Hopkins and Cynewulf: "The Wreck of the Deutschland," "The Windhover," "The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe," and the Christ

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Cynewulf's Christ is a title given in the mid-nineteenth century to a series of three poems that appear together and open The Exeter Book, a manuscript that has belonged to the Chapter Library of Exeter Cathedral at least since 1072. The three poems, "Advent," "The Ascension," and "The Last Judgment," written in the second half of the eighth century, have been attributed to Cynewulf whose runic signature is inscribed into the final lines of "The Ascension." (1) Nothing is known of the poet, but his ecclesiastical knowledge, scriptural learning, and poetic ability indicate a clerical or monastic author whose work led to a school of imitators of his religious poetry (Calder, pp. 24-25).

Although the order of Nativity, Ascension, and Second Coming follow the traditional New Testament story of Christ and would seem to support the unity of the work, stylistic, structural, and formal differences between the three poems have led modern scholars to doubt the attribution of the first and third poems to Cynewulf. (2) The "Advent" verses are a series of lyrics based on the liturgical prayers of the Great Antiphons; "The Ascension" is a poetic version of a Latin Gospel homily by Gregory the Great; and "The Last Judgment" is an apocalyptic poem with a mixture of narrative, descriptive, and lyrical passages. For the purposes of this paper, however, the Victorian idea of the unity of the three poems as the Christ and Cynewulf's authorship will be assumed in discussing the work as an analogue of three of Hopkins' poems.

Hopkins studied Welsh poetry and in his own poems employed the system of cynghanedd with its intricate use of alliteration and internal rhyme. (3) He also read William Langland's Piers Plowman, at least in part, but there is no evidence he read Old English in the original before 1882. In November of that year Hopkins wrote to Robert Bridges, "In fact I am learning Anglo-saxon and it is a vastly superior thing to what we have now." (4) However, he might well have read Cynewulf in translation. Benjamin Thorpe's modern version of the poems of the Christ in his translation of the Codex Exoniensis (1842) was available to him at Oxford, and with his interest in Anglo-Saxon word origins and his personal usage of root words, Hopkins was most likely familiar with Old English Christian poetry. His love of the early Middle Ages and Britain would have led him to Cynewulf and the poetry ascribed to him at the time. Similarities in content, theme, purpose, and imagery between the Christ and "The Wreck of the Deutschland," "The Windhover," and "The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe" make a comparison of the poetry worth exploring.

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"The Wreck of the Deutschland" is an Advent poem dominated by the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, the coming birth of Jesus, and the virgin nun's "birth of the Word" in her confession of Christ in the midst of the shipwreck. Like "The Wreck," the Old English "Advent" poem hails the "King of all kings," "Christ Almighty," who "wast of old / become for all/ ... a begotten child." (5) The earlier hymn is a petition to Christ's mastery and "mercy to mankind":

   Come now, Lord of triumph,
   Creator of mankind
   Do thou this mid-earth
   kindly bless
   through thine advent,
   Saviour Christ! (Codex, pp. 15-16)

In a similarly invocatory style, the Victorian poet's ode celebrates "The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides." (6)

Both Hopkins and Cynewulf proclaim their Lord's victory over man's evil nature through his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection as a cosmic event that resonates down to the present. The Old English poet describes the Lord's coming in his dedicatory "Advent" poem "To Jesus Christ":

   [T]hat was a secret
   mystery of the Lord,
   all a ghostly grace,
   earth's region it pervaded;
   there many things
   became enlighten'd
   with longsome lore,
   through life's Author,
   which ere in darkness
   had hidden lain,
   the oracles of prophets,
   when the Powerful came,
   he who of every speech
   the course enlargeth,
   of those who adequately
   the Creator's name,
   through prudent nature
   will praise. …