THE PHOENIX

[Resemblances between The Phoenix and Cynewulf's acknowledged poems have led some to accept him as the author of this work, but there is no certainty in the matter. 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, which has been attributed to Lactantius. But the English poet works freely. He expands, omits, and changes; he gives to his poem a thoroughly Christian tone which is not in the Latin. The remainder of the poem, in which the phoenix is taken as a symbol of the Christian life in this world and the next, and also as a symbol of Christ, is not based on Lactantius. The poem embodies very old beliefs and traditions. In Egypt the phoenix was regarded as a symbol of the rising sun and of resurrection. The account in Herodotus is that the bird flies from Arabia to the temple in Heliopolis (the City of the Sun). It carries its father, plastered up in myrrh, and buries him in the temple. This comes to pass about every five hundred years. In other versions of the story the bird is burned to ashes on the altar of the temple, and from the ashes rises to new life. Pliny, in his Natural History, says there is only one phoenix alive at a time and that it is burned in its nest. From its corpse comes a worm which changes into the new phoenix. It is this version which is used in Lactantius and in the English poem. Early Christian writers adopted the phoenix as a symbol and proof of resurrection, and also as a symbol of Christ. The phoenix survived the Middle Ages and is often found in the Elizabethans. Shakespeare, for example, uses the old story when he wishes to praise Elizabeth and her successor:

Nor shall this peace sleep with her; but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new-create another heir
As great in admiration as herself,
So shall she leave her blessedness to one --
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness --
Who, from the sacred ashes of her honour,
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix'd.]


I

I HAVE heard that far hence in the east is the noblest of lands, famous among men. The face of the land is not to be found across the world by many of the earth's dwellers, but by God's might it is set afar off from evildoers. Lovely is all the land,

-239-

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Anglo-Saxon Poetry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Introduction v
  • Contents xiii
  • Beowulf 1
  • Finnesburh 63
  • Waldhere 65
  • Widsith 67
  • Deor 71
  • The Wanderer 73
  • The Seafarer 76
  • The Wife's Lament 79
  • The Husband's Message 81
  • Wulf and Eadwacer 83
  • The Ruin 84
  • Charms 85
  • Genesis 95
  • Exodus 112
  • Daniel 121
  • Christ and Satan 127
  • Juliana 165
  • The Fates of the Apostles 178
  • Andreas 181
  • Elene 211
  • The Dream of the Rood 235
  • The Phoenix 239
  • Physiologus 252
  • Guthlac 256
  • The Soul's Address to the Body 280
  • Doomsday 284
  • Riddles 289
  • Gnomic Poetry 309
  • The Arts of Men 316
  • The Fates of Men 318
  • Judith 320
  • The Battle of Brunanburh 327
  • The Battle of Maldon 329
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