“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.
Anglo-Saxon poetry adheres to a set of conventions different from those used by the later English poetry with which most people are familiar. Alliteration, the repetition of an initial consonant sound, is the primary ordering structure of Old English poetry. The poetic line is divided into two half-lines by the caesura. Each half-line contains two stresses, providing four metrical positions in each line, and any number of unstressed syllables. The alliteration occurs on the stressed syllables and links the two half-lines so either one or both of the stressed syllables in the first half of the line must alliterate with one, usually the first, stressed syllable after the caesura. Medieval manuscripts do not divide works into stanzas and lines.
The poem opens with the dreamer’s midnight vision of the rood, or cross, alternately adorned with gold and jewels or drenched in blood, representing the redemptive and violent aspects of the Crucifixion. The rood begins to speak to the dreamer and tells the story of its participation in Christ’s death. “Enemies” ripped the rood from the ground when it was a tree and turned it into what is first described as a gallows and later a cross for the execution of prisoners. The rood then describes Christ’s willingness to ascend the cross as well as its own feelings of fear and a desire to defend the Lord against his enemies. Instead, the rood obeyed Christ, standing firm, and it tells with great pathos how it shared in Christ’s torment as nails pierced the wood and blood poured onto the cross. Friends of Jesus removed him from the cross, and the bloody rood watched as they prepared a tomb and sang funeral songs. The three crosses were taken down and buried. Now Christ has honored the rood with the ability to heal those who make supplication to it. The rood instructs the dreamer to make his vision known to others so that they might understand Christ’s sacrifice for their sins and prepare for...
(The entire section is 840 words.)