Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Dream of the Rood

The latest in my occasional series of Great Poems I love, and in honour of Easter, albeit a bit late, this is 'The Dream of the Rood'. It's a beautiful, epic poem, well over a thousand years old, originally written in Old English by an Anglo-Saxon monk sometime between the 8th-10th Centuries. It is in the characteristic style of Old English epic poems, with the extensive use of alliteration on lines with two stressed halves, rather than the rhyme used in modern English to achieve the poetic flow of the writing.

Rood was the Old and Middle English word meaning a wooden stake or cross, but The Rood was always the One True Cross on which Christ was crucified. In this poem the Cross itself appears in a dream and tells of Christ's death and resurrection.

The poem is a fascinating mix of both Christian (originally Hebrew and Greek) values and aesthetic with its spiritual but fundamentally optimistic focus and the Germanic and Scandinavian heroic, epic (originally pagan) tradition that was though, essentially pessimistic about the world and its future. Christ is a strong, powerful young Lord, who leaps eagerly onto the Cross to do battle with Death and the Devil in the crucifixion. The disciples are his thanes, the men who had sworn themselves to their lord and would accompany him into battle. The Cross itself is a loyal retainer, fearful what it must do in the Battle but knowing it must hold its courage and do the duty its Lord has embraced.

People sometimes say that Chaucer (14th Century) is 'the Father of English Literature', but this is complete rubbish. A proud, creative English literary tradition of epic poetry, both religious and secular, history, songs, spirituality, law, etc, goes right back into the darkest Anglo-Saxon times of the so-called 'Dark Ages'. The past only seems so 'dark' because we have lost or forgotten about the traditions, festivals, songs, stories, poetry, and factual and fictional prose that were widespread at the time.

Travel back with me a thousand years and more, to here the story, through Old English hearts, of those events another thousand years and more ago. . .

"Listen! I will speak of the sweetest dream,
which came to me in the middle of the night,
when speech-bearers slept in their rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
raised on high, circled round with light,
the brightest of beams. All that beacon
was covered in gold; gems stood
fair at the earth’s corners, and five there were
up on the cross-beam. All creation, eternally fair,
beheld the Lord’s messenger there; that was no shameful lynching tree,
but holy spirits beheld him there,
men over the earth and all this glorious creation.
Wondrous was the victory-tree, and I was fouled by sins,
wounded with guilt; I saw the tree of glory
honored in garments, shining with joys,
bedecked with gold; gems had
covered worthily the Creator’s tree.
And yet beneath that gold I began to see
an old wretched struggle, when it first began
to bleed on the right side. I was all beset with sorrows,
fearful for that fair vision; I saw that eager beacon
change garments and colors – now it was drenched,
stained with blood, now bedecked with treasure.
 And yet, lying there a long while,
I beheld in sorrow the Savior’s tree,
until I heard it utter a sound;
that best of woods began to speak words:
“It was so long ago – I remember it still —
that I was felled from the forest’s edge,
ripped up from my roots.
Strong enemies seized me there,
made me their spectacle, made me bear their criminals;
they bore me on their shoulders and then set me on a hill,
 enemies enough fixed me fast. Then I saw the Lord of mankind
hasten eagerly, when he wanted to ascend onto me.
There I dared not bow down or break,
against the Lord’s word, when I saw
the ends of the earth tremble. Easily I might
have felled all those enemies, and yet I stood fast.
Then the young hero made ready — that was God almighty —
strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom mankind.
I trembled when he embraced me, but I dared not bow to the ground,
or fall to the earth’s corners – I had to stand fast.
I was reared as a cross: I raised up the mighty King,
the Lord of heaven; I dared not lie down.
They drove dark nails through me; the scars are still visible,
open wounds of hate; I dared not harm any of them.
They mocked us both together; I was all drenched with blood
flowing from that man’s side after he had sent forth his spirit.
 Much have I endured on that hill of hostile fates:
I saw the God of hosts cruelly stretched out. Darkness had covered
with its clouds the Ruler’s corpse,
that shining radiance. Shadows spread
grey under the clouds; all creation wept,
mourned the King’s fall: Christ on the cross.
And yet from afar eager ones came
to that noble one; I watched it all.
I was all beset with sorrow, yet I sank into their hands,
humbly, eagerly. There they took almighty God,
 lifted him from his heavy torment; the warriors then left me
standing drenched in blood, all shot through with arrows.
They laid him down, bone-weary, and stood by his body’s head;
they watched the Lord of heaven there, who rested a while,
weary from his mighty battle. They began to build a tomb for him
in the sight of his slayer; they carved it from bright stone,
and set within the Lord of victories. They began to sing a dirge for him,
wretched at evening, when they wished to travel hence,
weary, from the glorious Lord – he rested there with little company.
And as we stood there, weeping, a long while
fixed in our station, the song ascended
from those warriors. The corpse grew cold,
the fair life-house. Then they began to fell us
all to the earth – a terrible fate!
They threw us in a deep pit, yet the Lord’s thanes,
friends sought me out … adorned me with gold and silver.
Now you might hear, my dear hero,
that I have endured the work of evil-doers,
harsh sorrows. Now the time has come
that far and wide they will honor me,
men over the earth and all this glorious creation,
and pray to this sign. On me the Son of God
suffered for a time; and so, glorious now
I rise up under the heavens, and am able to heal
each of those who is in awe of me.
Once I was made into the worst of torments, most hateful to all people,
before I opened the true way of life for speech-bearers.
Listen! the King of glory, Guardian of heaven’s kingdom
honoured me over all the trees of the forest,
just as he has also, almighty God,
honoured his mother, Mary herself,
above all womankind for the sake of all men.
 Now I bid you, my beloved hero,
that you reveal this vision to men,
tell them in words that it is the tree of glory
on which almighty God suffered for mankind’s many sins
and Adam’s ancient deeds.
Death He tasted there, yet the Lord rose again
with his great might to help mankind.
He ascended into heaven. He will come again
to this middle-earth to seek mankind.
on doomsday, almighty God,
the Lord himself and his angels with him,
and he will judge — he has the power of judgment —
each one of them as they have earned
beforehand here in this loaned life.
No one there may be unafraid
at the words which the Ruler will speak:
he will ask before the multitude where the man might be
who for the Lord’s name would taste bitter death,
as he has done on that tree.
But they will tremble, and little think
what they might even begin to say to Christ.
But no one there need be very afraid
who has borne in his breast the best of beacons;
but through the cross we shall seek the kingdom,
every soul from this earthly way,
whoever thinks to rest with the Ruler.”
 Then I prayed to the tree with a happy heart,
eagerly, there where I was alone with little company.
My spirit longed for the journey forth; it has felt
so much of longing. It is now my life’s hope
that I might seek the tree of victory
alone, more often than all men,
and honor it well. I wish for that
with all my heart, and my hope of protection
is fixed on the cross. I have few wealthy friends on earth;
but they all have gone forth,
fled from worldly joys and sought the King of glory; t
hey live now in heaven with the High Father,
and dwell in glory, and each day I look forward
to the time when the cross of the Lord,
on which I have looked while here on this earth,
will fetch me from this loaned life,
and bring me where there is great bliss,
joy in heaven, where the Lord’s host
is seated at the feast, with ceaseless bliss;
 and then set me where I might afterwards
dwell in glory, share joy
fully with the saints. May the Lord be my friend,
He who here on earth has suffered
on the hanging-tree for human sin;
He ransomed us and gave us life,
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
with cheer and bliss for those who were burning there.
The Son was successful in that journey,
mighty and victorious, when he came with a multitude,
a great host of souls, into God’s kingdom,
the one Ruler almighty, the angels rejoicing
and all the saints already in heaven
dwelling in glory, when almighty God,
their Ruler, returned to his rightful home."


Author: Unknown
Source: the Exeter Book,
Translation: R. M. Liuzza.
Thanks to @ClerkOfOxford for making me aware of this epic poem.
Image borrowed with thanks from: http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/liturgical_objects/dream_of_the_rood.html

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