It is not certain that Milton ever knew of the existence of the Caedmonian Genesis; for he was blind three years before it was published. But whether he knew of it or not, it is a striking fact that the temper of the Teutonic mind during a thousand years should have changed so little toward the choice and treatment of the subject of an epic, and that the first great poem known to have been written on English soil should in so many points have anticipated the greatest epic of the English race.
Cynewulf is the only great Anglo-Saxon poet who affixed his name to certain poems and thus settled the question of their authorship. We know nothing of his life except what we infer from his poetry. He was probably born near the middle of the eighth century, and it is not unlikely that he passed part of his youth as a thane of some noble. He became a man of wide learning, well skilled in “wordcraft” and in the Christian traditions of the time. Such learning could then hardly have been acquired outside of some monastery whither he may have retired.
[Illustration: ANGLO-SAXON MUSICIANS. Illuminated MS., British Museum.]
In variety, inventiveness, and lyrical qualities, his poetry shows an advance over the Caedmonian cycle. He has a poet’s love for the beauty of the sun and the moon (heofon-condelle), for the dew and the rain, for the strife of the waves (holm-ethroece), for the steeds of the sea (sund-hengestas), and for the “all-green” (eal-gr=ene) earth. “For Cynewulf,” says a critic, “’earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God.’”
Cynewulf has inserted his name in runic characters in four poems: Christ, Elene, Juliana, a story of a Christian martyr, and the least important, The Fates of the Apostles. The Christ, a poem on the Savior’s Nativity, Ascension, and Judgment of the world at the last day, sometimes suggests Dante’s Inferno or Paradiso, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. We see the—
“Flame that welters up and of worms
the fierce aspect,
With the bitter-biting jaws—school of burning creatures."
Cynewulf closes the Christ with almost as beautiful a conception of Paradise as Dante’s or Milton’s,—a conception that could never have occurred to a poet of the warlike Saxon race before the introduction of Christianity:—
“...Hunger is not there nor thirst,
Sleep nor heavy sickness, nor the scorching of the Sun;
Neither cold nor care."
Elene is a dramatic poem, named from its heroine, Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine. A vision of the cross bearing the inscription, “With this shalt thou conquer,” appeared to Constantine before a victorious battle and caused him to send his mother to the Holy Land to discover the true cross. The story of her successful voyage is given in the poem Elene. The miraculous power of the true cross among counterfeits is shown in a way that suggests kinship with the fourteenth century miracle plays. A dead man is brought in contact with the first and the second cross, but the watchers see no divine manifestation until he touches the third cross, when he is restored to life.