Of Cynewulf, greatest of the Anglo-Saxon poets, excepting only the unknown author of Beowulf, we know very little. Indeed, it was not till 1840, more than a thousand years after his death, that even his name became known. Though he is the only one of our early poets who signed his works, the name was never plainly written, but woven into the verses in the form of secret runes, suggesting a modern charade, but more difficult of interpretation until one has found the key to the poet's signature.
The only signed poems of Cynewulf are The Christ, Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles, and Elene. Unsigned poems attributed to him or his school are Andreas, the Phoenix, the Dream of the Rood, the Descent into Hell, Guthlac, the Wanderer, and some of the Riddles. The last are simply literary conundrums in which some well-known object, like the bow or drinking horn, is described in poetic language, and the hearer must guess the name. Some of them, like "The Swan"and "The Storm Spirit," are unusually beautiful.
Of all these works the most characteristic is undoubtedly The Christ, a didactic poem in three parts: the first celebrating the Nativity; the second, the Ascension; and the third, "Doomsday," telling the torments of the wicked and the unending joy of the redeemed. Cynewulf takes his subject-matter partly from the Church liturgy, but more largely from the homilies of Gregory the Great. The whole is well woven together, and contains some hymns of great beauty and many passages of intense dramatic force. Throughout the poem a deep love for Christ and a reverence for the Virgin Mary are manifest. More than any other poem in any language, The Christ reflects the spirit of early Latin Christianity.
Here is a fragment comparing life to a sea voyage,--a comparison which occurs sooner or later to every thoughtful person, and which finds perfect expression in Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar."
Now 'tis most like as if we fare in ships
On the ocean flood, over the water cold,
Driving our vessels through the spacious seas
With horses of the deep. A perilous way is this
Of boundless waves, and there are stormy seas
On which we toss here in this (reeling) world
O'er the deep paths. Ours was a sorry plight
Until at last we sailed unto the land,
Over the troubled main. Help came to us
That brought us to the haven of salvation,
God's Spirit-Son, and granted grace to us
That we might know e'en from the vessel's deck
Where we must bind with anchorage secure
Our ocean steeds, old stallions of the waves.
In the two epic poems of Andreas and Elene Cynewulf (if he be the author) reaches the very summit of his poetical art. Andreas, an unsigned poem, records the story of St. Andrew, who crosses the sea to rescue his comrade St. Matthew from the cannibals. A young ship-master who sails the boat turns out to be Christ in disguise, Matthew is set free, and the savages are converted by a miracle. It is a spirited poem, full of rush and incident, and the descriptions of the sea are the best in Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Elene has for its subject-matter the finding of the true cross. It tells of Constantine's vision of the Rood, on the eve of battle. After his victory under the new emblem he sends his mother Helena (Elene) to Jerusalem in search of the original cross and the nails. The poem, which is of very uneven quality, might properly be put at the end of Cynewulf's works. He adds to the poem a personal note, signing his name in runes; and, if we accept the wonderful "Vision of the Rood" as Cynewulf's work, we learn how he found the cross at last in his own heart. There is a suggestion here of the future Sir Launfal and the search for the Holy Grail.
DECLINE OF NORTHUMBRIAN LITERATURE
The same northern energy which had built up learning and literature so rapidly in Northumbria was instrumental in pulling it down again. Toward the end of the century in which Cynewulf lived, the Danes swept down on the English coasts and overwhelmed Northumbria. Monasteries and schools were destroyed; scholars and teachers alike were put to the sword, and libraries that had been gathered leaf by leaf with the toil of centuries were scattered to the four winds. So all true Northumbrian literature perished, with the exception of a few fragments, and that which we now possess] is largely a translation in the dialect of the West Saxons. This translation was made by Alfred's scholars, after he had driven back the Danes in an effort to preserve the ideals and the civilization that had been so hardly won. With the conquest of Northumbria ends the poetic period of Anglo-Saxon literature. With Alfred the Great of Wessex our prose literature makes a beginning.