The Dream of the Rood

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The Dream of the Rood (the Cross) is, according to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, “the finest of a rather large number of religious poems in Old English.” It is one of the oldest works of Old English surviving today. It was preserved in the “Vercelli Book” found in northern Italy in the 10th century, but may be much older. Its author is unknown, although scholars have often suggested either of two Anglo Saxon Christian poets: Cynewulf or Cædmon.

The entire poem is about 1200 words, and was written in the alliterative style of Old English. The poem begins and ends with the story told by the dreamer; the central section is from the point-of-view of the Cross itself.

The Dream of the Rood portrays powerful paradox. The Cross is a symbol both of shame and of glory. It is a place of defeat and victory. The Cross submits to God’s will — not bending or breaking, although it could have fallen and crushed the crucifiers — and is thus used to crucify Christ. The Rood suffers along with Jesus, feeling the nails pierce its cross-beam, being stained with blood, even feeling the mocking that was flung at Christ.

The connections between the dreamer, the Cross, Christ himself, and ourselves are strongly felt in this poem.

from The Dream of the Rood

The choicest of visions I wish to tell,
which came as a dream in middle-night,
after voice-bearers lay at rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
born aloft, wound round by light,
brightest of beams. All was that beacon
sprinkled with gold. Gems stood
fair at earth’s corners; there likewise five
shone on the shoulder-span. All there beheld the Angel of God,
fair through predestiny. Indeed, that was no wicked one’s gallows,
but holy souls beheld it there,
men over earth, and all this great creation.
Wondrous that victory-beam—and I stained with sins,
with wounds of disgrace. I saw glory’s tree
honoured with trappings, shining with joys,
decked with gold; gems had
wrapped that forest tree worthily round.
Yet through that gold I clearly perceived
old strife of wretches, when first it began
to bleed on its right side. With sorrows most troubled,
I feared that fair sight. I saw that doom-beacon
turn trappings and hews: sometimes with water wet,
drenched with blood’s going; sometimes with jewels decked.
But lying there long while, I,
troubled, beheld the Healer’s tree,
until I heard its fair voice.
Then best wood spoke these words…

The above translation is by Jonathan A. Glenn and may be viewed in its entirety here.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca


5 Comments

  1. Tony from Pandora

    Wow, that poem takes me back about 12 to my freshman lit class. I need to dust off my old Norton Anthology, Vol. 1 & 2…

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    That was beautiful. Saving it to reread so I can dig in more. I love the Rabbit Room – this place sets my mind on high things, on truth, beauty, and well done work.

  3. Nick and Susan

    When I first saw the title of this blog post, I recognised it immediately, but couldn’t think where I’d seen the poem before. I finally got a moment to sit down and read the whole poem this morning and now I’m almost sure I’ve read it before in my dad’s copy of The Anglo Saxon Chronicles.

    I enjoy reading this kind of old literature and long to be able to study and learn more, not only of the works themselves, but also the people behind them. It fascinates me so much.

    One thing I particularly like about this actual poem, is the fact that the cross is personified. It is such an interesting concept., because you can then get into the mind of the cross, see what ‘he’ saw, through ‘his’ eyes, putting yourself in the Story in a most unusual but interesting way. Perhaps I’m taking it a little too far? The idea intrigues me.

    Susan

  4. Nick and Susan

    p.s. my dad has informed me that this poem is not in The Anglo Saxon Chronicles after all. I have no idea where I’ve seen it before, if not in that book.

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