Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 7. Crist, Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles, Elene

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

§ 7. Crist, Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles, Elene

The poems marked as Cynewulf’s own by the insertion of runes are Crist, Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles and Elene. Crist is the first poem in the codex known as the Exeter Book, a manuscript preserved in the cathedral library at Exeter. The first eight pages, and, consequenently, the opening portion of Crist, are missing. The manuscript probably dates from the eleventh century and is, apparently, written throughout by one and the same hand. Juliana is contained in the same book, and, of other poems attributed to Cynewulf, and certainly belonging to his school, Guthlac, Andreas and The Phoenix will be mentioned below.

Crist falls into three clearly defined parts, the first dealing with the advent of Christ on earth, the second with His ascension, the third with His second advent to judge the world. The second part contains Cynewulf’s signature in runes. The unity of the poem has not remained unquestioned. Scholars have brought forward linguistic and metrical arguments to prove that we are dealing not with one but with three poems; that source, theme and treatment differ so greatly as to render the assumption of a common authorship for all three incredible, and to reduce us to the necessity of denying authorship by Cynewulf to any but the second part, which is signed by him. Almost the best argument brought forward by these iconoclastic critics is the undoubted fact that Cynewulf’s signature occurs, as a rule, near the conclusion of a poem, not in the middle, and that it does so occur towards the end of the second part. A further valid argument against the unity of the poem might be derived from the theme of the second part. This deals with Christ’s reception in Heaven after His sojourn on earth, and only by some stretch of imagination can the event be looked, upon as parallel to His twofold coming on earth. Yet critics have discovered a link with the first part in a passage definitely refering to Christ’s first advent, and the references to the last judgment in the runic passage have been regarded as an anticipation of the third part. The question is a nice one and is not, at present, capable of solution. If we assume the unity of the poem, Cynewulf is, undoubtedly, the author; if we denty it, we are confronted with the further difficulty of determining the authorship of the first and third parts. From a literary point of view, Crist is, perhaps, the most interesting of Cynewulf’s poems. It illustrates fully the influence of Latin Christianity upon English thought. The subject is derived from Latin homilies and hymns: part I, the advent of Christ, seems to be largely based upon the Roman Breviary, part II upon the ascension sermon of Pope Gregory, part III upon an alphabetic Latin hymn on the last judgment, quoted by Bede in De Arte Metrica. In addition, the Gospel of St. Matthew and Gregory’s tenth homily have furnished suggestions. Yet the poet is no mere versifier of Latin theology. We are confronted, for the first time in English literature, with the product of an original mind. The author has transmuted the material derived from his sources into the passionate out-pourings of personal religious feeling. The doctrines interspersed are, of course, medieval in tone: one of the three signs by which the blessed shall realise their possession of God’s favour is the joy they will derive from the contemplation of the sufferings of the damned. But, for the most part, the poem is a series of choric hymns of praise, of imaginative passages descriptive of visions not less sublime than that of The Dream of the Rood.

Crist is followed immediately in the Exeter Book by the poem entitled Juliana. This is an Old English version of the Acta S. Julianae virginis martyris. The proof of Cynewulfian authorship lies, as has already been said, in the insertion of his name in runes. The martyr is supposed to have lived about the time of the emperor Maximian. She, of course, successfully over- comes all the minor temptations with which she is confronted, including an offer of marriage with a pagan, and, finally, having routed the devil in person, endures martyrdom by the sword.

Equally insignificant considered as poetry, but of the utmost importance as a link in a chain of literary evidence, are the lines known as The Fates of the Apostles. The title sufficiently indicates the contents. The poem is preserved in the Vercelli Book; a codex containing both verse and prose, and, for some unknown reason, in the possession of the chapter of Vercelli, north Italy. The first ninety-five lines, which follow immediately after the poem called Andreas, occupy fol. 52 b—53 b. They were considered an anonymous fragment until Napier discovered that a set of verses on fol. 54 a, which had hitherto been assumed to have no connection with the lines preceding them, were, in reality, a continuation of the lines on fol. 53 and that they contained the name of Cynewulf in runes. The authenticity of Fata Apostolorum was, thereby, raised above dispute; but the gain to Cynewulf’s literary reputation was not great.