The Phoenix is an Anglo-Saxon Christian work. It is found to carry on the tradition of symbolic poetry, set up so elegantly in The Dream of the Rood. It is, like the great vision of the rood, both symbolic and religious, and bears out sufficiently the highly poetic artistry of its author. Naturally, the poem is supposed to have come from Cynewulf, acknowledged as one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon Christian poets.
The subject matter of the poem is the mythological bird phoenix which is supposed to live in the Arabian desert for five to six centuries and then to burn itself to be reborn, with a renewed youth, out of its own ashes to live for another cycle. This myth of the phoenix is an allegorical application to Christ in the poem. The bird is turned into the symbol of Christ and the Christian faith.
The first canto describes paradise, the land of eternal youth, wherein the phoenix dwells. The second canto describes the enchanting life of the bird from morning to evening in that deathless land of joy. The phoenix lives here for a thousand years and thereafter flies far to the sea and the desert, where at the top of a high tree he makes his death nest of odorous leaves. When in summer, the sun is brightest, the nest is heated and the fury of fire devours the bird’s nest. But the ashes form together into a ball, grow into an apple, and in that apple a wondrous worm waxes till it becomes an eagle and then a phoenix as before. The bird eats only honey dew that falls at midnight and when he has gathered all the relics of his old body, he takes them in his claws and, flying back to his paradise, buries them in the earth. Everybody watches his flight, but he outstrips their every sight, and is once more in his happy realm.
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This is how the bird is reborn and returns to his lovely domain. The author makes two allegories out of the story. The first is about the immortal lives of the saints, for Christ, after the judgment, flies through the air, attended by the adoring souls, like the birds, and each soul becomes a phoenix and dwells forever young in the city of life. The second one is of Christ Himself who passed through the fire of death to the glorious life of salvation.
The Phoenix is a happy instance of Anglo-Saxon religious poetry. The high truth of Christianity is here conveyed with an artistic dexterity through symbolism. Along with The Dream of the Rood, it stands out as one of the earliest allegorical poems in the English language.
This poem may well be taken as a piece of Anglo-Saxon Christian lyrics. The lyrical element is clearly manifested in its reflective as well as impulsive notes. What is, however, striking in the poem is the symbolic representation of a natural element to propagate Christian morality and virtue. This seems rather rare in the poetry of a remote time. But what characterizes the poem particularly is its richness of description. Highly colourful and spectacular images mark the poem, and, in this respect, the description of the land, where the phoenix dwells is particularly noteworthy. The poem is illustrative of the love of nature, so distinctly evident in Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Also read; A short note on the characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry