The Old English poems attributed to Cynewulf, who flourished some time between the eighth and tenth centuries, are unusual because most vernacular poems in this period are anonymous. Other than the name, we have no biographical details of Cynewulf, not even the most basic facts of where or when he lived. Yet the poems themselves attest to a powerfully inventive imagination, deeply learned in Christian doctrine and traditional verse-craft.Runic letters spelling out the name Cynewulf appear in four poems: Christ II (or The Ascension), Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles, and Elene. To these a fifth can be added, Guthlac B, because of similarities in style and vocabulary, but any signature (if one ever existed) has been lost because its ending lines are missing. What characterizes Cynewulf’s poetry? He reveals an expert control of structure as shown from the changes he makes to his Latin sources. He has a flair for extended similes and dramatic dialogue. In Christ II, for example, the major events in Christ’s life are portrayed as vigorous leaps. In Juliana the force of the saint’s rhetoric utterly confounds a demon sent to torment her.
The twenty-five poems and eleven metrical charms in this Old English volume offer tantalizing insights into the mental landscape of the Anglo-Saxons. The Wanderer and The Seafarer famously combine philosophical consolation with introspection to achieve a spiritual understanding of life as a journey. The Wife’s Lament, The Husband’s Message, and Wulf and Eadwacer direct a subjective lyrical intensity on the perennial themes of love, separation, and the passion for vengeance. From suffering comes wisdom, and these poems find meaning in the loss of fortune and reputation, exile, and alienation. “Woe is wondrously clinging; clouds glide,” reads a stoic, matter-of-fact observation in Maxims II on nature’s indifference to human suffering. Another form of wisdom emerges in the form of folk remedies, such as charms to treat stabbing pain, cysts, childbirth, and nightmares of witch-riding caused by a dwarf. The enigmatic dialogues of Solomon and Saturn combine scholarly erudition and proverbial wisdom. Learning of all kinds is celebrated, including the meaning of individual runes in The Rune Poem and the catalog of legendary heroes in Widsith.This book is a welcome complement to the previously published DOML volume Old English Shorter Poems, Volume I: Religious and Didactic.
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