by Jerson Valenzuela
The Dream of the Rood is an Old English poem that was written by an anonymous author and details the Passion of Christ from the perspective of the cross (or “Rood”) itself (Gray). Fragments of the poem were found on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross and the entire poem is found, in translation below, in the Vercelli Book which dates back to the 10th century (Gray).
This poem was written as a “dream vision” or “visio” which was a common framing device in early medieval literature (“Dream Vision”) wherein the narrator receives knowledge or truth as he sleeps. The poem may have been composed as a way of appealing to “heathen” Vikings by depicting Christ as a warrior fighting against sin and death on the cross. The personified cross acts as Christ’s “thane” here, that is, a brave warrior who is loyal to his king even until death. Heroism and loyalty were two common themes in Old English literature that carried over from the Germanic myths that were brought to the British Isles by the Anglo-Saxons. The poem, for the purposes of study, is often divided into three parts: the introductory section, the speech of the cross, and the closing section (“Dream of the Rood”).
The narrator begins by saying what he saw during the night as he dreamt; before him was the cross, hovering in the air. It was covered in gems, gold, and “treasure adorned.” The speaker also states that through the glint of gold, he sees a “wretched hostility” and blood on “on the right side.” As time passes, once again the dreamer states that the cross changes appearance from well-adorned to filled with blood. In the second part, the dreamer changes and seems to be speaking, in the first person, from the perspective of the “Rood” who gives his account of what happened.
After transforming from tree to cross, the Rood is put on a hill where Jesus is crucified onto its limbs and where he fights for the salvation of mankind. The Rood relates how he fought with Jesus by not bending down and not fighting the wicked. After these events, the Rood narrates how the dead body was detached from him and buried. After this, the cross narrates how he ascended into the heavens, decorated so that everyone could see him. In the last part of the poem, the narrator is once again in the present, having relayed the details of his dream. He praises Jesus and has hope for eternal life.
All throughout the poem there are various themes that emerge: courage, heroism, and Christian religion mixed with pagan symbols. Old English poems usually “reflect timeless values (ex: courage, honor)” and “treat universal themes (ex: life and death; good and evil)” and this poem is no exception.
The theme of courage and heroism go together because they are psychological aspects that the pagan Vikings admired so much and which then influenced British culture. Courage was spoken about every time the Rood was commanded by Christ to stay firm for him. Heroism is also repeated since the start when the narrator mentions how the Rood is decorated but has marks of past conflict. Then it repeats with the death of Christ and so on, again and again in the piece. Underlying this metaphor of Christ as a warrior-king is the idea of “Comitatus”; this is the idea in which the warrior or thane is loyal and bound to their king to death. Additionally, in Germanic societies, the King was usually recognized as king because of his deeds and not because of hereditary reasons. The deeds that Kings do (in this case, Christ) are considered both heroic and full of courage (Villarreal).
There is also an obvious theme of faith–both monotheistic and pagan. The Christian idea of forgiveness and sacrifice mixes with the Anglo-Saxon ideas of Comitatus and Heroism (“Dream of the Rood”) to create this beautiful poem that shows the transition in England from paganism to Christianity. These competing ideas are fully realized and combined when Jesus and the Rood are portrayed as courageous warriors instead of victims that died for God to be able to forgive all the sins of the world.
“Dream Vision,” Wikipedia, 03 April 2019. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_vision Accessed 09 Dec. 2019.
“Dream of the Rood.” Wikipedia, 07 July 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_of_the_Rood Accessed 07 Sept. 2019
Gray, Wendy Howard. “Dream of the Rood: Background.” English Literature I, Lumen Learning, n.d. .lumenlearning.com/britlit1/chapter/dream-of-the-rood-background/ Accessed 09 Dec. 2019.
Villarreal, Allegra. “Traditions of Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” English Literature 2322: British Literature I. 05 Sept. 2019, Austin Community College, Austin. Class Lecture.
- What are some symbols, personification, and diction that appear throughout the piece and what do you think they mean?
- What historical events led to this unique vision of Christ’s courage?
- What is the definition of loyalty in modern times? How is it different from the 8th century? What do other Old English texts have to say about this theme?
- Why do you think this piece has survived for so long? Is it really worthy of transcending the centuries
- What features of the poem are most interesting? Why?
Reading: Dream of the Rood
Lo! choicest of dreams I will relate,
What dream I dreamt in middle of night
When mortal men reposed in rest.
Methought I saw a wondrous wood
Tower aloft with light bewound, 5
Brightest of trees; that beacon was all
Begirt with gold; jewels were standing
Four at surface of earth, likewise were there five
Above on the shoulder-brace. All angels of God beheld it,
Fair through future ages; ’twas no criminal’s cross indeed, 10
But holy spirits beheld it there,
Men upon earth, all this glorious creation.
Strange was that victor-tree, and stained with sins was I,
With foulness defiled. I saw the glorious tree
With vesture adorned winsomely shine, 15
Begirt with gold; bright gems had there
Worthily decked the tree of the Lord.
Yet through that gold I might perceive
Old strife of the wretched, that first it gave
Blood on the stronger [right] side. With sorrows was I oppressed, 20
Afraid for that fair sight; I saw the ready beacon
Change in vesture and hue; at times with moisture covered,
Soiled with course of blood; at times with treasure adorned.
Yet lying there a longer while,
Beheld I sad the Saviour’s tree 25
Until I heard that words it uttered;
The best of woods gan speak these words:
“‘Twas long ago (I remember it still)
That I was hewn at end of a grove,
Stripped from off my stem; strong foes laid hold of me there, 30
Wrought for themselves a show, bade felons raise me up;
Men bore me on their shoulders, till on a mount they set me;
Fiends many fixed me there. Then saw I mankind’s Lord
Hasten with mickle might, for He would sty upon me.
There durst I not ‘gainst word of the Lord 35
Bow down or break, when saw I tremble
The surface of earth; I might then all
My foes have felled, yet fast I stood.
The Hero young begirt Himself, Almighty God was He,
Strong and stern of mind; He stied on the gallows high, 40
Bold in sight of many, for man He would redeem.
I shook when the Hero clasped me, yet durst not bow to earth,
Fall to surface of earth, but firm I must there stand.
A rood was I upreared; I raised the mighty King,
The Lord of Heaven; I durst not bend me. 45
They drove their dark nails through me; the wounds are seen upon me,
The open gashes of guile; I durst harm none of them.
They mocked us both together; all moistened with blood was I,
Shed from side of the man, when forth He sent His spirit.
Many have I on that mount endured 50
Of cruel fates; I saw the Lord of Hosts
Strongly outstretched; darkness had then
Covered with clouds the corse of the Lord,
The brilliant brightness; the shadow continued,
Wan ‘neath the welkin. There wept all creation, 55
Bewailed the King’s death; Christ was on the cross.
Yet hastening thither they came from afar
To the Son of the King: that all I beheld.
Sorely with sorrows was I oppressed; yet I bowed ‘neath the hands of men,
Lowly with mickle might. Took they there Almighty God, 60
Him raised from the heavy torture; the battle-warriors left me
To stand bedrenched with blood; all wounded with darts was I.
There laid they the weary of limb, at head of His corse they stood,
Beheld the Lord of Heaven, and He rested Him there awhile,
Worn from the mickle war. Began they an earth-house to work, 65
Men in the murderers’ sight, carved it of brightest stone,
Placed therein victories’ Lord. Began sad songs to sing
The wretched at eventide; then would they back return
Mourning from the mighty prince; all lonely rested He there.
Yet weeping we then a longer while 70
Stood at our station: the [voice] arose
Of battle-warriors; the corse grew cold,
Fair house of life. Then one gan fell
Us all to earth; ’twas a fearful fate!
One buried us in deep pit, yet of me the thanes of the Lord, 75
His friends, heard tell; [from earth they raised me],
And me begirt with gold and silver.
Now thou mayst hear, my dearest man,
That bale of woes have I endured,
Of sorrows sore. Now the time is come, 80
That me shall honor both far and wide
Men upon earth, and all this mighty creation
Will pray to this beacon. On me God’s Son
Suffered awhile; so glorious now
I tower to Heaven, and I may heal 85
Each one of those who reverence me;
Of old I became the hardest of pains,
Most loathsome to ledes [nations], the way of life,
Right way, I prepared for mortal men.
Lo! the Lord of Glory honored me then 90
Above the grove, the guardian of Heaven,
As He His mother, even Mary herself,
Almighty God before all men
Worthily honored above all women.
Now thee I bid, my dearest man, 95
That thou this sight shalt say to men,
Reveal in words, ’tis the tree of glory,
On which once suffered Almighty God
For the many sins of all mankind,
And also for Adam’s misdeeds of old. 100
Death tasted He there; yet the Lord arose
With His mickle might for help to men.
Then stied He to Heaven; again shall come
Upon this mid-earth to seek mankind
At the day of doom the Lord Himself, 105
Almighty God, and His angels with Him;
Then He will judge, who hath right of doom,
Each one of men as here before
In this vain life he hath deserved.
No one may there be free from fear 110
In view of the word that the Judge will speak.
He will ask ‘fore the crowd, where is the man
Who for name of the Lord would bitter death
Be willing to taste, as He did on the tree.
But then they will fear, and few will bethink them 115
What they to Christ may venture to say.
Then need there no one be filled with fear
Who bears in his breast the best of beacons;
But through the rood a kingdom shall seek
From earthly way each single soul 120
That with the Lord thinketh to dwell.”
Then I prayed to the tree with joyous heart,
With mickle might, when I was alone
With small attendance; the thought of my mind
For the journey was ready; I’ve lived through many 125
Hours of longing. Now ’tis hope of my life
That the victory-tree I am able to seek,
Oftener than all men I alone may
Honor it well; my will to that
Is mickle in mind, and my plea for protection 130
To the rood is directed. I’ve not many mighty
Of friends on earth; but hence went they forth
From joys of the world, sought glory’s King;
Now live they in Heaven with the Father on high,
In glory dwell, and I hope for myself 135
On every day when the rood of the Lord,
Which here on earth before I viewed,
In this vain life may fetch me away
And bring me then, where bliss is mickle,
Joy in the Heavens, where the folk of the Lord 140
Is set at the feast, where bliss is eternal;
And may He then set me where I may hereafter
In glory dwell, and well with the saints
Of joy partake. May the Lord be my friend,
Who here on earth suffered before 145
On the gallows-tree for the sins of man!
He us redeemed, and gave to us life,
A heavenly home. Hope was renewed,
With blessing and bliss, for the sufferers of burning.
The Son was victorious on that fateful journey, 150
Mighty and happy, when He came with a many,
With a band of spirits to the kingdom of God,
The Ruler Almighty, for joy to the angels
And to all the saints, who in Heaven before
In glory dwelt, when their Ruler came, 155
Almighty God, where was His home.
“Dream of the Rood,” author unknown, trans. by James M. Garret, Elene; Judith; Athelstan, or Fight at Brunanburh; Byrthtnoth, or the Fight at Maldon and Dream of the Rood: Anglo Saxon Poems, licensed under no known copyright.