There are only a few Old English poets known by name, and Cynewulf (pronounced “kin-eh-wolf”) is one of them. We can definitively ascribe four poems to him, which may not seem like a lot, but these four poems together comprise several thousand lines of poetry. There are a couple more which are possibly his, including The Dream of The Rood, which I blogged about here.
It is difficult to determine exactly when Cynewulf lived. His poems appear in two of the manuscripts that survive from the Early Medieval period, the Exeter and Vercelli books, both of which are a collection of poems and other works. These date to the second half of the tenth century, so we know he lived before then. Dates as early as the 8th century and as late as the 9th are given as to when he actually lived and wrote his poems, with perhaps more credence being given to the 9th century dates, for reasons I don’t have space to catalogue here.
Little is known about the poet himself, but he does leave a few clues behind. First of all, linguistic evidence in his poems tells us they are written in the Anglian dialect of the Anglo-Saxon language (our Old English), as opposed to the Saxon dialect. Therefore scholars believe that he lived in Northumbria, and possibly Mericia,. The Saxon dialect was more prominent in Wessex and Kent.
Secondly, he was a learned man, as we see a high level of sophistication in his poetry. As the poems are religious in nature, he was likely a monk or priest. That he came from the Church is also surmised by the fact that his poems referenced other Latin works, and only the people in holy orders knew Latin.
Scholars disagree as to who, exactly, Cynewulf was. His name is of Anglo-Saxon origin, so he was likely not a Celt. There was a Bishop of Lindisfarne named Cynewulf, who died around 780 A.D., who is named as a likely candidate. Others postulate he could be a priest of that name who lived in Dunwich in the 800s, or even Cenwulf, the Abbot of Petersborough, who died in 1006 AD. But this is all speculation, based upon these figures having the same name and living Northumbria or Mercia, so we can’t say for certain.
From the autobiographical epilogues in the poems, we know that at one point in his life he enjoyed the favour of princes and the gifts of kings. He could have been a thegn or a high-ranking scop. Scholars also presume he was a warrior at some point, and as well that he knew much about sea travel, based on the content of his poems. Other than these tantalizing tidbits, we do not know anything about the poet himself.
You might wonder how we know that four poems in particular, namely, Juliana, Christ II (both found in the Exeter Book), Elene, and the Fates of the Apostles (both found in the Vercelli Book), were actually written by Cynewulf. Well, it’s simple. He signed his name to them.
Not just any old signature, though. In the poems’ epilogues in which he gave some of the story of his life and asked for prayers, he included a runic acrostic containing the letters c, y, n, (e), w,u,l,f. The “e” is not included in all four signatures.
Runes are the characters used in Anglo-Saxon writing. In the poems these runes both spell his name and stand for a word, so it is not necessarily easy to see that he has signed his name to the poems. However, he does leave us a clue, for in one of the epilogues he says, Here anyone who takes pleasure in songs, if he is sharp of mind, may discover who composed these verses.
The Vercelli Book languished in a dark corner of the Capitulary Library of Vercelli, in northern Italy, until it was re-discovered in the late 1800s and translated by scholars. One of these, John Kemble, is credited with discovering Cynewulf’s acrostic signature in one of the poems and subsequently it was found in the other three as well.
Interestingly, this is thought to be the first “signed” work in English literature. Previous to this, writers of such works preferred to remain anonymous, so as to give God all the glory for their acts of creativity. However we shouldn’t assume that by signing his name Cynewulf sought personal glory. He states that he wished others to pray for him, thus perhaps emphasizing spiritual rewards rather than material ones for his work.
The four poems are written in the typical alliterative style of Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as Beowulf. Elene is the longest poem, comprised of 1,321 lines, and it is about the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. It not all poetry, it also contains a prose section. It is thought to be his finest work, and because of that, some speculate it is the last one of the four to be written, but of course we do not know this for sure. Juliana (731 lines), is another hagiographic poem, about St. Juliana, who was martyred for refusing to marry a pagan man. Christ II (427 lines), also known as the Ascension, is a meditation on a sermon given by Pope Gregory, on the resurrection of Christ. It is the second part of a trilogy on the advent, ascension, and second coming of Christ, all of which are by different authors. The Fates of the Apostles (122 lines), is a poetic telling of the life and death of the twelve apostles of Christ.
Aside from the hidden runic acrostic signature, which I think is pretty cool, the other cool thing about Cynewulf is that he is responsible for one of the most iconic terms in our modern day. As many of you know, J.R.R. Tolkien, aside from being an author, was first and foremost an Anglo-Saxon scholar. He, of course, was very familiar with Cynewulf and his poems, and it is in the poem Christ II where he found the term middangeard, which translates as, “middle-earth”.
The lines read:
Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, above the middle-earth sent unto men, and true radiance of the sun, bright above the stars – thou of thy very self illuminest for every season!
Very Tolkien-esque, no? Earendel can be translated, “radiance of the dawn”, and is a reference to John the Baptist in the poem. But these words had a profound effect on Tolkien, inspiring him to write the “Lost Voyage of Earendel” in 1916, where the character Earendel is transformed into a voyager who carries the morning star on his brow across the sky.
Amazing that this long-dead, obscure poet could still have such a profound impact on our culture today. I’m sure he would be stunned if he knew.
But maybe he does. Perhaps Tolkien and he have had great discussions in the world beyond this world. I’d like to think so!
This post is one of a continuing series on Anglo-Saxon literature. You can see the other posts by clicking the following links:
Featured image is the Exeter Book, from Wikicommons