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