Saturday, March 22, 2008

Dream of the Rood

'Rood', of course, is a synonym for 'cross'. The Dream of the Rood is one of the classics of Old English literature. It transfers the typical images and verbal associations of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry to the Crucifixion, thus treating Christ and the Cross (which is personified and from whose view we see the events of the Crucifixion) as warriors who heroically transform death into victory. The author of the poem is unknown; it has in the past been attributed to Caedmon and to Cynewulf, both great poets, but this seems to be little more than scholarly guessing. The poem itself is notable for being a beautiful and unusual expression of orthodox Christology.

Lo! I will tell of the best of dreams,
what I dreamed in the middle of the night,
after the speech-bearers were in bed.
It seemed to me that I saw a very wondrous tree
lifted into the air, enveloped by light,
the brightest of trees. That beacon was all
covered with gold. Gems stood
beautiful at the surface of the earth, there were five also
up on the central joint of the cross. All those fair through eternal decree gazed
[on] the angel of the Lord. [It] was certainly not a wicked person’s gallows there,
but holy spirits, men over the earth,
and all this famous creation gazed on him....

The most excellent tree then began to speak the words:
It was years ago (that, I still remember),
that I was cut down from the edge of the forest,
removed from my foundation. Strong enemies seized me there,
they made me into a spectacle for themselves, commanded me to lift up their criminals.
Men carried me there on their shoulders, until they set me on a hill,
many enemies secured me there. Then I saw mankind’s Lord
hasten with great zeal, that he wished to climb upon me.
There, I did not dare break to pieces or bow down
against the Lord’s words, when I saw the surface
of the earth tremble. I was able to destroy
all the enemies, nevertheless, I stood firmly.
The young hero stripped himself then (that was God Almighty),
strong and resolute. He ascended onto the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, there, [since] he wished to release mankind.
I trembled when the man embraced me. However, I dared not bow down to the earth,
fall to the surface of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was raised [as a] cross. I lifted up the mighty king,
the lord of the heavens; I dared not bend down.
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.
I endured many cruel events
on that hill. I saw the Lord of Hosts
severely stretched out. Darkness
had covered the bright radiance
of the Lord’s corpse with clouds, a shadow went forth,
dark under the sky. All of creation wept,
they lamented the king’s death. Christ was on the cross.

You can read the rest of the poem at this fascinating site, run by Mary Rambaran-Olm, from whose translation the above excerpt was taken, in the hope that you might be intrigued enough to explore some of what she has put up.

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