The Dream of the Rood

Dr Rosalind Love

Michaelmas 2012

The Dream of the Rood

Weop eal gesceaft,

cwiðdon cyninges fyll. Crist wæs on rode.

You may have seen in the news earlier this year that archaeologists

digging at Trumpington uncovered the grave of a young girl who was

buried in the seventh century wearing a gold and garnet cross (see

picture). In that girl’s day Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England was still

young. Handsomely decorated crosses like hers are rare finds, but we

have enough to sense the importance the Anglo-Saxons attached to that

symbol of their newly-acquired faith. I’ve also given you a photo of a

reconstruction of the crumpled cross that was part of the Staffordshire

hoard found by a metal-detectorist in 2009. That’s probably a closer

analogy to the cross in the Old English poem I want to tell you about.

That poem has been described as ‘one of the greatest religious poems in

English literature’ [C.L. Wrenn], though if I summarise its content you

might wonder what the fuss is about: a dreamer describes his vision of a

tree that speaks to him, to tell how it was cut down and made into a cross

for the crucifixion. Nowadays for us speaking objects belong to Walt

Disney’s sugary world and so we have to work to put aside our cynicism

and recapture a time when it would have been a fresh, striking idea.

Though, you might feel there’s still something faintly shocking about a

talking cross.

This poem is referred to as the Dream of the Rood, where the oldfashioned

term ‘rood’ picks up the poet’s word for CROSS – rod. The

text survives in two distinct forms: as a 150-line poem in a book written

at tenth-century Canterbury, and as a fragmentary sixteen lines of Old

English runes carved on an eighth-century stone cross that’s now (and

always was) at Ruthwell in southern Scotland (see picture), part of the

kingdom of Northumbria in the Anglo-Saxon period. No-one knows

whether the runes were drawn from a longer poem that already existed

when the stone cross was carved, or whether someone took the runes and

built them up into the poem in the book. But we can leave that for

scholars to wrestle with, because for our purposes it doesn’t matter too

much: we can simply enjoy the full poem. A poem written at a period

some people think of as the Dark Ages, which uses remarkable artistry

and insight to bring a telling message.

This evening’s readings give us two perspectives on the meaning of the

cross: Isaiah’s prophetic words about the lamb led to the slaughter, cut

down for the iniquity of us all. And then John’s account of Jesus’s own

words, about the hour when the Son of Man will be glorified; ‘when I am

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lifted up from the earth and will draw all people to myself’. The pity of

the cross and the glory of the cross. The tension between these two views

of the crucified Christ, who was at once human and divine, troubled early

Christians and caused arguments over the right way to understand Jesus’s

nature – God? or man? And if both, then how both? Sharing God’s will?

or accepting it submissively? What our unknown poet does is to blend

those two views of Christ, and to put US – his listeners – right at the

intersection of the two. The poem’s modern title suggests it’s about the

Rood, but really it’s about the transformation wrought in the dreamer

through his meditation upon the rood. As we listen, the poet very skilfully

draws us deep into that transforming experience. He does this by a steady

shifting of perspective and a merging of identities. We, his listeners, see

with the dreamer’s eyes, then we see and feel the cross’s view, which is

also Christ’s view, then we revert to the cross’s view, finally back to that

of the deeply moved dreamer. In this way we’re taken through passion,

crucifixion, resurrection, towards the promise of everlasting bliss. Both

cross and dreamer pass, with Christ, from degradation to glory, and we

are swept along by the updraught.

So let’s begin: there’s not time to read out the whole poem and then tell

you about it, so I’ve given you the text (the handout) and what I’d like

you to do is follow the text as I take you through roughly the first two

thirds.

Hwaet! Hey! Hark! is the poet’s blunt summons to us to come alongside.

He turns out to be a dreamer, like us, an audience. By the time he starts

his tale, we’ve tacitly accepted the invitation, and settle to listen and to

‘see’ the best of dreams. Gradually the picture builds: what do we see? A

‘tree’ above us, wreathed in light, a beam, a beacon: it’s bright, it’s

covered in gold, there are gems at the four corners, and five up on the

cross-beam. These are just clues, as yet unexplained. Then another detail:

angels look on too. The object we’re all looking at is not yet named, quite

– tree, beam, beacon. The Anglo-Saxons had a lively tradition of riddlepoems

that play with perspective – a shield speaks as a battle-torn

warrior, fingers holding a pen are four travellers who leave black tracks,

and so on. In fact the whole poetic tradition was impregnated with

riddling, oblique ways of seeing things. So here too the poet plays with

our expectations – this riddle’s solution, the cross, hangs in the air, seen

but unspoken. Then suddenly we have a roundabout naming that’s darker,

and brings us up sharply: that was no robbers gallows. That was no

robbers gallows. Abruptly the view pans out to wide-angle and we’re

surprised to find that we’re not alone with the dreamer, the ‘tree’ and the

angels; there are holy souls, everyone on earth, ALL THIS GREAT

CREATION. Still we don’t directly name this thing we’re all looking it,

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rare victory-beam. At this point the dreamer becomes self-conscious –

he’s stained with sins, wounded with defilements – contrasting with the

bright tree, wrapped in joys, gold, gems. At the same instant, though, we

catch sight of something more sinister, our seeing penetrates the vision’s

surface to glimpse ‘an old strife of wretches’, suffering and evil breaking

through the bright beauty, and straightway the cross starts to bleed on its

right side, takes on human characteristics. The dreamer responds in

horror: I was driven by sorrows, feared that fair sight. And now things

speed up: like time-lapse cloud-movement, the object before us, the

beacon, undergoes extraordinary changes, expressed as violent contrasts:

now it’s covered with blood, now studded with jewels; or maybe the fresh

droplets glisten like gems. Just as the dreamer is stained so the tree is too,

not with sins, though, but by the consequences of sin, the Saviour’s blood

(though as yet the poet doesn’t say this out loud). Heavy-hearted the

dreamer lies watching some while and at last he names the tree a little

more plainly – Haelendes treow, the Saviour’s tree, standing at once for

human shame and divine glory. Time seems suspended. But the best of

woods breaks the silence, fully takes on human character by speaking into

the night’s silence. The dreamer shows no surprise at this – it seems

entirely natural – in dreams anything’s possible.

Here we exchange the ‘I’ of the dreamer – for that of the tree: little by

little too, our own identification with the dreamer becomes an

identification with the tree. The story it tells could easily be one of the

Old English Riddles I’ve mentioned, which sometimes make an

inanimate thing tell its life-story. We’re taken to the edge of a forest,

where the tree has been felled and stripped. Enemies take it, and give it

harsh orders, so it says, to raise up their felons. It’s carried to a hill and

set up. By now we’ve solved the riddle and guess that this is the cross,

and we think we know what the tree will tell us next. But since the

crucifixion story is familiar, that shared knowledge can be exploited, by

letting well-known events unfold from an unfamiliar standpoint. And I

think we must assume the story was familiar to the poet’s audience too;

this was no poem for the uninitiated, it was aimed at hearts of faith.

We might quibble that the Gospels have Jesus or Simon of Cyrene carry

the cross to the crucifixion. Yet here it has already been erected. What’s

the poet up to? He wants to create a dramatic encounter with Jesus,

because now the speaking tree becomes itself an onlooker: geseah ic, I

SAW. Now alongside the kind of Old English riddle-poem where the

object speaks about itself, there’s another kind where the riddler says I

saw and describes an object riddlingly. So what did the tree SEE? I saw

the Lord of mankind hasten with great keenness, when he wanted to

climb on to me, a young hero. Not a passive victim, then, dragged to a

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shameful death. The poet’s active verbs, come hasting, want, climb,

emphasise the vigour of the approaching figure, willing, eager. And the

poor tree is in a quandary. Anglo-Saxon poets wrote within a society built

on the key relationship of lord and retainer, bound by ties of loyalty and

obedience. So the tree daren’t go against the Lord’s word and bend or

break, even though the earth trembles. Its instincts are to slay the

surrounding enemies – fully human now, its responses – but no, it must

do otherwise. Next we’re told that ‘the young hero’ (se geong hæleð) who

has come up in haste, strips himself as if for battle, strong and steadfast,

like a Germanic warrior, and almost as an aside comes the blunt

statement: þæt wæs god ælmihtig That was God almighty. Then we get

active verbs again: he mounted the gallows, bold in the sight of many: þa

he wolde when he would, he wanted to loose mankind. Here is the

purpose of the Cross, presented as Christ’s own choosing – he wolde – he

wanted, to redeem. Moreover, the hero clasps the tree, embraces it like a

friend or lover, and it, a thing made, after all, only of wood, trembles:

‘Still I dared not bow or fall to earth, but had to stand fast’. You’d have to

be pretty cold-hearted not to feel the emotion of this moment. Which

brings with it the stark unveiling of one half of the ‘riddle’: Rod wæs ic…

Rood was I raised up, lifted a mighty King, Heaven’s Lord.

By depicting Christ as vigorous young warrior mounting the cross and

clasping it, the poet foregrounds his Divinity: Almighty God choosing the

Cross to loose mankind. But it’s not at the expense of also showing

Christ’s humanity, which is simultaneously present through the Rood’s

experience. This identification was already hinted at when the tree bled,

when it told how it had been taken by foemen at holt’s edge, reminiscent

of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested. And as the cross

unfolds the passion narrative its identification with Christ becomes yet

clearer.

Now comes the true agony: again, though, the Rood’s words jolt our

expectations: ‘with dark nails they pierced me; and you can see the scars,

cruel gashes’: not Christ but the Cross. The Rood is both terrified

onlooker and agonised sufferer: both dreaming audience—us indeed –

and crucified Christ. Then the blurring of identity reaches a point where

the Rood can say ‘they taunted both of US together’. The poet uses overemphatic

language, unc butu aetgeadere, where just one of those would

have done. Now the Rood is covered in blood, as it was earlier in the

dream, and here at last Christ is shown vulnerable too: the blood flows

from the man’s side, not from the Cross as before. But even in death

Christ actively sends out his spirit. This moves the Cross to express the

bleakness of the moment – much have I borne on that hill, saw the God of

Hosts harshly hung up, as darkness wreathed the radiant corpse. Out of

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the shocked numbness comes a response in a line full of mournful

alliteration: wann under wolcnum: Wéop eal gesceaft ‘dark under the

clouds, all creation wept.’ The king has fallen, the bold hero vanquished,

prompting the stark near-monosyllabic Crist wæs on rode. The two

halves of the riddle are now solved, both ‘tree’ and ‘hero’ named for what

they are.

After all the intimacy of identification – the cross’s, ours – briefly the

Rood draws back, becomes an onlooker, like the dreamer, and like us.

Then, the narrative moves on. The identification of cross and Christ

continues, yet simultaneously the poet sustains the externalised

observation of events. The disciples take Jesus down while the Rood

looks on, grief-stricken; and here the poet deliberately repeats the

language of the dreamer’s earlier horrified reaction to seeing the cross

first begin to bleed ic waes mid sorgum gedrefed ‘I was troubled with

sorrows’. Humbly the Rood stoops to the disciples’ hands, just as before

it had obeyed the Lord and not bent. The poet presents a scene that

flickers disconcertingly, almost surreal: they took there Almighty God, he

says, lifted him from the grim torture. The cross they leave, blooddrenched,

wounded by spears. And go instead to lay down the limbweary

crucified one, stand at his head, looking upon heaven’s Lord. Even

after death the poet still gives Christ agency: ‘he rested himself there a

while, tired after the great conflict’. The disciples lay the Lord of

Victories in a tomb of bright stone. Only then do they give voice to their

grief: they sang a sorhleoð, a sorrow-song for him, sad in the eventide.

And then they left. With poignant understatement the Rood says, ‘He

rested there with small company.’ A moment’s respite before what comes

next and air of expectancy, though interestingly, once it has told of its

own fate, the Rood never actually takes the narrative any further than this,

to the events of Easter Day.

As the disciples’ voices die away, the Cross and others – it says we –

maybe the other two crosses (though they’re not mentioned before), or

other onlookers, or perhaps it and us – stand weeping, as the fair corpse

cools. Then like Christ, the rood is taken down and buried, but

ignominiously in some pit. Luckily, though, it’s later dug up again, and

decked with gold. This alludes to the story that Helena, the mother of the

Emperor Constantine, found the true cross, an event described in another

Old English poem that’s in the same book as this one in fact.

So, the metamorphosis which, with the dreamer, we watched like timelapse

photography at the start of the poem, is completed – from tree, to

blood-stained cross, to gem-studded sign of glory.

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At this cliff-hanger – Christ rests in the tomb, the cross dreams of its own

exhumation and exaltation – the Rood addresses the dreamer directly for

the first time. It calls him the same as it called Christ, hæleð (‘my belov’d

hero’). ‘Now you can understand what I suffered, work of baleful ones,

sore sorrows’, and it’s time for me to be honoured. The Rood’s words

echo the dream’s opening, when mankind across the earth and all creation

gazed upon the Tree, as they are bidden to do now. ‘On me God’s son

suffered awhile’.

And now again, as at the poem’s start, the Rood draws itself up to full

height, towers under the heavens, with power to save. It, the cruellest

instrument of torture, so hateful, is made a highway towards life. From

this position of authority, the Rood entrusts a task to the dreamer and to

us: ‘tell this vision to men’ ….. it is the glory-beam on which Almighty

God suffered’.

In the passage that follows – and there’s another 50 lines of the poem

beyond what I’ve given you – the Rood reminds the dreamer, in

summary, of the Resurrection, Ascension, Second Coming, and finally

Judgement Day, when it will be asked of you, it says, ‘where among you

is one willing to taste bitter death for the Lord’s name, as he did? And

none will know how to answer. Only those, says the Rood, who bear the

best of tokens on their breast need not fear: those who wear the cross,

literally, or perhaps those who carry it metaphorically in their hearts.

Those who know, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Concentration camp,

that ‘only the suffering God can help’.

The Rood falls silent, and the poem ends with the dreamer’s joyful

response, full of hope for intimacy with Christ – may the lord be my

friend! he say – and for a heaven imagined as a feast in the hall, far from

this lean life. By the cross hope was renewed, he says, mid bledum ond

mid blisse, with blessedness and with bliss.

The tenth-century book that preserves the Dream of the Rood alongside

other religious poems also has a bunch of prose sermons whose clear

theme is penitence. Our poem too urges a turning of the heart – it presents

the crucifixion not in order to bring us to faith, because that is taken as

read, but to provoke a reaction, to ask us what we’ll do in response to the

sacrifice we’ve just witnessed.

Rosalind Love

21 October 2012