The Dream of the Rood
The Dream of the Rood c. Eighth Century
Old English poem.
The Dream of the Rood has been heralded by scholars as the finest expression of the Crucifixion theme in Old English poetry. Though it focuses on a motif common in Old English poetry, The Dream of the Rood is unique in describing it from the viewpoint of the Cross and within the context of a dream vision. The poem thus becomes a philosophical one, and, as John V. Fleming has asserted, "the vehicle of an ascetical-theological doctrine which sketches in a brilliantly imaginative way the aspirations of the monastic cadre of Anglo-Saxon society." Although it is only 156 lines long, its depth and complexity have made The Dream of the Rood a popular topic of critical study in the twentieth century.
Plot and Major Characters
Characteristic of Old English poetry, The Dream of the Rood is divided into three parts: the Dreamer's initial reaction to his vision of the Cross, the monologue of the Rood describing the Crucifixion, and the Dreamer's conversion and resolution to seek the salvation of the Cross. The poem opens with the vision of the Dreamer, which establishes the framework for the rest of the poem. He sees the Cross being raised up, covered in gold and jewels, yet he notices a stain of blood on its side. The Rood begins to speak and recounts its experience as an instrument in the Crucifixion of Christ. The Cross recalls how it was cut down in the forest and taken by its enemies to support criminals, then details its emotions as it realizes it is to be the tree on which Christ will be crucified. The Rood and Christ become one in the portrayal of the Passion—they are both pierced with nails, mocked and tortured, and finally killed and buried; soon after, like Christ, the Cross is resurrected, then adorned with gold and silver. The Cross announces that because of its suffering and obedience, it will be honored above all other trees; it then commands the Dreamer to tell others what he has seen and heard. In the end, the Dreamer's hope of a heavenly home is renewed and he vows to seek again the glorious Rood.
Many critics have noted the poet's use of heroic diction and imagery in The Dream of the Rood and the representation of the Crucifixion as a battle. The poet develops the theme of triumph achieved through suffering as both the Cross and Christ undergo a transformation from defeat to victory. Bernard F. Huppé has summarized this view, remarking that "the Crucifixion is pictured as a battle and both Christ and the Cross as warriors, whose deaths are victories, and whose burials are preludes to the triumph of their Resurrections." Scholars assert, however, that this heroic treatment of the theme of the Crucifixion was unique for Christian poetry. While it has been generally assumed that, in using such language, the poet was trying to appeal to an audience acclimated to heroic verse, some critics have contended that he had inherent knowledge of the imagery of warfare and naturally used it in his poetry. Another key approach to the poem has been through liturgical influence; although it is uncertain how well-acquainted the poet was with religious and ecclesiastical services, some commentators have pointed out that The Dream of the Rood draws on the language of Christianity. Howard R. Patch has maintained that, in composing the poem, its author "could hardly rid his mind of all the echoes of the hymns and responsive utterances and the liturgical offices which he was accustomed to hear at various times during the church year."
The source as well as the authorship of The Dream of the Rood remain unknown. Authorship of the poem has been credited by many critics to Cynewulf (c. 770-840), author of the epic poem Elene, and by others to Caedmon (fl. 658-680). The earliest evidence of the text of The Dream of the Rood is found on the Ruthwell Cross, a large freestanding stone cross, which is inscribed with passages from The Dream of the Rood rendered in the Northumbrian dialect. Scholars have been unable to concur upon a date for the cross, proposing any time from the fifth to the twelfth century, although many have agreed that the eighth century—the Golden Age of Northumbria—is the most probable date. The most complete text of The Dream of the Rood is found in the Vercelli Book, a manuscript of Old English prose and poetry unanimously assigned to the second half of the tenth century. Some commentators believe that The Dream of the Rood is possibly a later version of a lost poem by Caedmon; this theory is supported by one scholar's speculation that the Ruthwell Cross was inscribed on the upper panel with the phrase "Caedmon made me." However, this assertion has been called into question by others who have been unable to find any convincing traces of Caedmon's name on the cross.
Positive criticism of The Dream of the Rood has been abundant. Charles W. Kennedy has called it "one of the most beautiful of Old English poems," and J. A. Burrow has praised it as "one of the first and one of the most successful treatments in English of the theme of the Crucifixion." Although most critics agree on the merit of The Dream of the Rood, certain aspects, such as the origin of the final lines of the poem, have prompted significant debate. Most scholars support the conclusion, drawn by A.S. Cook, that the last few lines were added by someone other than the original author when the poem was transcribed for the Vercelli Book; Bruce Dickins and Alan S. C. Ross have contended that "the latter half [of the poem] does not afford any metrical or linguistic evidence which necessitates the assumption of an early date, and in quality it seems to us definitely inferior." However, other critics, including Burrow, have maintained that the lines are indeed a part of the original poem despite their mediocrity, arguing that "it is not difficult to see that the themes of the earlier part are developed consistently and meaningfully." Despite the many uncertainties remaining about the poem, scholars agree that The Dream of the Rood is clearly one of the best poems of the Passion ever composed, for, as M. Bentinck Smith has written, it "above all others, betrays the spirit of tender yet passionate veneration, of awe and adoration for 'the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died'.
Principal English Editions
Stopford A. Brooke (essay date 1898)
SOURCE: "Poems Attributed to Cynewulf or His School," in English Literature: From the Beginning to the Norman Conquest, 1898. Reprint by Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1921, pp. 180-202.
[Brooke was an Anglo-Irish clergyman, poet, critic, and educator whose Primer of English Literature (1876) was popular with generations of students. In the excerpt below, he contends that Cynewulf, who is often credited as the author of The Dream of the Rood, wrote the epic poem as "his farewell to earth."]
TheDream of the Rood is in the Vercelli Book. There is great discussion concerning its authorship. A large number of critics allot it to Cynewulf, but they lessen the weight of their opinion by giving other poems to Cynewulf which have nothing in them of the artist. Ten Brink and Zupitza both maintained against Wülker the authorship of Cynewulf. No assertion can be made at present on the subject. It is a matter of probabilities.
I not only think it probable that Cynewulf wrote it, but I believe it to be his last poem, his farewell to earth. It seems indeed to be the dirge, as it were, of all Northumbrian poetry. But I do not believe that the whole of the poem was original, but worked up by Cynewulf from that early lay of the Rood, a portion of which we find in the runic verses on the Ruthwell Cross. That poem...
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Howard R. Patch (essay date 1919)
SOURCE: "Liturgical Influence in The Dream of the Rood," in PMLA, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, 1919, pp. 233-57.
[In the following essay, Patch explores parallels between The Dream of the Rood and church liturgical texts "in order to gain a further knowledge of the poet's working method and to assist in reproducing a sense of the connotativeness of the poem."]
Scholars have long made an earnest search for analogues to The Dream of the Rood,but the very remoteness of the parallels thus afforded so far is a unique testimony to the high degree of originality in the poem. Closer in some ways than any of them, in that it gives us a dialogue with the cross, the "Disputation between Mary and the Cross" might have been cited; but here again comparison shows that the Dream is a poem standing apart in the unusually fine quality of its inspiration and in its genuine feeling. The poet seems to have had little to work on for a basis, either as a source or as a guide. Yet we know that he was deeply religious and we can be sure that he must have been thoroughly acquainted with those parts of the ecclesiastical service which were devoted to the celebration of the cross. In writing such a poem he could hardly rid his mind of all the echoes of the hymns and responsive utterances and the liturgical offices which he was accustomed to hear...
(The entire section is 5129 words.)
Margaret Schlauch (essay date 1940)
SOURCE: "The Dream of the Rood as Prosopopoeia," in Essays and Studies in Honor of Carleton Brown, edited by Percy W. Long, New York University Press, 1940, pp. 23-34.
[Here, Schlauch praises the poet's unique use of prosopopoeia (discourse by inanimate objects), stating that he "was not following a literary tradition concerning the Rood; he was making an innovation with the originality of genius."]
As succeeding generations of scholars have studied the body of Old English lyric poetry and given tribute to its enduring literary qualities, an almost incredulous amazement has been expressed repeatedly concerning the originality of form and the extraordinary emotional intensity manifested in it. These qualities are particularly striking in the anonymous verse monologues which make up a considerable part of the whole lyrical offering. It is generally admitted that these poems show exceptional skill and mastery of technique; they are not the fumbling efforts of untaught beginners. For poems such as Wanderer, Seafarer, and Banished Wife's Lament, classical models have been suggested more than once. These lyrics represent persons as speakers. As partial explanation of their genesis, it has been pointed out [by Rudolf Imelmann, Forschungen zur altenglischen Elegie, 1920] that any cultivated Englishman of the time would have...
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Charles W. Kennedy (essay date 1943)
SOURCE: "Poetry in the Cynewulfian Manner," in The Earliest English Poetry: A Critical Survey, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1943, pp. 235-66.
[In the following excerpt, Kennedy discusses glorification of the Cross in The Dream of the Rood, attributing to the poem 'pre-eminent distinction as a superb lyric presentation of a religious adoration which finds its symbol in the Cross. '
In three Old English poems veneration of the Cross receives stressed and memorable expression: the Elene, Christ III, and Dream of the Rood. Of these, Christ III and the Dream have most in common both in spirit and detail. Cynewulf 's Elene … is a narrative of the Invention of the Cross, which attains its greatest poetic distinction in two incidental passages, the descriptions of Constantine's battle against the Huns, and Elene's sea-journey. In the lines which deal with the Cross itself, the Elene makes little display of that lyric emotion which is so continuously characteristic of the Dream of the Rood, and which colors at least two passages in Christ III. Of the three poems, it is the Dream of the Rood which, among all Old English religious poems, has pre-eminent distinction as a superb lyric presentation of a religious adoration which finds its symbol in the...
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Rosemary Woolf (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "Doctrinal Influences on The Dream of the Rood," in Medium Aevum, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, 1958, pp. 137-53.
[In the following essay, Woolf assesses The Dream of the Rood 's emphasis on Christ's supremacy and suffering, stating that the poet "reflected exactly the doctrinal pattern of thought of his time. '
The unique quality of the treatment of the Crucifixion in the Dream of the Rood has been long admired, and memorably commented upon. It is unique, not only in Old English poetry—that would not be remarkable since so little survives—but in the whole range of English, and perhaps even western, literature. It is almost certain that this uniqueness of conception is the Anglo-Saxon poet's own, and that he did not have before him a source which he followed closely. There is a compactness and intensity in the poem that would be startling in an Anglo-Saxon translation or paraphrase; nor is its individuality more easily accounted for by the hypothesis that it was originally the work of a Roman rather than of an Anglo-Saxon Christian. Nevertheless all literary and historical probability is against the supposition that nothing but the poet's personal inspiration lies between the gospel narrative and the Dream of the Rood. But, whilst the poem is obviously not a Biblical paraphrase in conventional style, yet it...
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Robert E. Diamond (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "Heroic Diction in The Dream of the Rood," in Studies in Honor of John Wilcox, edited by A. Dayle Wallace and Woodburn O. Ross, 1958. Reprint by Books for Libraries Press, 1972, pp. 3-7.
[In the essay below, Diamond analyzes the use of heroic language in The Dream of the Rood.]
Many people who have read The Dream of the Rood have been struck by the poet's use of certain heroic phrases in describing the crucifixion. The tree from which the cross was made is said to have been cut down by bold enemies (strange féondas, 30b). The Lord is referred to as a young hero (geong hæleþb, 39a). He is said to be bold and brave (strang and stiþmód, 40a). The cross is said to be wounded with arrows (strælum forwundod, 62b). The Lord is said to rest for a while after the mighty conflict (æfter þám micelan gewinne, 65a). When the poet says that the Lord hastens with great courage (efstan elne micele, 34a), he uses a phrase strongly reminiscent of the one used to state that Beowulf hastened to do battle with Grendel's mother (efste mid elne, 1493). The executioners of the Lord are twice called warriors (hilderincas, 61, 72), the very compound used in Beowulf to refer to Beowulf twice (1495, 1576) and to Grendel once (986). The Lord is referred to as a famous...
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J. A. Burrow (essay date 1959)
SOURCE: "An Approach to The Dream of the Rood, " in Old English Literature: Twenty-two Analytical Essays, edited by Martin Stevens and Jerome Mandel, University of Nebraska Press, 1968, pp. 253-67.
[In the following essay, first published in 1959 in Neophilologus, Burrow contrasts the emphasis and detail in The Dream of the Rood with that in several Middle English Crucifixion lyrics.]
The Dream of the Rood is one of the first and one of the most successful treatments in English of the theme of the Crucifixion. It is successful because it is more than just a biblical paraphrase in the Caedmonian tradition. For one thing, the biblical narrative is treated with a greater freedom of emphasis and selection; for another, it is integrated into a new, non-biblical form, involving dreamer, vision, and speaking Cross. The present essay attempts to analyze and illustrate these two aspects of the poem, and to suggest how its characteristic pattern of emphasis, its "point of view," emerges in both. For the poem seems to me remarkable among Old English poems in the closeness of its organization. The organizing principle is, partly, the point of view or religious sensibility characteristic of the early Middle Ages as against the late. I think, therefore, that comparison with some later medieval English poems of the Crucifixion throws...
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Stanley B. Greenfield (essay date 1965)
SOURCE: "Christ as Poetic Hero," in A Critical History of Old English Literature, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 124-45.
[In the following excerpt, Greenfield centers on the prominent role of Christ in The Dream of the Rood, emphasizing "the poem's double stress on the triumphant and suffering Christ. ']
[Christ] is, by the nature of His Passion, eminently central to the Dream of the Rood, the finest expression of the Passion in Old English poetry. This 156-line narrative-lyrical adoration of the Cross survives in the Vercelli Book, and part of it appears in Northumbrian runic inscription in the margins of the east and west faces of the eighth-century Ruthwell [rivl] Cross in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Two lines reminiscent of the poem also appear on the late tenth-century Brussels Cross. The relation between the Ruthwell inscription and the Vercelli text is not clear: is the former a condensation of an original Anglian poem of about A.D. 700, preserved in its West Saxon tenth-century form in the Vercelli MS, or is the manuscript poem, even in its earliest shape, an expansion of the Cross inscription? There is also a problem with the longer poem itself: lines 79 and following seem to be in a different style from the Crucifixion segment that precedes, and are possibly an addition by a later redactor. Even so, the...
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John V. Fleming (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "The Dream of the Rood and Anglo-Saxon Monasticism," in Traditio, Vol. XXII, 1966, pp. 43-72.
[Below, Fleming examines the characters, language, and themes of The Dream of the Rood, calling the poem "a carved celebration of the monastic ideals" of English Benedictinism.]
The earliest text of The Dream of the Rood consists of a few lines of runic inscriptions carved around the edges of a North English high cross now at Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire. It represents no more than a fragment of the text as we find it in the Vercelli MS, a short passage describing the Crucifixion and the ordeal of the Cross. The precise relationship between the Ruthwell runes and the Vercelli poem is a matter of conjecture and dispute. To some critics the Ruthwell inscriptions represent an 'earlier poem,' of which the Vercelli text is an expansion or a later revision or both. It is a question to which I shall wish to devote some attention in due course. For the present, I would suggest that the runic inscriptions provide a valuable clue to the interpretation of the Vercelli poem along lines so far left unexplored; for the runes form a part of a rich iconographic program, developing a unified meaning closely connected with the figurative meaning of The Dream of the Rood.
This 'unified meaning' of the...
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Louis H. Leiter (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "The Dream of the Rood: Patterns of Transformation," in Old English Poetry: Fifteen Essays, edited by Robert P. Creed, Brown University Press, 1967, pp. 93-127.
[In this essay, Leiter studies the transformation of the poem's three characters: Christ, the Cross, and the Dreamer.]
The Dream of the Rood is concerned with a process of salvation by means of radical transformation that involves three actors in a universal spiritual crisis. Metamorphosis informs the structure of the poem and gives life and significance to its aesthetic materials.
In presenting these transformations, the poet has recourse to Christian tradition—to the Passion of Christ, the story of the Cross, and the hoped-for conversion of fallen mankind. For poetic reasons the poet casts the Passion, the drama of the Cross, and the salvation of the Dreamer into a series of three almost identical dramatic metaphors that reinforce each other contrapuntally. By this means he achieves amplification, progression, and cohesion among his metaphors. But the metaphors being dramatic, are also dynamic: they are incremental, varied, and transmuted; they progress through a series of dramatic climaxes. In their final resolution they project a new life, a new state of being, for the three performers—Christ, Cross, and Dreamer.
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Faith H. Patten (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "Structure and Meaning in The Dream of the Rood, " in English Studies, Netherlands, Vol. 49, No. 1, 1968, pp. 385-401.
[Here, Patten explores the analogies between the Dreamer and the Cross, the Cross and Christ, and Christ and the Dreamer. She also analyzes the allegorical and historical aspects of The Dream of the Rood.]
The existence in The Dream of The Rood of two speakers and two points of view, the cross and the dreamer, appears at first aesthetically disturbing, by seeming to imperil the poem's unity. But, on the contrary, the two points of view provide the backbone of the poem's structure which, at once complex and unified, both creates and reveals the poem's meaning.
This structure divides into three parts (11. 1-27, 28-121, 122-end), each governed by the relation between its own subject and the rood. The cross is the one element common and central to all three parts; it provides the poem's chief means of unification. The first of these three parts, the introduction (through 1. 27), consists of the speaker's description of the rood's appearance to him in a dream. Its subject is the dreamer; its significance, the meaning of the cross to and for him. This meaning is indicated by those visible attributes of the cross that the dreamer immediately sees, but neither the dreamer nor the reader can, at...
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John Canuteson (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "The Crucifixion and the Second Coming in The Dream of the Rood," in Modern Philology, Vol. 66, No. 4, May, 1969, pp. 293-97.
[In the following essay, Canuteson compares the Crucifixion as portrayed in The Dream of the Rood with the Biblical descriptions of Christ's second coming.]
Praise for The Dream of the Rood has been uniformly generous. Charles W. Kennedy [The Earliest English Poetry, 1943] declares that it deserves "pre-eminent distinction as a superb lyric presentation of a religious adoration which finds its symbol in the Cross." In discussing possible sources for the poem, [Bruce] Dickins and [Alan S.C.] Ross mention [in The Dream of the Rood, 1966] the beautiful imagery, and Margaret Schlauch has pointed out [in "The Dream of the Rood as Prosopopoeia," in Essays and Studies in Honor of Carleton Brown, 1940] the uniqueness in Old English literature of The Dream of the Rood by virtue of the poet's technique of prosopopoeia: "To endow the cross with power of locution was to use a device of unexampled effectiveness in making vivid an event about which, for all devout Christians, the entire history of the world revolved."
The "effectiveness," then, of the poem has been beyond dispute. Some scholars have tried to determine influences on the...
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O. D. Macrae-Gibson (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "Christ the Victor-Vanquished in The Dream of the Rood, " in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Société Né'ophilologique, Vol. LXX, 1969, pp. 667-72.
[In the excerpt below, Macrae-Gibson focuses on the transformations of the Christ-figure in The Dream of the Rood.]
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Carol Jean Wolf (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Christ as Hero in The Dream of the Rood," in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Société Néophilologique, Vol. LXXI, No. 3, 1970, pp. 202-10.
[In the following essay, Wolf examines the poet's 'presentation of the Crucifixion as a battle" in The Dream of the Rood, focusing on theme and diction.]
The unlettered singer who attempts to create songs embodying thematic material novel to his tradition encounters severe and sometimes insurmountable difficulties. With the option of creating original formulas virtually denied him, the artist must find the means of expressing these new ideas in the traditional verses developed slowly by generations of his predecessors in their treatment of stories long familiar both to themselves and to their audiences. That he does not always succeed in the task is clear from the failure of Yugoslavian bards to cope with the socio-political themes of Marxism. Problems similar to those faced by the Yugoslavian singers must have confronted the Anglo-Saxon scop who sought to express within his songs the novel subjects and themes brought to his island by Christianity, for he, too, worked within a tradition which, if not necessarily oral, at least utilized formulaic techniques surviving from an earlier epoch. Of the extant Old English verses, few offer greater testimony to the ability of these...
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Edward B. Irving, Jr. (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "Crucifixion Witnessed, or Dramatic Interaction in The Dream of the Rood," in Modes of Interpretation in Old English Literature: Essays in Honour of Stanley B. Greenfield, Phyllis Rugg Brown, Georgia Ronan Crampton, Fred C. Robinson, eds., University of Toronto Press, 1986, pp. 101-13.
[In the following essay, Irving describes the treatment of the Crucifixion from the perspectives of the poem's two main characters, the Dreamer and the Rood.]
Very few of the countless artistic representations of the Crucifixion in the Middle Ages have the capacity to seize our imaginations like the Old English poem we call The Dream of the Rood. Probably it is rivalled only in the visual arts. Other literary attempts in English to express the complex experience of suffering and witnessing that dominates the event seem to fall short of The Dream of the Rood's special intensity. I think specifically of the later religious lyrics where the listener or reader is urged to meditate on the catalogued afflictions of Christ; or the more dramatic renditions where the listener or reader, taken into the scene as spectator or passer-by, is movingly addressed directly by a reproachful Christ from the cross (particularly in the 'O vos omnes' theme), or where pain is inflicted on Christ's passive body by a squad of irritable soldiers...
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Monica Brzezinski (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "The Harrowing of Hell, the Last Judgment, and The Dream of the Rood," in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Socieété Néophilologique, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 3, 1988, pp. 252-65.
[Below, Brzezinski contends that the last few lines of The Dream of the Rood refer to the Last Judgment rather than to the Harrowing of Hell.]
The narrative structure of The Dream of the Rood has been described as a Chinese box-like arrangement in which the Dreamer's first-person report of his vision frames the speech of the Rood, which in turn encloses a description of the passion of Christ. This neat equation of the Dream's structure with that of a Russian doll is, however, inadequate, as it neglects the concluding lines of the poem: the nested narratives are followed by a puzzling eight-and-a-half line coda which has been traditionally identified as "a brief and oblique allusion to the Harrowing of Hell." The interpretation of this passage as the Harrowing of Hell has presented a major obstacle to seeing The Dream of the Rood as a unified whole, an obstacle so great that some critics have termed the coda a later addition to the original poem, following [Albert S.] Cook's suggestion [in The Dream of the Rood: An Old English Poem Attributed to Cynewulf 1905] that the last section "has either...
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Bolton, W. F. "The Book of Job in The Dream of the Rood." Mediaevalia: A Journal of Medieval Studies 6 (1980): 87-103.
Compares the themes and imagery in The Dream of the Rood with those found in the Book of Job.
Burlin, Robert B. "The Ruthwell Cross, The Dream of the Rood and the Vita Contemplativa." Studies in Philology LXV, No. 1 (January 1968): 23-43.
Contends that "the contemplative life was a significant component of the intellectual and spiritual climate" that existed during the time of the composition of The Dream of the Rood.
Carragáin, Éamonn Ó. "Crucifixion as Annunciation: The Relation of The Dream of the Rood to the Liturgy Reconsidered." English Studies 63, No. 6 (December 1982): 487-505.
Compares the Ruthwell Cross Crucifixion Poem with The Dream of the Rood, concluding that they both "sprang from an unbroken tradition of monastic devotion informed by experience of the liturgy."
Cook, Albert S., ed. Introduction to The Dream of the Rood: An Old English Poem Attributed to Cynewulf, pp. v-lix. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1905.
Analyzes the literary characteristics and theories of authorship of The Dream...
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