Anglo-Saxon Christian Poetry | Old English Religious Poetry

Anglo-Saxon Christian Poetry | Old English Religious Poetry

Old English Religious Poetry


With the coming of Christianity there took place a radical transformation in the life of the English people. Christianity was established in England by a process of slow assimilation. In literature at first there was only an intermingling of Christian and pagan elements but later poets started writing on exclusively Christian themes, deriving their material from the Bible and the lives of the saints. This religious poetry may be divided into two sections:

  • the Caedmon group and
  • the Cynewulf group.


In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People Bede narrates the story of the lay brother Caedmon who lived in the monastery of Whitby He was a tongue-tied and unlettered herdsman who would leave the feast in embarrassment when he saw the harp coming near him and go home. Once he had left such a banquet and going to the cattle -stall had fallen asleep. Then a being appeared to him and bade him sing. When he answered, ‘I cannot sing’, He spoke to him again and said, ‘Nevertheless thou canst sing to me.’ When Caedmon asked what he should sing he said, ‘Sing me the Creation’.

Then Caedmon began to sing verses which he had never heard before. When he awoke he remembered these verses and sang many more. He was received into the monastery by the Abbess Hilda and there he passed his life creating poetry. He died in 680 A.D.

Caedmon sang of the creation of the world, of the origin of man. the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, their entrance into the Promised I and, of the Incarnation, Passion and Ascension of Christ, the coming of the Holy Ghost, the teaching of the apostles etc.

Old English Poems Examples

A group of four poems is attributed to Caedmon. These are (1) Genesis (2) Exodus, (3) Daniel and (4) Christ and Satan

But it is not impossible that the nine-line hymn quoted by Bede are the only authentic lines by Caedmon, while the rest are by his imitators. All these poems are contained in a manuscript in the Bodleian Library.

(i) Genesis

Originally of 3000 lines, this was roughly a paraphrase of the Bible. In 1875 the German scholar Sievers detected two kinds of style and assumed that lines 235-851 were perhaps an interpolation of the lost Germanic paraphrase of the Old Testament. He was proved right when in 1894 this German work was found in the Vatican Library. It is not known how Genesis B came to be interpolated in Genesis A. The poet of Genesis A merely gives a faithful rendering of the Biblical narrative.

Genesis B or Later Genesis, the superior German interpolation is a beautiful poem with attempts at characterization and analysis of motive. It has striking resemblances with Milton’s Paradise Lost. However, it is only nominally a religious poem as the ego-centric spirit of Heroic poetry seems to dominate.

(ii) Exodus

This gives a forceful description of the Egyptian disaster at Red sca, the pursuit and defeat of the Egyptians etc. The ‘Surges of battle’ are described with the Heroic vigour of Pagan Germany. The author of Exodus is given to opulence of detail which s aims at grandeur but misses sublimity.

(iii) Daniel

Here the poet follows his biblical source closely, and seems to use his matter for homiletic purposes. It is less interesting than Exodus but the song of praise is full of eloquence.

(iv) Christ and Satan

This is in three parts, dealing with the Fall of the Angels, Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and Christ’s Temptation respectively. It has a strong religious fervour. The apostles of Christ remind one of Beowulf’s companions.

(v) Judith

This 350-line fragment is also sometimes attributed to Caedmon. It is found in the Beowulf manuscript, probably dating from the ninth century. It describes the banquet in Assyrian camp, the bringing of Judith to the drunken Holofernes, her beheading of him and escape, and the defeat and flight of the Assyrians. The language is opulent and the tone is one of passion.


Apart from these Caedmonian poems, most of the religious poetry has at one time or another been ascribed to a poet, or to his school, named Cynewulf./Four poems contain Cynewulf’s signature in runic characters. These arc (i) Juliana, (ii) Christ, (ii) Elene and (iv) The Fates of the Apostles.

The other poems attributed to him are (v) Andreas, (vi) The Phoenix, (vii) The Dream of the Road and (viii) Guthlac.

Very little is known about Cynewulf, the man. He was probably born between 720 and 730 A.D. in Northumbria. In earlier life a Wandering gleeman and a pleasure-lover, he first started writing The Riddles. Then converted by a vision of the cross, as he himself describes in The Dream of the Road, he dedicated himself to religious themes.

(i) Juliana

This is a typical story of Christian martyrdom, it closely follows the Latin prose source.

(ii) Christ

This poem falls into three parts dealing respectively with the Advent, the Ascension and Doomsday. Some critics feel that the separate parts are written by separate authors and Cynewulf is the composer only of the part which contains his name in runic letters. The dialogue between Mary and Joseph in Part I is one of the earliest dramatic scenes in English literature.

(iii) Elene

This deals with the finding of the cross by Helena, mother of Constantine. The poem offers plenty of scope for traditional descriptive element so that native verse falls into an epic mood.

(iv) The Fates of the Apostles

This contains merely a list of the apostles with a brief description of the work and death of each.

(v) Andreas

This poem of 1722 lines is the story of St. Andrew 34 who at the command of God, crosses the sea in a boat piloted by Christ in disguise in order to deliver St. Matthew. The poem is highly romantic. The description of the storm is pagan in nature and St. Andrew appears to be more a Viking than a Christian saint.

Juliana, Elene and Andreas are all exotic saints, having about them an oriental element of the marvellous which the Anglo-Saxon 46 imagination found seductive. In these poems ‘the web of the Byzantine romances is studded with heavy Anglo-Saxon jewellery’, as a critic puts it.

(vi) The Phoenix

This poem, though attributed to Caedmon, is M of uncertain authorship. The first half of the poem describing the Earthly Paradise, the beauty of the bird, its flight to the palm tree in Syria when full of years, the building of its nest, its death and new birth is derived from a Latin poem De Ave Phoenice attributed to Lactantius. However, the English poet has made changes. The second half of the poem is not based on Lactantius It embodies very old beliefs and traditions. Early Christian writers adapted the phoenix both as a symbol and proof of resurrection and as a symbol of Christ.

(vii) The Dream of the Rood

This poem of 156 lines is found in the tenth century Vercelli Book. It is the most beautiful of Old English religious poetry and contains the description of the poet’s vision of the Cross, and the address to him, by the cross describing the Crucifixion, a homiletic address to the dreamer by the cross and a declaration of faith and confidence in heaven by the dreamer.

There has been much debate about the coherence of the poem. Probably it was composed is one piece drawing on an earlier Cross prosopopoeia related to the tradition of riddles in English and Latin. The poem is notable for the simple devout wonder of the dreamer and the ingenious web of imagery.

(viii) Guthlac

This is in two parts Guthlac A and Guthlac B and deals with the life and death of St. Guthlac of Mercia. Guthlac B is a close copy of the Latin Vita Sancti Guthlaci by Felix of Croyland; and is written in a more elaborate Cynewulfian style than Guthlac A.

(ix) Physiologus

These poems on the panther and the whale follow The Phoenix in the Exeter Book and use natural history for purposes of moral instruction. They belong to a very popular branch of medieval literature. The earliest form of these accounts was probably the Greek Bestiary, now lost. There are versions in many languages.

Among minor religious poems are (x) The Soul’s Address to the Bady, (xi) The Arts of Men, (xii) The Fates of Men etc.

Importance of Christian Poetry

This poetry is of unequal value. While poems like Genesis B and The Dream of the Rood are finished works of art, very often it is merely lifeless moralizing in conventional phrases.

What is interesting is that this poetry continues to demonstrate a blend of Christian and pagan elements. Through the themes are Biblical and taken from the lives of saints the old stylistic devices are merely adapted to new subjects. Thus in Genesis B the fallen Satan is described in terms suiting a Germanic chieftain. The poet describing St. Andrew’s mission to Mermadonior recalls Beowulf’s mission to Hrothgar. Andreas shows the same pagan passion for the sea as seen in The Sea-farer or Beowulf. In The Dream of the Road Christ is the young hero’ and his disciples are the faithful warriors. In Judith the feast of Holofernes recalls the feasts given by Hrothgar in honour of Beowulf. The exultation with which the poet describes the killing of Holofernes is near-pagan.

Caedmon and Cynewulf: a comparative study

Caedmon had a natural poetical instinct and his poems are a spontaneous outpouring, Cynewulf, on the other hand, seems to have cultivated his poetic talent and his poems are much more scholarly compositions. While Cardmon’s poems are basically narrative, Cynewulf’s poems are much more lyrical and artistic. They have greater powers of expression, exuberance of language and prolix felicity of versification. It is from him that we get the Dream of the Rood, the most beautiful Old English religious poem.

While Caedmon takes his themes from the Old Testament, Cynewulf derives his from the New Testament. In Caedmon the heroic strain and pagan spirit still dominate, Cynewulf’s poetry is more Christian in spirit. While Cynewulf is more imaginative and artistic, Caedmon is more dramatic. Some critics feel that the dramatic quality and characterization in Judith is unequalled by anything in Anglo-Saxon poetry. But Cynewulf has a greater desire for stylistic effect, a more assured handling of material and greater individuality of approach and feeling.

2 thoughts on “Anglo-Saxon Christian Poetry | Old English Religious Poetry”

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