The Dream of the Rood

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Every year at this time I am reminded of this poem that I had the pleasure of studying a couple different times in literature classes. The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest known Christian poems from the Middle Ages. The author is unknown, and it has been translated numerous times since its discovery and appeared in a 10th century manuscript that was found in northern Italy. What I find especially intriguing and inspiring about this poem is it was written from the point of view of the tree that was chosen to be the cross used for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. While there are many translations, the one from translated by Alfred David (2000) is my favorite, because of the rich language and descriptors he uses to describe this story. However, a couple of sections (lines 79-82, and line 126), I prefer to reflect differently than David’s translation, taking from Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter’s later translation. Hostetter replaces worship of the cross with merely a somber symbolism that allows the cross to be the vehicle Christ used to gift us with our salvation. So if those sections that are bolded make you uncomfortable, like they did myself, click on over to Hostetter’s page to read his translation. By and large, both translations of this ancient Anglo-Saxon poem are beautiful in their own ways, and take the story of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity to a whole new understanding. Therefore I give you, The Dream of the Rood:

The Dream of the Rood

Attend to what I intend to tell you

a marvelous dream that moved me at night

when human voices are veiled in sleep. (1-3)

 

In my dream I espied the most splendid tree.

looming aloft with light all around,

the most brilliant beam. That bright tree was

covered with gold; gemstones gleamed

fairly fashioned down to its foot, yet another five were standing

high up on the crossbeam – the Lord’s angel beheld them –

cast by eternal decree. Clearly this was no criminal’s gallows,

but holy spirits were beholding it there,

men on this earth, all that mighty creation. (4-12)

 

That tree was triumphant and I tarnished by sin,

begrimed with evil. I beheld Glory’s trunk

garnished with grandeur, gleaming in bliss,

all plated with gold; precious gemstones

had gloriously graced the Lord God’s tree.

Yet I could see signs of ancient strife:

beneath that gold it had begun

bleeding on the right side. I was all bereft with sorrows;

that splendid sight made me afraid. I beheld the sign rapidly

changing clothing and colors. Now it was covered with moisture,

drenched with streaming blood, bow decked in treasure. (13-23)

 

Yet I, lying there for a long time,

sorrowfully beheld the tree of our Savior

until I could hear it call out to me,

the best of all wood began speaking words: (24-27)

 

“That was years ago – I remember –

that I was cut down at the edge of the forest

torn up from my trunk. There powerful enemies took me,

put me up to make a circus-play to lift up and parade their criminals.

Soldiers bore me on their shoulders till they set me up on a mountain;

more than enough foes made me stand fast. I saw the lord of mankind

coming with great haste so that he might climb up on me. (28-34)

 

Then I did not dare act against the Lord’s word

bow down or fall to pieces when I felt the surface

of the earth trembling. Although I might

have destroyed the foes, I stood in place. (35-38)

 

This this young man stripped himself – that was God Almighty –

strong and courageous; he climbed up on the high gallows,

brave in the sight of many, as he set out to redeem mankind.

I trembled when the man embraced me; I dared not bow down to earth,

stoop to the surface of the ground, but I had to stand fast.

I was reared a rood; I raised up a mighty king.

The heavens’ lord; I dared not bow in homage. (39-45)

 

They drove dark nails into me; the dints of those wounds can still be seen,

open marks of malice; but I didn’t not dare maul any of them in return.

They mocked both of us. I was moistened all over with blood,

shed from the man’s side after he had sent up his spirit. (46-49)

 

Oh that mountain I have endured many

cruel happenings. I saw the God of hosts

direly stretched out. Shades of darkness had clouded over the corpse of the Lord,

the shining radiance; shadows went forth

dark under clouds. All creation wept,

mourning the king’s fall: Christ was on the cross. (50-55)

 

“Yet from afar fervent men came

to that sovereign. I saw all that.

I was badly burdened with grief yet bowed down to their hands,

submissive with most resolved. There they took up almighty God,

lifted him from that cruel torment. Then the warriors left me there

standing, blood all over me, pierced everywhere with arrows.

They laid him there, limb-wearied; they stood at the head of his lifeless

body. There they beheld the lord of heaven, and he rested there for a while,

spent after that great struggle. (56-64)

 

Then they set about to construct a sepulcher

warriors in the slayer’s sight. Out of bright stone they carved it;

they laid the lord of victories into it. They began singing a lay of sorrow,

warriors sad as night was falling, when they wished to journey back

wearily far from that famous lord; he rested there with few followers. (65-69)

 

We, grieving there for a good while,

stood still in place; the soldier’s voices

faded away. Finally men brought axes

to fell us to earth. That was a frightful destiny!

They buried us in a deep pit. But thanes of the Lord,

friends learned about me

adorned me with gold and silver. (70-76)

 

“Now, man so dear to me, you may understand

that I have gone through grievous sufferings,

terrible sorrows. Now the time has come

so that far and wide men worship me

everywhere on earth, and all creation,

pray to this sign. On me the son of God

suffered a time; therefore I now tower

in glory under heaven, and I may heal

any one of those in awe of me.

Long ago I became the most cruel punishment,

most hated by men, until I made open

the right way of life to language-bearers.

So the lord of glory, guardian of Heaven,

exalted me then over all forest-trees,

as Almighty God before all humankind

exalted over all the race of women

His own mother, Mary herself. (77-93)

 

“Now I command you, my man so dear,

to tell others the events you have seen;

find words to tell it was the tree of glory

Almighty God suffered upon

for mankind’s so many sins

and for that ancient offense of Adam.

There he tasted death; yet the Redeemer arose

with his great might to help mankind.

Then he rose to Heaven. He will come again

to this middle-earth to seek out mankind on Judgement Day, the Redeemer himself,

God Almighty and his angels with him,

so that He will judge, He who has power of the Judgement,

all humanity as to the merits each

has brought about in this brief life. (94-107)

 

Nor may anyone be unafraid

of the last question the Lord will ask.

Before the multitude he will demand

where a soul might be who in the Savior’s name

would suffer the death He suffered on that tree.

But they shall fear and few shall think what to contrive to say to Christ.

But no one there need be afraid

who bears the best sign on his breast.

And on this earth each soul that longs

to exist with its savior forevermore

must seek His kingdom through that cross.” (108-118)

 

Then compelled by joy, I prayed to that tree

with ardent zeal, where I was alone

with few followers. Then my heart felt

an urge to set forth; I have suffered

much longing since. Now I live in hope,

venturing after that victory-tree,

alone more often than all other men,

to worship it well. The will to do so

is much in my heart; my protection

depends on the rood. I possess

but few friends on this earth. But forth from here

they have set out from worldly joys to seek the King of Glory.

They dwell in Heaven now with the High-father

living in glory, and I look forward

constantly toward that time the Lord’s rood

which I beheld before here on this earth

shall fetch me away from this fleeting life

and bring me then where bliss is eternal

to joy in Paradise where the Lord’s people

are joined at that feast where joy lasts forever

and seat me there where evermore

I shall dwell in glory, together with the saints

share in their delights. May the Lord be my friend,

who on earth long ago on the gallows-tree

suffered agony for the sins of men: (119-143)

 

He redeemed us and gave us life,

a home in Heaven. Hope was made new

and blossomed with bliss to those burning in fire.

The Son was victorious in venturing forth,

mighty and triumphant when he returned with many,

a company of souls to the Kingdom of God,

the Almighty Ruler, to the joy of angels,

and all those holy ones come to Heaven before

to live in glory, when their Lord returned,

the Eternal King to His own country. (144-153)

 

“The Dream of the Rood.” The Norton Anthology English Literature, 9th Edition, Vol. I, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2012, pp. 32-36.