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Around Cynewulf

martes, 23 de septiembre de 2014

Around Cynewulf

From the chapter on "Anglo-Saxon Literature" in David Daiches's Critical History of English Literature:
ruthwell cross

In the same manuscript that contains the two Genesis poems, Exodus and Daniel, there is found also an untitled religious poem which is now generally called Christ and Satan. This shows an Anglo-Saxon poet working not directly from biblical sources but from a variety of Christian traditions. Here we get a picture of Satan in Hell which represents him not as the defiant spirit of Genesis B but as a lost soul lamenting bitterly his exclusion from the joys of Heaven. He is given several speeches, each with considerable elegiac eloquence; the author is clearly concerned to emphasize the difference between Heaven and Hell and the different results of following Christ and following Satan. The latter part of the poem concentrates on Christ, though at the very end, after an account of Satan's temptation of Christ in the wilderness, we return to Satan in his frustration.

Christ and Satan seems to have been influenced by the school of Cynewulf, a poet who may have flourished early in the ninth century and who is the first Anglo-Saxon poet to sign his work (by means of runic letters woven into the poem). Four of Cynewulf's poems are extant, all showing a more self-conscious craftsmanship than is found in the Caedmonian poems and suggesting in style and structure the influence of classical models. The heroic strain, so successfully transplanted from the older poetry in such a poem as Exodus, is lacking in Cynewulf, and in its place we find a more meditative and contemplative tone. The four Anglo-Saxon Christian poems which have the name of Cynewulf worked into them in acrostic form are Christ, Juliana, Elene, and The Fates of the Apostles. All these poems possess both a high degree of literary craftsmanship and a note of mystical contemplation which sometimes rises to a high level of religious passion. The story of Christ as told in the poem of that title draws on a variety of ecclesiastical and patristic sources, but it handles its subject—the Advent, the Ascension, and the Last Judgment (5) —with an intensity all its own. The dialogue between Mary and Joseph in the first part, brief though it is, shows a real feeling for the dramatic situation, and is, besides, the earliest extant dramatic passage in English literature. Juliana is a more conventional work, a typical saint's life, following its Latin prose source without any significant deviation, while Elene is the story of the discovery of the true cross by St. Helena, mother of Constantine, told with a keen sense of the wonder of it all and a relish for the romantic suggestions of distant scenes and places. The Fates of the Apostles is a short poem of one hundred and twenty-two lines (and may be the concluding part of Andreas,  which it follows in the manuscript: if so, then Andreas, too, is by Cynewulf, for The Fates of the Apostles contains the runic signature). The author is here meditating on the adventures of the various apostles after they dispersed to spread the Gospel, but its interest for the modern reader lies largely in the personal passages. Its opening shows an interesting mutation of the heroic into the personal elegiac strain: "Lo, weary of wandering, sad in spirit, I made this song, gathered it from far and wide, of how the bright and glorious heroes showed forth their courage."

With Cynewulf, Anglo-Saxon religious poetry moves beyond biblical paraphrase into the didactic, the devotional, and the mystical. These qualities are also exhibited by many of the religious poems which seem to have been written under his influence. The most remarkable of these is The Dream of the Rood, fragments of which are to be found inscribed in runic letters on the Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire, Scotland (probably an early eighth century version, pre-Cynewulf), while the complete poem exists in the Vercelli Book, in a much later version (probably late ninth century). The tone of the complete version as we have it suggests that the earlier version had been afterward adapted by a poet of the school of Cynewulf, perhaps even by Cynewulf himself. It is the oldest surviving English poem in the form of a dream or vision—a form which was later to be used for such a variety of purposes. The dreamer tells how he saw a vision of the bright cross, brilliantly adorned with gems, and goes on to tell the speech that he heard it utter. The speech of the cross, in which it tells of its origin in the forest, its removal to be made into a cross for "The Master of mankind," its horror at the role it had to play but its determination to stand fast because that was God's command, the suffering of "the young Hero" who ascends the cross resolutely in order to redeem mankind—all this is done in verse charged with a simple eloquence and sustaining a high note of religious passion and wonder. The speech ends with an exhortation to each soul to "seek through the cross the kingdom which is far from earth," and the poem then concludes with the dreamer's account of his own religious hopes. Other poems associated with the school of Cynewulf are Andreas, which tells of the adventures, sufferings, and evangelical successes of St. Andrew, with deliberate emphasis on the wonderful and the picturesque, and a perhaps excessive exploitation of the rhetorical devices of Anglo-Saxon poetry (the source of the poem is a Latin rendering of the apocryphal Greek Acts of Andrew and Matthew); two poems on the life of the English hermit St. Guthlac; The Phoenix, of which the first part, deriving from the Latin poem De Ave Phoenice, attributed to Lactantius, describes an earthly paradise in the East, the beauty of the phoenix, its flight to Syria after it has lived for a thousand years to build its nest, die, and be reborn, while the second half takes the phoenix as an allegory both of the life of the virtuous in this world and the next and as a symbol of Christ; and following The Phoenix in the Exeter Book—a poem entitled Physiologus or Bestiary which belongs to the popular medieval literary form of beast allegories, where real or (more often) imaginary qualities of animals are given a moral application. Physiologus, which derives ultimately from a Greek original, is incomplete, and deals with the panther, the whale and, incompletely, the partridge. It has the same lushness of descriptive style that is found in The Phoenix, and its natural history is equally fabulous. The whale is given the charming name of Fastitocalon—a corruption of Aspidochelone, originally applied to the turtle.

Finally, there falls to be mentioned among significant Anglo-Saxon religious poems the fragmentary Judith, of which only the concluding sections survive, in the same manuscript that contains Beowulf. The poem is a version of the Vulgate text of the apocryphal book of Judith, and the extant portion tells in vigorous and rapidly moving verse of Judith's beheading of the drunken Holofernes after his confident feasting, her rallying of the Hebrews to attack the Assyrians, the consternation of the Assyrians on discovering Holofernes' headless body, the rout of the Assyrians by the Hebrews, and Judith's triumph and praise to God. Judith possesses a fierce energy in describing the death of Holofernes and the defeat of the Assyrians, a note of positive jubilation, which is quite different from anything in the older heroic poetry. In fluidity of movement the verse form shows itself to be fairly late, and the poem may date from the end of the ninth century or possibly even later.

(5). Some scholars maintain that only the second part, to which they give the title of The Ascension (or Christ B) is by Cynewulf, for only this part contains Cynewulf's name in runic characters. The other two parts they consider to be seaparate poems, giving one the title of The Advent (or Natitivy, or Christ A) and the other the title of Doomsday C (or Christ C), grouping it together with two other poems on the Last Judgment which they call Doomsday A and Doomsday B respectively.

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