The Dream of the Rood

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How is the cross personified in "The Dream of the Rood" and what effects does this have?

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In the “Dream of the Rood,” (Unknown author, compiled in the 10th century A.D.), the most effective devices used are not only the personification of the cross but also the rich, meaningful imagery the poet uses to expand and deepen this central metaphor. The process is almost like painting, with each precise brush stroke making the glowing rood or cross at the heart of the poem more vivid and meaningful. The poet achieves this painterly effect both by drawing on images common in the Christian and Anglo-Saxon traditions of the time and by casting them in a new light.

The purpose for this is very specific: the familiar imagery would instantly bring to life the poem’s theme for its intended medieval Christian audience, while the rich, entertaining telling would help non-Christians be moved by the poem’s action. Some of these themes and actions are Christ’s passion, his sacrifice for humanity, and humanity’s hope for redemption through Christ. We can see the full effect of the poem’s layered use of imagery in lines 28-34:

It happened long ago—I remember it still—
I was hewn down at the holt’s end
stirred from my stock. Strong foes seized me there,
worked in me an awful spectacle, ordered me to heave up their criminals.
Those warriors bore me on their shoulders
until they set me down upon a mountain.
Enemies enough fastened me there.
I saw then the Lord of Mankind
hasten with much courage, willing to mount up upon me.

The cross as a metaphor for Christ’s suffering is a common image, but the way the poet uses detailed physical description to capture the journey of the cross is fresh. For a medieval audience, this detailed physical description would immediately add emotional weight to themes with which they already felt cultural resonance.

Indeed, the physical details make the poem an immersive experience even for the modern reader. The cross is “hewn” down and roughly “stirred” or moved out of its stock. This sudden, disturbing act foreshadows the terrible events which are soon to occur. The expression, seized by "strong foes,” evokes a familiar Christian theme of the battle between good and evil. Further, the “Lord of Mankind ... willing to mount upon me,” paints a picture of Christ as a brave warrior and the cross as his noble horse in battle.

Note how the poem uses several metaphors in the span of a few lines to capture the meaning of Christ’s passion as transformation. The cross may be worked in an “awful spectacle” and ordered to “heave up their criminals,” but it is also Christ’s mount into the battle against evil. Earlier in the poem, the poet has referred to the rood as a “beacon” or a flag, often carried in battle, and as a “victory-tree.” So, by now, the cross already has multiple meanings: it is a tree, a crucifix, and a beacon in battle.

Later in the poem, the cross turns from a Christian symbol to a metaphor for Christ himself. “Those war-men left me/ to stand, dripping with blood—I was entirely wounded with arrows” (Lines 62-63). Note how the cross says “I” was wounded with arrows, signaling that it has become one with Christ. The transformation of the cross and its identification with Christ work as a meta-metaphor for humanity itself. If humans follow Christ, they too can be reunited with him in the kingdom of heaven, just as the cross became one with him. Like the transformed cross, which goes from being a wooden structure to a living, gem-encrusted, “victory-tree,” humans too can rise into eternal life. It is interesting to note that Christ is a carpenter or a woodworker in the Bible: he has the power to transform wood, in this case even grant it new life.

The other ways in which the poet uses imagery to add layers to the central metaphor of the personified cross are literary devices, such as alliteration and juxtaposition. Lines such as those that follow add poetic power to the lyrics, adding to its appeal as entertainment to non-Christian audiences.

It seemed to me that I saw the greatest tree
brought into the sky, bewound in light,
the brightest of beams. That beacon was entirely
garnished with gold. (Lines 4-7)

The ‘b’ and ‘g’ sounds—mostly intact here from the original in old English—converge, adding to the power of the lyrics, making them easy to remember and recite out loud. This is also important if we keep in mind that the poem was probably meant to be spread widely, and needed to be easy and memorable for oral transmission.

Further, looking at the poetic device of juxtaposition, the smashing together of glory with gore, common in the Christian tradition of the time, recalls the suffering which is necessary for transformation. One cannot exist without the other. Thus, the poem grounds us in the dual reality of human existence and also firmly reminds us of the great physical price Christ bore to save humanity. Again, this last bit is a theme common in Christian literature.

Gemstones had
nobly endowed the Sovereign’s tree.
Nevertheless I could perceive through all that gold
a wretched and ancient struggle, where it first started
to sweat blood on its right side. (Lines 16-20)

Finally, to answer if the use of the cross in the poem is troubling or problematic, I can't think of many such ways, unless referring to the poem’s suggestion that hope is offered to those who wear the cross, or only to the followers of Christianity, as spelled out in the following lines:

There will be no need to be afraid there at that moment
for those who already bear in their breast the best of signs,
yet every soul ought to seek through the Rood
the holy realm from the ways of earth—
those who intend to dwell with their Sovereign. (Lines 117-121)

In these lines the possibility of redemption is the greatest for those who already “bear in their breast the best of signs,” that is, those who wear the cross or practicing Christians, and for those who are willing to embrace Christianity and “seek through the Rood/ the holy realm ...” However, in my opinion, this critique should keep in mind the historical context of this poem as well as its intended audience. The proselytizing message of the poem is hardly unusual for its time or purpose. The time in which it was composed was one of the rapid expansion of Christianity and Christian cosmology itself was shifting to a three-layered Heaven-Earth-Hell model. The very aim of human life in this context was to strain for this upwards heaven through Christian ways. Given the poem’s context, I find its themes and concerns timely.

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The most revealing moments from "The Dream of the Rood" come from when "the most excellent tree then began to speak the words" (27).  The personification from this section of the poem is not only remarkably written, but emotionally jarring as well.  To see the crucifixion scene from the tree's perspective as the cross reveals themes of sacrifice, inadequacy, and determination.

Clearly the tree feels completely inadequate to carry "the mighty king, the lord of heavens, but his sheer determination to honor Christ's sacrifice makes him resolute" (44-45).  The tree "dared not bend down", no matter the price.  In many ways the tree shares in Christ's crucifixion, feeling his agony in tandem:

 "They pierced me with dark nails. On me, the scars are visible,
   open malicious wounds. I did not dare injure any of them.
   They mocked both of us, together. I was all drenched with blood,
covered from the man’s side, after he had sent forth his spirit." (46-49)

The most powerful aspect of "The Dream of the Rood" is the emotional connection forged between the rood and Christ, which through personification and imagery, draws the reader into a powerful dream.

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