“The Dream of the Rood” is the most widely studied Old English poem with the exception of Beowulf (first transcribed c. 1000 c.e.). As with many works of Old and Middle English, it is not possible to determine precisely when “The Dream of the Rood” was written or by whom. Linguistic evidence indicates that the poem was written in the late seventh or early eighth century, and its transmission in several forms attests to its popularity. A fragment of the poem is inscribed on the Ruthwell cross, a twenty-two-foot Celtic ornate high cross that dates to the eighth century and was originally erected at Ruthwell in what is now Scotland. The late tenth century Brussels cross, a small silver reliquary cross, has a two-line inscription similar to the Ruthwell cross’s speech. Only one manuscript copy of the 156-line poem exists in the late tenth century Vercelli Book, which also contains three other poems and eighteen homilies.
“The Dream of the Rood” is written in the Late West Saxon dialect of Old English. Although some Old English words survive in modern English, one cannot read Old English without first studying the vocabulary and grammar of the language. When relying on a modern English translation of “The Dream of the Rood,” it is important to understand whether the translator is providing a verse or literal translation and to what extent the translator’s interpretation influences his translation.
(The entire section is 606 words.)