The Dream of the Rood

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How does personification of the cross in "The Dream of the Rood" convey a hopeful theme?

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"The Dream of the Rood" is a well-known Anglo-Saxon poem told largely from the perspective of the cross, or rood, on which Jesus was crucified. The frame narrative is that of a man who has dreamed the words of this "rood," which he describes in laudatory terms—it is "the tree of the Savior"—even though it is, ultimately, the weapon of Christ's destruction.

The choice to personify the cross is an interesting one. It makes the poem difficult to categorize in terms of where it fits within Anglo-Saxon literature. The personification of objects is a trope that would have been familiar to Anglo-Saxon readers from the so-called riddle poems, or gnomic verse: there is an understanding in Anglo-Saxon literary culture that objects can sometimes bestow upon us a certain wisdom and clarity of perspective that humans cannot.

At the same time, the poem bears many of the markers of heroic poetry, with Christ here fulfilling the role of the hero and the cross therefore cast as his loyal vassal, servant, or retainer. Thinking about the Crucifixion in this way allows us to view it from a completely new perspective.

The personified rood sees Christ in a way that is certainly hopeful. Again, in line with heroic tropes, Christ is viewed as a "young warrior," who actively moves toward the rood to climb upon it and thus achieve the salvation he is striving to claim for the world. The rood itself suffers, "skewered" with nails, but it understands that it must remain strong and upright for the "Lord of Heaven."

The cross is also able to give a powerful message of survival. As it is made of wood, of course it lasts as humans do not—it has "outlasted the deeds of the baleful / of painful sorrows." It has been transformed from an instrument of destruction into a "beacon," something which symbolizes the good deeds of Christ rather than the bad deeds which were performed against him. By personifying the cross, we are able to feel more hopeful about the possibilities of the world to come because the speaker has witnessed everything from the Crucifixion to the present day, and the "victorious tree" is now an emblem of hope for Christians.

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In this very early English poem, the narrator has a dream in which he has a conversation with the rood, or cross, on which Christ was crucified. The rood tells the story of the crucifixion from his point of view. He tells it as if he were a person who had to bear the weight of the crucified Jesus.

The personification conveys hope in several ways. The rood is "everyman," a simple, humble piece of wood, just as most followers of Christ are simple people. He is not special, and yet God chose him for this important task. The rood's humbleness is driven home when he compares himself to the Virgin Mary, a simple handmaid of the Lord. The rood says:

Likewise Almighty God exalted his own mother,
Mary herself, before all humanity,
over all the kindred of women.

Like Mary, the rood bears a humiliating burden and, like Mary, he does not bend or break. This gives hope that the humblest person can find strength and favor by holding steadfast to his faith. The humble rood notes that

I triumphant
now tower under the heavens, able to heal
any one of them, those who stand in terror of me.

The rood conveys hope by describing to the narrator the story of how Christ's death and resurrection brings the possibility of eternal life to all of mankind. The narrator ends the poem full of hope that although he is not "wealthy," he too can attain the bliss of the afterlife with the help of rood who is "able to heal:"

I hope for myself upon each and every day
for that moment when the Rood of the Lord,
that I espied here upon the earth,
shall ferry me from this loaned life
and bring me then where there is great bliss,
joys in heaven, where there are the people of the Lord,
seated at the feast, where there is everlasting happiness
and seat me where I will be allowed afterwards
to dwell in glory, brooking joys well amid the sainted.

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The personification of the cross in this medieval poem is important in conveying the poem's theme of hope because of the message that the cross itself brings. It talks of its own story, and how it was transformed from the ultimate image of destitution, misery and suffering, into something that was unbelievably precious and life-giving, as Christian doctrine dictates. As Christ's death, as terrible as that was, enabled God to give his free gift of grace to all people, the transformation that the cross undergoes and talks about it something that gives hope to the speaker in the poem and the way that he ends being full of hope, no matter what sufferings and difficulties mark his life in the present. Note the following quote that captures how the speaker feels having heard the story of the cross:

I look forward to the time when the cross of the Lord

that I previously saw here on the earth,

in this temporary life, will fetch me,

and will then bring me to where great bliss is,

joy in the heavens, where the Lord’s people are

seated at the feast, where perpetual joy is...

Hearing the cross's personal story that is narrated to the speaker enhances the tranformative message of the cross and the sacrifice that Jesus made. Just as the cross transformed from a method of death, tortune and profound suffering, so to can those who follow God be transformed themselves and look forward to an eternity in heaven. The cross, through its personification in this poem, points towards the ultimate transformation that awaits all those who are faithful to God.

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