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IV. Old English Christian Poetry

§ 6. Cynewulf: His Personality

Turning to Cynewulf and the poems that may be, or have been, attributed to him, we are on somewhat safer ground. The personality of the poet is, indeed, wrapped in an obscurity hardly less deep than that which hides Caedmon. The only truth at which we can arrive concerning him is that he must be the author of four well-known poems, since he marked them as his own by the insertion of his signature in runes. Conjecture has been busy to prove that he may have been identical with a certain abbot of Peterborough, who lived about the year 1000. But this hypothesis has ceased to be tenable since we know that the West Saxon transcript of his poems, the only form in which the accredited ones are preserved, cannot be the original; moreover, the abbot invariably spelt his name Cinwulf. Equally impossible is the theory that he was Cynewulf, bishop of Lindisfarne, who died in 781 or 783. The later lived in troublous times, and nothing we know of his life agrees with inferences we may reasonably draw from autobiographical allusions in Cynewulf’s poems. A theory that the author was certainly of Northumbrian origin was, in the first instance, based upon an erroneous interpretation of the first riddle in a collection of Old English Riddles long attributed to him. Dietrich gave the solution as Coenwulf, the supposed Northumbrian form of the name Cynewulf. But, apart from the fact that syllabic riddles are not known in Old English literature, we must remember that, on the four occasions when the poet spelt his own name, he used one or other of two forms, i.e. Cynewulf of Cynwulf. Both these forms must go back to an older one in which the medial e appeared as i. In Northumbria, this medial i became e, roughly speaking, about 800; in Mercia the transition was practically accomplished by 750. This fact lends colour to the hypothesis of Wülker that Cynewulf was a Mercian, a theory which A.S. Cook has adopted in support of a conjecture of his own, namely, that the poet was a certain Cynulf, an ecclesiastic who was present, as his signature to a decree proves, at a synod held at Clovesho in 803. The synod was an important one, in so far as at it the archbishop of Canterbury was recognised as primate of the English church. Cynulf’s signature, following close upon that of the bishop of Dunwich, leads A.S. Cook to the further assumption that he was a priest in the diocese of Dunwich, where he would have ample opportunity for studying those sea-effects the description of which is so characteristic of his poetry. Whether or not Cynewulf is to be identified with this ecclesiastic, there is no doubt that the assumption of Mercian origin would do away with one or two difficulties which the assumption of Northumbrian origin in the narrower sense leaves unsolved. During the latter half of the eighth century, Northumbria was, politically, too troubled to be a “kindly nurse” of letters, though, on the other hand, it might be asserted that the political unrest of Northumbria may be reflected in the melancholy nature and “autumnal grace” of Cynewulf’s poetry. Again, though there is no doubt that a Mercian origin would facilitate the transcription of poems into West Saxon, yet we have West Saxon transcripts of other originally Northumbrian poems, a fact which affects the value of geographical arguments of this nature.

The most valid, albeit negative, argument against taking the term Northumbrian to mean simply non-West Saxon, hence, possibly, Mercian, is that we have no definite evidence for the existence of a Mercian school of poetry, such as the development of a poet like Cynewulf seems to postulate. His undisputed work is of too mature a character to seem to be the spontaneous product of a self-made singer, unfostered by literary society. Moreover, he excels more especially in descriptions of the sea and the sea-coast, a point in which a dweller inland might easily have been deficient. Notable in this respect are Elene, which we know to be his, and Andreas, which is very possibly his. The following lines, for instance, must surely be the work of one whose daily life had been spent in contact with the sea:

  • Over the sea marges
  • Hourly urged they on … the wave-riding horses.
  • Then they let o’er Fifel’s wave foaming stride along
  • Steep-stemmed rushers of the sea. Oft withstood the bulwark,
  • O’er the surging of the waters, swinging strokes of waves.
  • Further, assuming Guthlac B to be by Cynewulf, we may note the fact that the fen-journey of the original has been transformed into a sea-voyage, and this would appear to tell against an East Anglian authorship.

    The final result of much discussion seems to resolve itself into this: that Cynewulf was not a West Saxon, but, probably, a Northumbrian, though Mercian origin is not impossible; and that he wrote towards the end of the eighth century. This latter point will find further support when we proceed to discuss the indvidual poems.

    We know nothing else concerning Cynewulf with any degree of certainty. We infer from the nature of his poetry that he was of a deeply religious nature, but it is hazardous to deduce the character of a poet from his apparently subjective work; we learn that he lived to an old age, which he felt to be a burden; that, at some time of his life, he had known the favour of princes and enjoyed the gifts of kings; he must have been the thegn or scop of some great lord, and not merely an itinerant singer or gleeman, as some critics have held. He was a man of learning, certainly a good Latin scholar, for some of his work is based upon Latin originals. Critics are not agreed as to the period of life in which he occupied himself with the composition of religious poetry, nor as to the chronological order of his works. Some scholars assume that, after leading until old age the life of a man of the world, and attaining some distinction as an author of secular poetry—of which, by the way, if the Riddles are rejected, we have no trace—he became converted by the vision described in The Dream of the Rood, and devoted himself ever afterwards to religious poetry, the last consummate effort of his poetic powers being Elene. There are two drawbacks to this theory, the first being that we cannot base biographical deductions with any certainty upon a poem like The Dream of the Rood, which we have no historical grounds for claiming as Cynewulf’s; the second, that it is difficult to assume that a man advanced in years could have composed so large a quantity of religious poetry as, even after the most rigid exclusion of the unlikely, we are compelled to attribute to him. Other critics hold that The Dream of the Rood was followed immediately by Elene, and that all other Cynewulfian poems were written later. If that be so, the poet’s art must have undergone very rapid deterioration, for all the other poems attributed to his are inferior to Elene and The Dream.