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Translators' Note: Runic Signature for Cynewulf’s “Fates of the Apostles”

Little is known of the Anglo-Saxon poet who, sometime before the tenth century, inserted runes into his verse as an acrostic signature. Cynewulf—or Cynwulf, as these runes spell out when reordered—was once thought to have composed works including the Exeter Book riddles, Andreas, and Dream of the Rood. Scholars are now willing to assign him authorship of only the four extant poems that bear some version of his name. Fates of the Apostles, to which this signature is attached, is part of a tenth-century codex rediscovered in 1822 in the library of the cathedral in Vercelli, Italy.

Beyond the runic name, what do we know? The poet’s familiarity with Latin hagiography suggests that he was a monk or priest. Some scholars argue that textual accents indicate his poems were composed in Mercian dialect. His spelling is consistent with ninth-century practice. The rest is lost.

Perhaps this is appropriate; when Cynewulf here claims authorship of a poem about apostolic martyrdom, he steps forward by hiding. For those who could read his Futhork or runic alphabet, each character stood in for both a letter and a word. Arguably, each rune also invited symbolic or homophonic associations. Five of the seven runes Cynewulf signs with have been interpreted more or less consistently. Through them, he seems to give us a universal moral: wordly pleasures vanish as easily as water.

Yet the riddling density of the runes increases. Several lines in the Vercelli book are blotted to near-illegibility. Scholars agree that the damaged signs are  (Cēn) and  (Yr), standing for c and y. But what words do they indicate?  might signify torch, fire, ulcer, or warrior. And : a yew bow? An inkhorn? A homophonic pun for “afflicted wretch”? No matter, the passage is obscure.

Though the runic signature poses a didactic Christian message, it does not seem far-fetched to imagine Cynewulf tucking a small self portrait into his name. Our translation takes up the fire imagery of  and the homophonic invitation of  to suggest a monk meditating on the skill needed to compose and scribe poem-prayers during the long dark Mercian nights. —rh & vpp

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This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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