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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

§ 13. The Schools of Caedmon and Cynewulf

Any attempt to estimate the development attained by Old English literature, as shown by the work of the two schools of poetry which the names of Caedmon and Cynewulf connote, must, of necessity, be somewhat superficial, in view of the fragmentary nature of much of the work passed under review. Caedmon stands for a group of singers whose work we feel to be earlier in tone and feeling, though not always in age, than that which we know to be Cynewulf’s or can fairly attribute to him. Both schools of thought are Christian, not rarely even monkish; both writers, if not in equal measure, are sons of their age and palpably inheritors of a philosophy of life pagan in many respects. It is safe to say that, in both groups, there is hardly a single poem of any length and importance in which whole passages are not permeated with the spirit of the untouched Beowulf, in which turns of speech, ideas, points of view, do not recall an earlier, a fiercer, a more self-reliant and fatalistic age. God the All-Ruler is fate metamorphosed; the powers of evil are identical with those once called giants and elves; the Paradise and Hell of the Christian are as realistic as the Walhalla and the Niflheim of the heathen ancestor.

Yet the work of Cynewulf and his school marks an advance upon the writings of the school of Caedmon. Even the latter is, at times, subjective and personal in tone to a degree not found in pure folk-epic; but in Cynewulf the personal note is emphasised and becomes lyrical. Caedmon’s hymn in praise of the Creator is a sublime statement of generally recognised facts calling for universal acknowledgment in suitably exalted terms; Cynewulf’s confessions in the concluding portion of Elene or in The Dream of the Rood, or his vision of the day of judgment in Crist, are lyrical outbursts, spontaneous utterances of a soul which has become one with its subject and to which self-revelation is a necessity. This advance shows itself frequently, also, in the descriptions of nature. For Cynewulf, “earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God”; it is, perhaps, only in portions of Exodus and in passages of Genesis B that the Divine immanence in nature is obviously felt by the Caedmonian scop.

The greatest distinction between the one school and the other, is due, however, to the degree in which Cynewulf and his group show their power of assimilating foreign literary influences. England was ceasing to be insular as the influence of a literary tongue began to hold sway over her writers. They are scholars deliberately aiming at learning from others—they borrow freely, adapt, reproduce. Form has become of importance; at times, of supreme importance; the attempt, architecturally imperfect as it may be, to construct the trilogy we know as Crist is valuable as a proof of consciousness in art, and the transformation that the riddles show in the passage from their Latin sources furnishes additional evidence of the desire to adorn.

Yet, it is hard not to regret much that was lost in the acquisition of the new. The reflection of the spirit of paganism, the development of epic and lyric as we see them in the fragments that remain, begin to fade and change; at first Christianity is seen to be but thin veneer over the old heathen virtues, and the gradual assimilation of the Christian spirit was not accomplished without harm to the national poetry, or without resentment on the part of the people. “They have taken away our ancient worship, and no one knows how this new worship is to be performed,” said the hostile common folk to the monks, when the latter were praying at Tynemouth for the safety of their brethren carried out to sea. “We are not going to pray for them. May God spare none of them,” they jibed, when they saw that Cuthbert’s prayers appeared to be ineffectual. It was many a year before the hostility to the new faith was overcome and the foreign elements blended with the native Teutonic spirit. The process of blending can be seen perfectly at work in such lines as The Charm for Barren Land, where pagan feeling and nominal Christianity are inextricably mixed. There, earth spells are mingled with addresses to the Mother of Heaven. But, in due season, the fusion was accomplished, and, in part, this was due to the wisdom with which the apostles of Christianity retained and disguised in Christian dress many of the festivals, observances and customs of pre-Christian days. That so much of what remains of Old English literature is of a religious nature does not seem strange, when it is remembered through whose hands it has come down to us. Only what appealed to the new creed or could be modified by it would be retained or adapted, when the Teutonic spirit became linked with, and tamed by, that of Rome.