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The Insular Landscape of the Old English Poem The Phoenix
By Helen Appleton
Abstract: The opening section of the Old English poem The Phoenix derives from a fourth-century Latin poem, Carmen de ave phoenice, which is usually attributed to Lactantius. It is well known that The Phoenix Christianises and substantially enlarges upon descriptive details derived from its Latin source, but little detailed work has been done on how this actually takes place. The poet of The Phoenix’s expansions have been dismissed as prolix, yet when examined in light of similar passages elsewhere in the corpus of Old English literature, these additions can be seen to introduce images of particular resonance.
This essay will focus on the landscape of the poem’s opening to argue for the Anglo-Saxon poet’s introduction of a distinctively insular spatial imaginaire to the setting inherited from the Latin source material. This insular imaginaire is in keeping with general trends in Anglo-Saxon literary culture, and ensures the resonance of The Phoenix’s resurrection allegory with its Anglo-Saxon audience.
Introduction: The Old English poem The Phoenix, found in the Exeter Book (fols. 55b–65b), describes the mythical bird, the Edenic landscape it inhabits and the cycle of death and rebirth that it enacts in an extended Christian allegory. John Josias Conybeare identified the opening 380 lines of The Phoenix as being an expanded translation of Carmen de ave phoenice, a fourth-century Latin poem usually attributed to Lactantius.