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Outlines of English and American Literature|
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
"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.