II. 1666—1694) really forms the introduction to Guthlac. These lines are, no doubt, superfluous as regards Crist, but they are yet more unsuitable considered as an introduction to Guthlac, which begins, quite appropriately, with a common epic formula “Monze sindon” (cf. the opening of The Phoenix). It would be better to assume them to be a fragment of some independent poem on the joys of the blessed.

The death of Guthlac is related in lines full of strength and beauty. The writer has entered into the spirit of the last great struggle with the powers of darkness and death, even as Bunyan did when he related the passage of Christian through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The wondrous light that shines over Guthlac’s hut before he dies irresistibly recalls the waving lights in the sky familiar to every northerner, and when we read that, at the saint’s entry into the heavenly mansions, the whole land of England trembled with rapture, we feel that, whether Cynewulf wrote the poem or not, we are in the presence of a poet who does not lack imaginative power of a high order.

The Phoenix has been attributed to Cynewulf by a large number of competent critics. The first portion of it is based upon a Latin poem attributed to Lactantius, and there is some ground for assuming Cynewulf’s acquaintance with that Latin author, since a copy of the book was contained in Alcuin’s library at York, and Cynewulf may very well have been a scholar in the school at York. The second part of the poem, the allegorical application of the myth to Christ, is based on the writings of Ambrose and Bede. The characteristic feature of the poem is its love of colour and wealth of gorgeous descriptive epithets. Especially noteworthy, in this respect, is the description of the land where the phoenix dwells:

  • Winsome is the wold there; there the wealds are green,
  • Spacious spread below the skies; there may neither snow nor rain,
  • Nor the furious air of frost, nor the flare of fire,
  • Nor the headlong squall of hail, nor the hoar-frost’s fall,
  • Nor the burning of the sun, nor the bitter cold,
  • Nor the weather over-warm, nor the winter shower,
  • Do their wrong to any wight—but the wold abides
  • Ever happy, healthful there.
  • This passage illustrates not only the feeling of English poets towards nature, but also the development that took place in consequence of the influence of Latin letters. The Northumbrian poets were not unskilled in the depiction of scenes with which they were familiar; but in The Phoenix we have, for the first time, a poet attempting, under literary influence, and with an obviously conscious striving after artistic effect, to paint an ideal landscape, the beauty and gentleness of summer climes, the wealth of tropical nature, the balminess of a softer air, where there shall be no more, or only a sun-lit-sea, unlike the sullen gloom of the northern waters.

    The conclusion of the poem is of an unusual kind. It consists of eleven lines in a mixture of English and Latin, the first half of each line being English, the second half Latin, the Latin alliterating with the English.

    Portions of an Old English Physiologus have also been attributed to Cynewulf. Allegorical bestiaries were a favourite form of literature from the fifth century down to the Middle Ages. They consisted of descriptions of certain beasts, birds and fishes which were considered capable of an allegrical significance. The allegorical meaning was always attached to the description, much as a moral is appended to a fable. The development of this form of literature was due to the fondness for animal symbolism characteristic of early Christian art. Only three specimens of such descriptions are extant in Old English literature. They deal with the panther, the whale and the partridge. The panther is complete, there is a gap in the description of the whale, of the partridge there is hardly sufficient to prove that the bird described was really a partridge. It is uncertain whether these pieces were merely isolated attempts at imitation of a foreign model or whether they formed part of a complete Old English Physiologus. Two somewhat divergent texts of a Latin Physiologus (B and C), belonging to the ninth century, have been discovered. The resemblance between the Latin text and the Old English is fairly striking in B where, after twenty-two other animals have been described, we have the panther, the whale and the partridge; probably both Old English and Latin versions are derived from a common source. The panther, as usual, is symbolical of Christ, and the whale, which lures seafarers to moor their “ocean-mares” to it, thinking its back an island, represents the “accuser of the brethren” and its gaping mouth is the gate of Hell.

    The assumption that the first of a series of Old English Riddles, 95 in all, was a charade meaning Cynewulf, or Coenwulf, caused the collection to be attributed to him. These riddles are transmitted in the Exeter Book. They are closely connected with similar collections of Latin riddles, more especially one by Aldhelm. Aldhelm’s work is based upon that of the fifth century Latin poet Symphosius, and Aldhelm was the first English writer to acclimatise the Latin riddle in England. Forty riddles by Archbishop Tatwine, which were expanded by Eusebius to the number of 100, are also extant. The author of the Old English riddles derived most of his inspiration from Aldhelm, but he also seems to have gone direct to Symphosius and to have made some slight use of the work of Eusebius and Tatwine.

    The theory that the solution of the first riddle was the name Coenwulf, i. e. Cynewulf, was refuted by Trautmann, in 1883, and, later, by Sievers, on linguistic and other grounds.

    The peculiarly English tone and character of the riddles is, in some measure, due to Aldhelm’s example. For, though he wrote in Latin, his style differentiates his work from that of the Latin authors, and accounts for the popularity this form of literature acquired in England. Furthermore, the author or authors of the Old English riddles borrow themes from native folk-song and saga; in their hands inanimate objects become endowed with life and personality; the powers of nature become objects of worship such as they were in olden times; they describe the scenery of their own country, the fen, the river, and the sea, the horror of the untrodden forest, sun and moon engaged in perpetual pursuit of each other, the nightingale and the swan, the plough guided by the “grey-haired enemy of the wood,” the bull breaking up the clods left unturned by the plough, the falcon, the arm-companion of aethelings—scenes, events, characters familiar in the England of that day. Riddle XLI, De Creatura, and Riddle IX, on the Nightingale, which are subjects taken from Aldhelm, may be compared with the Latin versions to prove how far the more imaginative English poet was from being a mere imitator, and the storm and iceberg riddles breathe the old northern and viking spirit. Riddle XXXVI is also preserved in Northumbrian in a MS. at Leyden.

    The most varied solutions have, from time to time, been suggested for some of the riddles, and the meaning of many is y no means clear. The most recent attempt at a solution of the first riddle has been made by Scofield and Gollancz. They see in this short poem an Old English monodrama in five acts, wherein a lady boasts of fidelity to her lover, but, during his absence, proves faithless and lives to endure the vengeance of her husband in the loss of her child.