15.02.06, Bjork, ed. and trans., The Old English Poems of Cynewulf

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Renée R. Trilling

The Medieval Review 15.02.06

Bjork, Robert E., ed. and trans.. The Old English Poems of Cynewulf. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 23. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. xxi, 266. ISBN: 9780674072633 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Renée R. Trilling
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library sets out to do for medieval literature what Loeb did for the classics: to put affordable, reliable editions and translations of key medieval texts into the hands of a wide variety of English-speaking readers. Robert Bjork's edition and translation of The Poems of Cynewulf is a welcome addition to this effort. The volume gathers together five texts that are scattered across the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book and that have previously been treated mostly in standalone editions, giving readers the rare opportunity to appreciate them side-by-side. Its affordability alone makes it a valuable teaching text, especially for those of us whose choices for a medieval literature syllabus are frequently dictated not by what we would like to teach, but rather by what we can reasonably ask our students to pay for their books. The volume itself is handsomely produced with a sturdy hardcover binding, rich gold dust jacket, and ribbon page marker. At approximately 8x5 inches, the volume is pleasantly portable as well as beautiful. The fact that these editions and translations are also clear and a delight to read is an added bonus.

Bjork's introduction succinctly lays out the most important points of Cynewulf scholarship as background to reading the poems. As one of the only named authors in the Old English poetic canon, Cynewulf's work offers scholars of Old English the rare opportunity to consider the body of work of a single author. Whether this approach is justified by the textual tradition may be a matter for debate, but it is certainly one that Bjork's volume encourages us to take. Cynewulf's oeuvre traditionally consists of four poems: two in the Exeter Book, Christ II and Juliana, and two in the Vercelli Book, Fates of the Apostles and Elene. These four poems share the unusual feature of a runic signature in their closing lines, where the runes spell out variations on the name "Cynewulf," providing grounds for these four poems to be considered the work of a single author named Cynewulf. Who precisely Cynewulf was, or where or when precisely he lived and wrote, remain open questions, but the idea of a named Anglo-Saxon author so captured the imagination of scholars that at one point no less than twelve Old English poems were confidently assigned to Cynewulf's authorship. Bjork's edition limits itself to the four with runic signatures and adds a third Exeter Book poem, Guthlac B, whose style and diction are very similar to the other four poems, and whose missing final lines may well have contained their own runic signature. The poems, like most Anglo-Saxon texts, are undated, but scholars agree that they were composed sometime between 750 and 1000 AD.

Clarity and simplicity are the real strengths of the volume. Both Old English and modern English versions of each text are presented in an uncluttered, unannotated format; endnotes following the texts offer some explanations of editorial and translation choices, but even these are remarkably spare and restrained. This makes the volume ideal for both casual reading and as an introductory teaching text; readers can work through the Old English text without the distraction of an extensive editorial apparatus, aided by a translation that takes very few liberties with the original. Bjork has chosen to work as closely as possible with the syntax of the original, eschewing colloquial expression in favor of a more formal tone that, to my mind, conveys a stronger sense of the Old English poetry's style and flavor. The reader is thus able to apprehend and admire the structural parallels and variations that are so characteristic of Old English verse, and the layout allows for easy comparison of the translation with the original text on the facing page. Heroic diction emerges clearly as a hallmark of Cynewulf's style; he invites readers into the world of the meadhall with opening lines such as "Indeed, we have heard men, bold in deeds, / declare and proclaim what happened in the days of / Maximian..." in Juliana and the simple, yet iconic, "Hwæt [Listen]" that launches Fates of the Apostles (79, 130-131). The words and deeds of saint and apostles take on the cast of Germanic warrior culture through evocations of loyalty to one's lord in Guthlac B and defiance of one's enemies in Elene. Throughout, the very human challenges of living in the world yet remaining steadfast in faith give Cynewulf's work a depth and honesty that has resonated with readers for more than a thousand years.

The very brief notes on the text and translations allow readers to place editorial choices within the larger context of textual scholarship and the poetic tradition; for example, the translation notes offer concise, yet thorough explanations of the different meanings for each rune, so that the reader can recognize the complexity of the runic signatures and make an independent choice about how to interpret them. This minimalist apparatus renders the volume unsuitable for detailed or advanced study of Cynewulf's poems, and for some readers this will be a drawback. Bjork quite rightly directs readers to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and to editions of the individual poems for those purposes (237). What remains is a text that is clear, easy to navigate, and thus ideal for the purposes of casual reading or ready reference.

Although we cannot be certain when, where, or even by whom the poems of Cynewulf were first written, it is abundantly clear that they have found admiring audiences among both scholars and casual readers since they were first committed to manuscript in the late tenth century. Robert Bjork's Dumbarton Oaks edition will ensure that The Old English Poems of Cynewulf find an even wider audience among twenty-first-century readers.

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Author Biography

Renée R. Trilling

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign