Old English Christian Poetry

Religious poetry seems to have flourished in northern England-Northumbria-throughout the eighth century, though most of it has survived only in West Saxon transcriptions of the late tenth century. Much of it consists of retellings of books and episodes from the Old Testament. Much of this religious poetry is anonymous, but the names of two poets are known: CAEDMON (d. c. 670), the first English poet known by name, and CYNEWULF (late eighth or early ninth century).

 There was a myth which says that Caedmon was originally an ignorant person who suddenly god divine intervention. Unfortunately, Cædmon's only known surviving work is Cædmon's Hymn, the nine- line alliterative vernacular praise poem in honour of God which he supposedly learned to sing in his initial dream. The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English.

We know from Bede’s History that Cædmon is supposed to have written verses with subjects drawn from Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels, but none of the surviving poems on these subjects can now be safely ascribed to a named poet. The verses known as Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Judith are much more than straightforward paraphrases of Scripture. Genesis, for example, opens with a grand justification of the propriety of praising the Lord of Hosts and moves to a lengthy, and non-Scriptural, account of the fall of the angels. Much of the poem is framed around the idea

of a vast struggle between the principles of good and evil. Military metaphors also run through Exodus which treats the struggle of the Jews and the Egyptians as an armed conflict in which the departing Jews triumph. Its apparent poetic sequel, Daniel, emphasizes the force of divine intervention in human affairs and perhaps reflects the prominent use of Old Testament stories of deliverance in the ceremonies and liturgies of Holy Week and Easter. Christ himself is portrayed as a warrior battling against the forces of darkness in Christ and Satan, a poem which ranges from a further rehearsal of the story of the fall of the angels, through a description of the Harrowing of Hell, to the Saviour’s Resurrection and Ascension (though the story of the gradual victory over Satan reaches its climax in an account of the temptation in the wilderness). Judith, a fragmentary poem which survives in the Beowulf manuscript, has a valiant female warrior as its protagonist. Judith, the chaste defender of Israel, struggles as much against a monster of depravity (in the form of the invader, Holofernes) as does Beowulf against Grendel and his kin. The poems based on apocryphal saints’ lives also suggest the degree to which the modes, metaphors, and language of secular

heroic verse could be adapted to the purposes of Christian epic. In Andreas, a decidedly militant St Andrew journeys across the sea to rescue his fellow apostle St Matthew from imprisonment and, somewhat more extraordinarily, from the threat of being eaten by the anthropophagi of Mermedonia.

 

 According to Bede Caedmon became the founder of a school of Christian poetry and that he was the first to use the traditional metre diction for Christian religious poetry. This period of Old English poetry is called "Caedmonian".

 

All the old religious poems that were not assigned to Caedmon were invariably given to Cynewulf, the poet of the second phase of Old English Christian poetry. With Cynewulf, Anglo-Saxon religious poetry moves beyond biblical paraphrase into the didactic, the devotional, and the mystical.

 

The four Anglo-Saxon Christian poems which have the name of Cynewulf are Christ, Juliana, Elene, and The Fates of the Apostles. The Fates of the Apostles recounts the missionary journeys and martyrdoms of the ‘twelve men of noble heart’, Christ’s disciples being cast in the roles of hardy Nordic heroes. Elene is the story of St Helena’s discovery of the True Cross, and Juliana is the history of a Roman virgin martyr. 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.

 

To many modern readers, unaccustomed to the stately piety of the saints’ life tradition, by far the most profound, moving, and intellectually sophisticated of the specifically Christian poems is The Dream of the Rood. The shape of the poem, which describes a vision of Christ’s cross (the Rood), has a fluid daring which is, at times, almost surreal in its play with paradox and its fascination with metamorphosis. The Dream of the Rood plays with the great paradoxes of the Christian religion, but its play is more profound and more concrete than that of the elusive quizzicality of a riddle. It presents its readers with an icon, a paradoxical sign which requires interpretation and which is finally merged with the meaning that it signifies. There are few more impressive religious poems in English.

 

It will be hardly an exaggeration if we say that Old English Religious poetry is almost synonymous to Christian poetry. But the unique feature among these poems is that in spite of their religious fervor they retained some aspects of Anglo-Saxon characteristics.

Last modified: Wednesday, 5 July 2017, 1:46 AM