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

§ 8. Andreas

Yet critics, anxious to vindicate the claim of our greatest pre-Conquest poet to whatever poetry may seem worthy of him, have tried to twist the occurrence of Cynewulf’s signature in The Fates of the Apostles into an additional plea in favour of his authorship of Andreas, the poem immediately preceding it in the Vercelli Book. This poem deals with the missionary labours of St. Andrew, and is based, probably, upon a lost Latin version of a Greek original (in Paris), the [char] St. Andrew is commanded by God to go to the assistance of St. Matthew, who is in danger of death at the hands of the Mermedonians, cannibal Ethiopians. He sets out in a boat manned by our Lord and two angels. Having landed safely, he becomes of great spiritual comfort to the captive, but is himself taken prisoner and tortured. He delivers himself and converts the Mermedonians by working a miracle. The distinguishing feature of the poem, which links it with passages in Beowulf and The Seafarer, is the skill with which its author gives expression to his passion for the sea. Andreas is a romance of the sea. Nowhere else are to be found such superb descriptions of the raging storm, of the successful struggle of man with the powers of the deep. It illustrates, moreover, in an unusual degree, the blending of the old spirit with the new. St. Andrew, though professedly a Christian saint, is, in reality, a viking; though crusader in name he is more truly a seafarer on adventure bent. The Christ he serves is an aetheling, the apostles are folctogan—captains of the people—and temporal victory, not merely spiritual triumph, is the goal.

Could it be proved that The Fates of the Apostles is merely an epilogue to the longer poem preceding it, the adventures of one of the twelve being related in greater detail than is vouchsafed to them treated collectively, we should be enabled to attribute with greater certainty than is otherwise possible the poem of Andreas to Cynewulf, an author of whom, on aesthetic grounds, it is not unworthy. Its authenticity would then be vouched for by the runic signature contained in the shorter poem. This hypothesis is, however, more ingenious than convincing. The poem Andreas, as it stands, lacks, indeed, as definite a conclusion as many other poems possess; there is, for instance, no finit or “amen” to denote the end, but, unfortunately for the inventors of the hypothesis, The Fates of the Apostles does not lack a beginning; nor are St Andrew’s labours omitted from the general review of the good works done by the twelve, which might possibly have been expected had the author of The Fates of the Apostles also been the author of the longer history of St. Andrew. There is more ground for accepting a theory originated by Sievers with regard to the last sixteen lines of the fragment containing Cynewulf’s signature, discovered by Napier. In the opinion of Sievers these sixteen lines would not only be an inordinately lengthy conclusion to so short a poem as The Fates, but they are superfluous in so far as they are a mere repetition of the lines which had preceded the runic passage. He would, therefore, wish to see in them the conclusion of some lost poem of Cynewulf, and only accidentally attached to The Fates of the Apostles. Upholders of the theory of the Cynewulfian authorship of Andreas might be able to claim them as the missing conclusion to that poem, and the fact of their being attached to a piece of undoubtedly Cynewulfian work might strengthen the attribution of Andreas to our poet. But, after fully weighing the arguments on either side, we must confess that the evidence so far forthcoming does not suffice for a satisfactory solution of the question.

Elene is, undoubtedly, Cynewulf’s masterpiece. The subject is contained in the Acta Sanctorum of 4 May. Grimm also referred to the same subject as occurring in the Legenda aurea of Jacobus a Voragine. It is impossible to decide whether the legend first reached England in a Latin or in an older Greek form. The story is that of the discovery of the true cross by Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine. The search carried to so successful a conclusion was instituted by the emperor in consequence of the famous vision, the sign of a cross in the sky bearing the inscription In hoc signo vinces. Much history hangs upon this tale. Its immediate importance for us is that the conversion of the emperor by this means became the starting-point for the adoration of the cross: the symbol which had hitherto been one of ignominy became one of triumph and glory. The festival of the exaltation of the cross was established in the western church in 701, in consequence of the supposed discovery in Rome of a particle of the true cross. This event is duly recorded by Bede in De sex aetatibus saeculi, the news having, no doubt, been brought to England by Abbot Ceolfrid, who was in Rome at the time. At any rate, if this event be considered too remote to have influenced Cynewulf’s choice of a subject, we may remember that he probably lived through a part of the iconoclastic controversy which raged from 726 to 842, and which contributed perhaps more than anything else to an increased veneration of the cross. Indeed, the poetry of the cross in England has been regarded as the first-fruit of the impetus given to its worship by the condemnation of the worship of all other symbols. The two festivals of the cross, the invention on 3 May and the exaltation on 14 September, were both observed in the old English church.

Cynewulf’s poem on Helena’s search for the true cross is contained in fourteen cantos or “fitts.” It is written in a simple, dramatic style, interspersed with imaginative and descriptive passages of great beauty. The glamour and pomp of war, the gleam of jewels, the joy of ships dancing on the waves, give life and colour to a narrative permeated by the deep and serious purpose of the author. The fifteenth fitt, superfluous from the point of view of the story, is valuable as documentary evidence bearing on the poet’s personality. It contains not only his signature in runes, but is a “fragment of a great confession,” unveiling to us the manner of the man to whom the cross became salvation.

  • “I am old,” he says, “and ready to depart, having woven wordcraft and pondered deeply in the darkness of the world. Once I was gay in the hall and received gifts, appled gold and treasures. Yet was I buffeted with care, fettered by sins, beset with sorrows, until the Lord of all might and power bestowed on me grace and revealed to me the mystery of the holy cross. Now know I that the joys of life are fleeting, and that the Judge of all the world is at hand to deal to every man his doom.”
  • Two useful deductions may be made from this passage. In the first place, the poet was evidently advanced in age when he composed this poem, a point already alluded to; in the second, he ascribes his conversion to a true understanding of the cross. In other poems, notably Crist, Cynewulf reveals an almost equal veneration for the symbol of man’s redemption.