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Outlines of English and American Literature
Cynewulf
by Long, William J.


There is a variety of poems belonging to the Cynewulf Cycle, and of some of these Cynewulf (born cir. 750) was certainly the author, since he wove his name into the verses in the manner of an acrostic. Of Cynewulf's life we know nothing with certainty; but from various poems which are attributed to him, and which undoubtedly reflect some personal experience, scholars have constructed the following biography,--which may or may not be true.

In his early life Cynewulf was probably a wandering scop of the old pagan kind, delighting in wild nature, in adventure, in the clamor of fighting men. To this period belong his "Riddles" [Footnote: These riddles are ancient conundrums, in which some familiar object, such as a bow, a ship, a storm lashing the shore, the moon riding the clouds like a Viking's boat, is described in poetic language, and the last line usually calls on the hearer to name the object described. See Cook and Tinker, Translations from Old English Poetry.] and his vigorous descriptions of the sea and of battle, which show hardly a trace of Christian influence. Then came trouble to Cynewulf, perhaps in the ravages of the Danes, and some deep spiritual experience of which he writes in a way to remind us of the Puritan age:

    "In the prison of the night I pondered with myself. I was stained
    with my own deeds, bound fast in my sins, hard smitten with
    sorrows, walled in by miseries."


A wondrous vision of the cross, "brightest of beacons," shone suddenly through his darkness, and led him forth into light and joy. Then he wrote his "Vision of the Rood" and probably also Juliana and The Christ. In the last period of his life, a time of great serenity, he wrote Andreas, a story of St. Andrew combining religious instruction with extraordinary adventure; Elene, which describes the search for the cross on which Christ died, and which is a prototype of the search for the Holy Grail; and other poems of the same general kind. [Footnote: There is little agreement among scholars as to who wrote most of these poems. The only works to which Cynewulf signs his name are The Christ, Elene, Juliana and Fates of the Apostles. All others are doubtful, and our biography of Cynewulf is largely a matter of pleasant speculation.] Aside from the value of these works as a reflection of Anglo-Saxon ideals, they are our best picture of Christianity as it appeared in England during the eighth and ninth centuries.

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