“The Dream of the Rood” is acknowledged as one of the great religious poems in the English language. After much research, there is no known author. It has been determined that the poem was written in the late seventh or early eighth century. In the tenth century, the poem was first discovered on a runic or Ruthwell Cross. The word “rood” translated from Old English to English as crucifix or cross.
The poem has been translated from Old English to English by Charles Kennedy, considered to be the definitive translation. The thematic focus of the poem is Christ’s crucifixion and victory over sin. According to scholars, included in the poem were pagan elements to entice the Anglo-Saxon pagans to convert to Christianity.
The poem can only be read through a translation; therefore, analyzing the style of the original poem without knowledge of Old English is impossibility. The real crux lies in understanding the meaning and purpose of the poem for its time period.
Written in three parts, the poem is considered as the first dream poem: the unknown man’s account of his dream; the cross personified; and the dreamer pledging to find salvation in Christ.
The poem begins a vision. The dreamer sees a beautiful tree in the sky. It is laced with jewels and gold. Angels and the Lord gaze at the tree. The man becomes aware of his own terrible sins as he beheld the “victor-tree.” As the man watches the tree, it begins to change. It bleeds from the right side. The man is fearful and troubled as he becomes aware that this is the cross on which Christ was crucified.
The Rood or Cross speaks as if it were a person. He describes his being hewn as he slept and enemies dragged him to a pageant. The tree was borne on men’s shoulders up to a hill. Realizing that he is to bear the body of the Lord of men, he hopes that he will break or bow and hurt the enemies of Christ. But he stood erect. The Son of God, along with the Rood, acted with courage and great bravery.
The Cross parallels the suffering of Jesus to his wounds. When he went to Heaven, the Cross was thrown in a ditch. Later, Christians found the Cross. Man now reveres the Cross and covers it with silver and gold. Man now prays to the Cross, and it heals those who believe in the Crucifixion.
The man tells others what he has seen and heard as a means to explain the salvation message. In the end, the dreamer is renewed with hope and vows to seek again the heavenly Cross.
And day by day I wait until the cross of God, which here on earth I saw, in the time of this fleeting life, may lead and guide me where is exceeding joy, rapture in heaven.
The primary theme of the poem portrays the unsaved man through his experiences and visions finding salvation. The “Dreamer” becomes a servant for God hoping to share the Cross and the Lord with those who do not know or do not believe. This theme was common in early religious poetry.
What makes the poem unique was its use of the Crucifixion as entity unto itself. The pairing of Christ and the Cross as heroic figures whose deaths are victories for Christianity was a new approach in literature.
The poem is amazing for those who are Christians to know there was such creativity and love for God even in the early centuries.