The Dream of the Rood

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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.

Major Themes

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...

(This entire section contains 1098 words.)

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accustomed to hear at various times during the church year."

Textual History

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.

Critical Reception

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