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The Dream of the Rood
The Dream of the Rood is contained in the Vercelli Book, a volume of Old English prose sermons and religious verse, created probably at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury around 970 or so. The following description, edition, and translation are from my Old and Middle English Anthology, published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2009. It's likely in the fourth edition of the Anthology that there'll be changes to the translation; merits continuing effort.
The Dream of the Rood, or A Vision of the Cross as it is sometimes more appropriately titled, is justly one of the most critically acclaimed poems in English. It survives in the Vercelli Book, folios 104 verso to 106 recto. Parts of the text are among the oldest surviving poetic expressions in the vernacular. Carved in runes into the shaft of the early eighth-century Northumbrian Ruthwell Cross are lines of poetry that, in the tenth century, reappear in The Dream of the Rood. The lines on the Ruthwell Cross form the marginal text to elaborate carved depictions of the Tree of Life. They correspond to lines 39-42, 44-5, 48-9, 56-9, and 62-4 of the unique Vercelli Book text (for the texts arranged en-face, and a good discussion of the artistic scheme of the Ruthwell Cross, see Swanton, ed., The Dream of the Rood).
The Dream of the Rood is riddlic (see also the Exeter Book Riddle on the Cross), penitential, eschatalogical (that is, concerned with death, judgement, and the afterlife), and evangelical. It is the first Dream-Vision poem in English. The poet speaks in the first person to relate the vision creating a sense of immediacy and urgency in the narration. The precise nature of this vision is only gradually revealed, as in a riddle. When it is made known that syllicre treow (‘a better tree’), this beam ‘wood’, refers to the Saviour’s tree, the immediacy of the text is increased by the startling poetic device of prosopopeia through which the inanimate object is brought to life and given a voice of its own. The Cross is Christ’s retainer, serving its lord as a Germanic comitatus member would serve; but it is also Christ’s bana ‘slayer’, a role that goes against all that the heroic code advocates. The reader or listener of the poem observes the Cross with the poet through a rich visual depiction: the Cross is mutable, covered in gems, then covered in blood. This duality represents the central paradox of the Cross. The audience is made to participate in the Crucifixion and its aftermath, seeing the events through the eyes of the witness Cross. In this way, the revelations bring about repentance in the audience for the sins committed that compelled Christ to become mortal and redeem mankind. Christ’s mortality, the issue of his divine humanity, was the focus of considerable theological controversy in the earlier medieval period. The poet deftly retains complete orthodoxy by inscribing the sufferings of Christ onto the Cross: the Cross speaks of its pain, its torment, not of that belonging to Christ himself. At the same time, Christ is a divine being, and an heroic Germanic lord, one who dies to save his troop. He voluntarily ascends the Cross, indeed, ‘embraces’ the instrument of his death. Neither does the Cross talk of Christ’s death: Christ rests, ‘weary after the battle’. The victory of resurrection complete, the Cross continues with its biography—its discovery by Helena, Constantine’s mother, and how it is now a symbol of Christ’s salvation and Judgement, a token of faith and, as in the case of the Ruthwell Cross, an object of devotion. This leads into the final homiletic section of the poem in which the poet himself, initially impelled to contrition, then to a revitalised faith, determines to seek the heavenly home.
Within the structural framework of the text, phrasal parallels draw together the three central characters in the work: the poet, the Cross, and Christ. These verbal links emphasise God’s desire for mankind to be united with him and his Church and repatriated in heaven by following lifes weg (‘the way of life’, line 88b). This poem is a unique reading of the central event in salvation history—the Crucifixion—and is not confined to present or past or future; it is a timeless text that continues to move readers more than a thousand years after its creation.
The Dream of the Rood
Hwæt, Ic swefna cyst secgan wylle
hwæt me gemætte to midre nihte,
syðþan reordberend reste wunedon.
Þuhte me þæt Ic gesawe syllicre treow
on lyft lædan, leohte bewunden,
bearma beorhtost. Eall þæt beacen wæs
begoten mid golde; gimmas stodon
fægere æt foldan sceatum, swylce þær fife wæron
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne. Beheoldon þær engel Dryhtnes ealle
fægere þurh forðgesceaft. Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga;
ac hine þær beheoldon halige gastas,
men ofer moldan ond eall þeos mære gesceaft.
Syllic wæs se sigebeam ond Ic synnum fah,
forwunded mid wommum. Geseah Ic wuldres treow
wædum geweorðode, wynnum scinan,
gegyred mid golde; gimmas hæfdon
bewrigene weorðlice wealdes treow.
Hwæðre, Ic þurh þæt gold ongytan meahte
earmra ærgewin, þæt hit ærest ongan
swætan on þa swiðran healfe. Eall Ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed.
Forht Ic wæs for þære fægran gesyhðe; geseah Ic þæt fuse beacen
wendan wædum ond bleom: hwilum hit wæs mid wætan bestemed,
beswyled mid swates gange; hwilum mid since gegyrwed.
Hwæðre, Ic þær licgende lange hwile,
beheold hreowcearig Hælendes treow,
oððæt Ic gehyrde þæt hit hleoðrode;
ongan þa word sprecan wudu selesta:
‘Þæt wæs geara iu, Ic þæt gyta geman,
þæt Ic wæs aheawen holtes on ende,
astyred of stefne minum. Genaman me ðær strange feondas,
geworhton him þær to wæfersyne, heton me heora wergas hebban.
Bæron me ðær beornas on eaxlum, oððæt hie me on beorg asetton,
gefæstnodon me þær feondas genoge. Geseah Ic þa Frean mancynnes
efstan elne mycle þæt he me wolde on gestigan.
Þær Ic þa ne dorste ofer Dryhtnes word
bugan oððe berstan, þa Ic bifian geseah
eorðan sceatas. Ealle Ic mihte
feondas gefyllan; hwæðre Ic fæste stod.
Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð— þæt wæs God ælmihtig–
strang ond stiðmod; gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhðe, þa he wolde mancyn lysan.
Bifode Ic þa me se beorn ymbclypte; ne dorste Ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,
feallan to foldan sceatum, ac Ic sceolde fæste standan.
Rod wæs Ic aræred. Ahof Ic ricne Cyning,
heofona Hlaford; hyldan me ne dorste.
Þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum; on me syndon þa dolg gesiene,
opene inwidhlemmas; ne dorste Ic hira nænigum sceððan.
Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere. Eall Ic wæs mid blode bestemed
begoten of þæs guman sidan siððan he hæfde his gast onsended.
Feala Ic on þam beorge gebiden hæbbe
wraðra wyrda. Geseah Ic weruda God
þearle þenian. Þystro hæfdon
bewrigen mid wolcnum Wealdendes hræw,
scirne sciman. Sceadu forð eode,
wann under wolcnum. Weop eal gesceaft,
cwiðdon Cyninges fyll. Crist wæs on rode.
Hwæðere þær fuse feorran cwoman
to þam æðelinge; Ic þæt eall beheold.
Sare Ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed; hnag Ic hwæðre þam secgum to handa,
eaðmod elne mycle. Genamon hie þær ælmihtigne God,
ahofon hine of ðam hefian wite. Forleton me þa hilderincas,
standan steame bedrifenne; eall Ic wæs mid strælum forwundod.
Aledon hie ðær limwerigne, gestodon him æt his lices heafdum,
beheoldon hie ðær heofenes Dryhten, ond he hine ðær hwile reste,
meðe æfter ðam miclan gewinne. Ongunnon him þa moldern wyrcan,
beornas on banan gesyhðe; curfon hie ðæt of beorhtan stane,
gesetton hie ðæron sigora Wealdend. Ongunnon him þa sorhleoð galan
earme on þa æfentide; þa hie woldon eft siðian
meðe fram þam mæran þeodne. Reste he ðær mæte weorode.
Hwæðere we ðær reotende gode hwile
stodon on staðole, syððan stefn up gewat
hilderinca. Hræw colode,
fæger feorgbold. Þa us man fyllan ongan
ealle to eorðan: þæt wæs egeslic wyrd.
Bedealf us man on deopan seaþe; hwæðre me þær Dryhtnes þegnas,
gyredon me gold ond seolfre.
Nu þu miht gehyran, hæleð min se leofa,
þæt Ic bealuwara weorc gebiden hæbbe,
sarra sorga. Is nu sæl cumen
þæt me weorðiað wide ond side
menn ofer moldan ond eall þeos mære gesceaft;
gebiddaþ him to þyssum beacne. On me Bearn Godes
þrowode hwile; forþan Ic þrymfæst nu,
hlifige under heofenum, ond Ic hælan mæg
æghwylcne anra þara þe him bið egesa to me.
Iu Ic wæs geworden wita heardost,
leodum laðost, aerþan Ic him lifes weg
rihtne gerymde, reordberendum.
Hwæt, me þa geweorðode wuldres Ealdor
ofer holmwudu, heofonrices Weard,
swylce swa he his modor eac, Marian sylfe,
ælmihtig God, for ealle menn
geweorðode ofer eall wifa cynn.
Nu Ic þe hate, hæleð min se leofa,
þæt ðu þas gesyhðe secge mannum:
onwreoh wordum þæt hit is wuldres beam
se ðe ælmihtig God on þrowode
for mancynnes manegum synnum
ond Adomes ealdegewyrhtum.
Deað he þær byrigde; hwæðere eft Dryhten aras
mid his miclan mihte mannum to helpe.
He ða on heofenas astag. Hider eft fundaþ
on þysne middangeard mancynn secan
on domdæge Dryhten sylfa,
ælmihtig God, ond his englas mid,
þæt he þonne wile deman, se ah domes geweald,
anra gehwylcum swa he him ærur her
on þyssum lænum life geearnaþ.
Ne mæg þær ænig unforht wesan
for þam worde þe se Wealdend cwyð:
frineð he for þære mænige hwær se man sie,
se ðe for Dryhtnes naman deaðes wolde
biteres onbyrigan, swa he ær on ðam beame dyde.
Ac hie þonne forhtiað ond fea þencaþ
hwæt hie to Criste cweðan onginnen.
Ne þearf ðær þonne ænig unforht wesan
þe him ær in breostum bereð beacna selest.
Ac ðurh ða rode sceal rice gesecan
of eorðwege æghwylc sawl
seo þe mid Wealdende wunian þenceð.’
Gebæd Ic me þa to þan beame bliðe mode,
elne mycle, þær Ic ana wæs
mæte werede. Wæs modsefa
afysed on forðwege; feala ealra gebad
langunghwila. Is me nu lifes hyht
þæt Ic þone sigebeam secan mote
ana oftor þonne ealle men,
well weorþian. Me is willa to ðam
mycel on mode, ond min mundbyrd is
geriht to þære rode. Nah Ic ricra feala
freonda on foldan; ac hie forð heonan
gewiton of worulde dreamum, sohton him wuldres Cyning;
lifiaþ nu on heofonum mid Heahfædere,
wuniaþ on wuldre. Ond Ic wene me
daga gehwylce hwænne me Dryhtnes rod,
þe Ic her on eorðan ær sceawode,
on þysson lænan life gefetige
ond me þonne gebringe þær is blis mycel,
dream on heofonum, þær is Dryhtnes folc
geseted to symle, þær is singal blis;
ond he þonne asette þær Ic syþþan mot
wunian on wuldre well mid þam halgum
dreames brucan. Si me Dryhten freond,
se ðe her on eorþan ær þrowode
on þam gealgtreowe for guman synnum.
He us onlysde ond us lif forgeaf,
heofonlicne ham. Hiht wæs geniwad
mid bledum on mid blisse þam þe þær bryne þolodan.
Se Sunu wæs sigorfæst on þam siðfate,
mihtig ond spedig, þa he mid manigeo com,
gasta weorode, on Godes rice,
Anwealda ælmihtig, englum to blisse
ond eallum ðam halgum þam þe on heofonum ær,
wunedon on wuldre, þa heora Wealdend cwom,
ælmihtig God, þær his eðel wæs.
The Dream of the Rood
Listen, I will tell the best of visions
that I envisioned in the middle of the night,
when voice-bearers dwelled in rest.
It seemed to me that I saw a more wonderful tree
lifted in the air, wound round with light,
the brightest of beams. That beacon was entirely
cased in gold; beautiful gems stood
at the corners of the earth, likewise there were five
upon the cross-beam. All those fair through creation
gazed on the angel of the lord there. There was certainly no gallows of the wicked;
but the holy spirits beheld it there,
men over the earth and all this glorious creation.
Wondrous was the victory-tree, and I stained with sin,
wounded with guilt. I saw the tree of glory,
honoured with garments, shining with joys,
covered with gold; gems had
covered magnificently the tree of the forest.
Nevertheless, I was able to perceive through that gold
the ancient hostility of wretches, so that it first began
to bleed on the right side. I was all drenched with sorrows.
I was frightened by the beautiful vision; I saw that urgent beacon
change its covering and colours: sometimes it was soaked with wetness,
stained with the coursing of blood, sometimes with treasure adorned.
Yet I lay there a long while
beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,
until I heard it utter a sound;
it began to speak words, the best of wood:
‘That was very long ago, I remember it still,
that I was cut down from the edge of the wood,
ripped up by my roots. They seized my there, strong enemies,
made me a spectacle for themselves there, commanded me to raise up their criminals.
Men carried me there on their shoulders, until they set me on a hill,
enemies enough fastened me there. I saw then the Saviour of mankind
hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me.
There I did not dare, against the word of the Lord,
bow or break, when I saw the
corners of the earth tremble. I might have
felled all the enemies; even so, I stood fast.
He stripped himself then, young hero– that was God almighty–
strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom mankind.
I trembled when the warrior embraced me; even then I did not dare to bow to earth,
fall to the corners of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King,
the Lord of heaven; I did not dare to bend.
They pierced me with dark nails; on me are the wounds visible,
the open wounds of malice; I did not dare to injure any of them.
They mocked us both together. I was all drenched with blood
begotten from that man’s side after he had sent forth his spirit.
I have experienced on that hillside many
cruelties of fate. I saw the God of hosts
violently stretched out. Darkness had
covered with clouds the Ruler’s corpse,
the gleaming light. Shadows went forth
dark under the clouds. All creation wept,
lamented the King’s fall. Christ was on the cross.
Yet there eager ones came from afar
to that noble one; I beheld all that.
I was all drenched with sorrow; nevertheless I bowed down to the hands of the men
humble, with great eagerness. There they took almighty God,
lifted him from that oppressive torment. The warriors forsook me then
standing covered with moisture; I was all wounded with arrows.
They laid the weary-limbed one down there, they stood at the head of his body,
they beheld the Lord of heaven there, and he himself rested there a while,
weary after the great battle. They began to fashion a tomb for him,
warriors in the sight of the slayer; they carved that from bright stone,
they set the Lord of victories in there. They began to sing the sorrow-song for him,
wretched in the evening-time; then they wanted to travel again,
weary from the glorious lord. He rested there with little company.
Nevertheless, weeping, we stood there a good while
in a fixed position, after the voice departed up
of the warriors. The corpse grew cold,
the fair life-dwelling. Then men began to fell us
all to the ground: that was a terrible fate.
Men buried us in a deep pit; nevertheless the Lord’s thanes,
friends discovered me there,
adorned me with gold and silver.
Now you might hear, my beloved hero,
that I have experienced the work of evil doers,
grievous sorrows. Now the time has come
that I will be honoured far and wide
by men over the earth and all this glorious creation;
they will pray to this beacon. On me the Son of God
suffered for a while; because of that I am glorious now,
towering under the heavens, and I am able to heal
each one of those who is in awe of me.
Formerly I was made the hardest of punishments,
most hateful to the people, before I opened for them,
for the voice-bearers, the true way of life.
Listen, the Lord of glory, the Guardian of the kingdom of heaven,
then honoured me over the forest trees,
just as he, almighty God, also honoured
his mother, Mary herself, for all men,
over all womankind.
Now I urge you, my beloved man,
that you tell men about this vision:
reveal with words that it is the tree of glory
on which almighty God suffered
for mankind’s many sins
and Adam’s ancient deeds.
Death he tasted there; nevertheless, the Lord rose again
with his great might to help mankind.
He ascended into heaven. He will come again
to this earth to seek mankind
on doomsday, the Lord himself,
almighty God, and his angels with him,
so that he will then judge, he who has the power of judgement,
each one of them, for what they themselves have
earned here earlier in this transitory life.
Nor may any of them be unafraid there
because of the words which the Saviour will speak:
he will ask in front of the multitude where the person might be
who for the Lord’s name would
taste bitter death, just as he did before on that tree.
But then they will be fearful and little think
what they might begin to say to Christ.
Then there will be no need for any of those to be very afraid
who bear before them in the breast the best of trees.
But by means of the rood each soul
who thinks to dwell with the Ruler
must seek the kingdom by the earthly way.’
I prayed to the tree with a happy spirit then,
with great fortitude, there where I was alone
with little company. My spirit was
inspired with longing for the way forward; I experienced in all
many periods of longing. It is now my life’s hope
that I might seek the tree of victory
alone more often than all men,
to honour it well. My desire for that is
great in my mind, and my protection is
directed to the cross. I do not have many wealthy
friends on earth; but they have gone forward from here,
passed from the joys of this world, sought for themselves the King of glory;
they live now in heaven with the High Father,
they dwell in glory. And I myself hope
each day for when the Lord’s cross,
that I looked at here on earth,
will fetch me from this transitory life,
and then bring me where there is great bliss,
joy in heaven, where the Lord’s people
are set in feasting, where there is unceasing bliss;
and then will set me where I might afterwards
dwell in glory fully with the saints
to partake of joy. May the Lord be a friend to me,
he who here on earth suffered previously
on the gallows-tree for the sins of man.
He redeemed us, and gave us life,
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
with dignity and with joy for those who suffered burning there.
The Son was victorious in that undertaking,
powerful and successful, when he came with the multitudes,
a troop of souls, into God’s kingdom,
the one Ruler almighty, to the delight of angels
and all the saints who were in heaven before,
who dwelled in glory, when their Ruler came,
almighty God, to where his native land was.
 The hill is Golgotha or Calvary on which Christ was crucified. See John 19.17-42 for one of the accounts of Good Friday.
 Litotes, meaning ‘alone’.
 ‘we’ are the three crosses: that of Christ and those of the two thieves crucified with him.
 Helena, mother of Constantine, and Cyriac discovered the Cross in the fourth century.
 This ‘undertaking’ refers to the Harrowing of Hell when Christ rescued the souls who had been condemned to Hell following the centuries after the Fall of Man. This apocryphal event took place in the days between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.