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The Dream of the Rood

Manuscript: The Vercelli Book (chapter library of the cathedral at Vercelli, Codex CXVII). Editions: Krapp, George Philip, ed. The Vercelli Book. ASPR 2. New York: Columbia UP, 1932; Dickens, Bruce, and Alan S. C. Ross, eds. The Dream of the Rood. Methuen’s Old English Library. New York: Appleton, 1966; Swanton, Michael, ed. The Dream of the Rood. Manchester Old and Middle English Texts. New York: Barnes (for Manchester UP), 1970. Pope, John C., ed. Seven Old English Poems. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1981. It will be obvious that I have relied heavily on Swanton’s edition in my notes (click on the hyperlinked superscripts in the text to go to the notes). A general observation should be made here: this poem is remarkable for its extensive use of hypermetric lines, “used contrapuntally to accommodate significantly more complex thematic material” (Swanton 61).

Hyperlinks to annotations are added in-line in the text, in bolded brackets. See also my notes on The Dream of the Rood.


Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell,
which came as a dream in middle-night,
after voice-bearers lay at rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
born aloft, wound round by light,5
brightest of beams. All was that beacon
sprinkled with gold. Gems stood
fair at earth’s corners; there likewise five
shone on the shoulder-span [ 1 ]. All there beheld the Angel of God [ 2 ],
fair through predestiny [ 3 ]. Indeed, that was no wicked one’s gallows,10
but holy souls beheld it there,
men over earth, and all this great creation.
Wondrous that victory-beam – and I stained with sins,
with wounds of disgrace. I saw glory’s tree
honored with trappings, shining with joys,15
decked with gold; gems had
wrapped that forest tree worthily round.
Yet through that gold I clearly perceived
old strife of wretches [ 4 ], when first it began
to bleed on its right side. With sorrows most troubled,20
I feared that fair sight. I saw that doom-beacon [ 5 ]
turn trappings and hews: sometimes with water wet,
drenched with blood’s going; sometimes with jewels decked.
But lying there long while, I,
troubled, beheld the Healer’s tree,25
until I heard its fair voice.
Then best wood spoke these words:
“It was long since – I yet remember it –
that I was hewn at holt’s end,
moved from my stem. Strong fiends seized me there,30
worked me for spectacle; cursèd ones lifted me [ 6 ].
On shoulders men bore me there, then fixed me on hill;
fiends enough fastened me. Then saw I mankind’s Lord
come with great courage when he would mount on me.
Then dared I not against the Lord’s word35
bend or break, when I saw earth’s
fields shake. All fiends
I could have felled, but I stood fast.
The young hero stripped himself – he, God Almighty –
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,40
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.45
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together [ 7 ]. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.
Much have I born on that hill50
of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
dark under heaven. All creation wept,55
King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.
But there eager ones came from afar
to that noble one. I beheld all that.
Sore was I with sorrows distressed, yet I bent to men’s hands,
with great zeal willing. They took there Almighty God,60
lifted him from that grim torment. Those warriors abandoned me
standing all blood-drenched, all wounded with arrows.
They laid there the limb-weary one, stood at his body’s head;
beheld they there heaven’s Lord, and he himself rested there,
worn from that great strife. Then they worked him an earth-house,65
men in the slayer’s sight carved it from bright stone,
set in it the Wielder of Victories. Then they sang him a sorrow-song,
sad in the eventide, when they would go again
with grief from that great Lord. He rested there, with small company.
But we there lamenting a good while70
stood in our places after the warrior’s cry
went up. Corpse grew cold,
fair life-dwelling. Then someone felled us
all to the earth. That was a dreadful fate!
Deep in a pit one delved us. Yet there Lord’s thanes,75
friends, learned of me,. . . . . . . . . . .
adorned me with silver and gold.
Now you may know, loved man of mine,
what I, work of baleful ones, have endured
of sore sorrows. Now has the time come80
when they will honor me far and wide,
men over earth, and all this great creation,
will pray for themselves to this beacon. On me God’s son
suffered awhile. Therefore I, glorious now,
rise under heaven, and I may heal85
any of those who will reverence me.
Once I became hardest of torments,
most loathly to men, before I for them,
voice-bearers, life’s right way opened.
Indeed, Glory’s Prince, Heaven’s Protector,90
honored me, then, over holm-wood [ 8 ].
Thus he his mother, Mary herself,
Almighty God, for all men,
also has honored over all woman-kind.
Now I command you, loved man of mine,95
that you this seeing [ 9 ] tell unto men;
discover with words that it is glory’s beam
which Almighty God suffered upon
for all mankind’s manifold sins
and for the ancient ill-deeds of Adam.100
Death he tasted there, yet God rose again
by his great might, a help unto men.
He then rose to heaven. Again sets out hither
into this Middle-Earth, seeking mankind
on Doomsday, the Lord himself,105
Almighty God, and with him his angels,
when he will deem – he holds power of doom –
everyone here as he will have earned
for himself earlier in this brief life.
Nor may there be any unafraid110
for the words that the Wielder speaks.
He asks before multitudes where that one is
who for God’s name would gladly taste
bitter death, as before he on beam did.
And they then are afraid, and few think115
what they can to Christ’s question answer [ 10 ].
Nor need there then any be most afraid [ 11 ]
who ere in his breast bears finest of beacons;
but through that rood shall each soul
from the earth-way enter the kingdom,120
who with the Wielder thinks yet to dwell.”
I prayed then to that beam with blithe mind,
great zeal, where I alone was
with small company [ 12 ]. My heart was
impelled on the forth-way, waited for in each125
longing-while. For me now life’s hope:
that I may seek that victory-beam
alone more often than all men,
honor it well. My desire for that
is much in mind, and my hope of protection130
reverts to the rood. I have not now many
strong friends on this earth; they forth hence
have departed from world’s joys, have sought themselves glory’s King;
they live now in heaven with the High-Father,
dwell still in glory, and I for myself expect135
each of my days the time when the Lord’s rood,
which I here on earth formerly saw,
from this loaned life will fetch me away
and bring me then where is much bliss,
joy in the heavens, where the Lord’s folk140
is seated at feast, where is bliss everlasting;
and set me then where I after may
dwell in glory, well with those saints
delights to enjoy. May he be friend to me
who here on earth earlier died145
on that gallows-tree for mankind’s sins.
He loosed us and life gave,
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
with glory and gladness to those who there burning endured.
That Son was victory-fast [ 13 ] in that great venture,150
with might and good-speed [ 14 ], when he with many,
vast host of souls, came to God’s kingdom,
One-Wielder Almighty: bliss to the angels
and all the saints – those who in heaven
dwelt long in glory – when their Wielder came,155
Almighty God, where his homeland was.

Translation copyright © 1982, Jonathan A. Glenn. All rights reserved.


[ 1 ] shoulder-span. OE eaxlegespanne. Of this hapax legomenon, Swanton writes: “It would be tempting to identify this with the ‘axle-tree’ or centre-piece of the cross, although ‘axle’ in this sense of wheel-centre is not otherwise recorded before the thirteenth century.… It might … simply refer to the beam of the gallows along which Christ’s arms were stretched, although the ‘crux gemmata’ normally has jewels along all four arms.” [Return to text]

[ 2 ] All … God. Most editors assume that engel ‘angel’ is the subject of the sentence, but I follow Swanton in treating ealle ‘all’ as subject and engel as object. Swanton considers this to cause difficulties about identifying the engel, but the OE word can carry the sense ‘messenger,’ which obviously suggests that the Cross itself is the engel dryhtnes ‘angel/messenger of God.’ [Return to text]

[ 3 ] fair … predestiny. OE fægere þurh forðgesceaft, an ambiguous phrase, forðgesceaft being used elsewhere to mean both ‘creation’ and ‘future destiny.’ See Swanton for a discussion of the possibilities. My translation indicates that I take it to mean ‘what is preordained.’ Thus the Rood is part of an eternal plan, like “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). [Return to text]

[ 4 ] old strife of wretches. OE earmra ærgewin, lit. ‘of wretches ere-strife.’ The phrase, in this context, appears to refer to the whole battle between Christ and Satan, Good and Evil; more immediately, of course, it refers to Christ’s Passion, viewed as battle. [Return to text]

[ 5 ] doom-beacon. OE fuse beacen. Considering that “the word fus is commonly associated with death,” Swanton notes: “Clearly, within the poet’s vision we must recognize not simply the church year hastening to its sacrificial end, but a concrete symbol of death and the doom to come. This beacen is at once an emblem of death (Christ’s) and of doom (that of the dreamer and world). At Judgement Day it is this symbol that will be seen again in the heavens.…” [Return to text]

[ 6 ] cursèd … me. As Swanton observes, the syntax could conceivably support the rendering “made me lift cursèd ones.” [Return to text]

[ 7 ] both . . . together. OE unc butu ætgædere ‘we two both together.’ Unc is dual in number, underscoring the close relationship – the near identification – of Cross and Christ in the poem. [Return to text]

[ 8 ] holm-wood. OE holmwudu, a hapax legomenon and obscure. Swanton notes three possible ways to find meaning in the term: (1) interpret it as ‘sea-wood’ (either ‘ship’ or – more understandably – lignum vitae ‘tree of life,’ which grows by the waters of Paradise); (2) emend to holtwudu ‘forest wood’; or (3) take holm in the OS sense ‘hill,’ providing a “powerful oblique reference to the gallows of Golgotha.” [Return to text]

[ 9 ] seeing. OE gesyhð ‘thing seen, vision’ (> NE sight), clearly referring to the dreamer’s vision of the Cross. B. Huppé, Web of Words, entitles this poem “Gesyhþ rodes.” [Return to text]

[ 10 ] Christ’s … answer. More literally: “what they may begin to say to Christ.” [Return to text]

[ 11 ] most afraid. OE unforht, usually emended to anforht ‘fearful’; Swanton retains the MS reading un- as an intensive: ‘very afraid.’ [Return to text]

[ 12 ] small company. See line 69. This is one of the numerous echoes set up to link Christ, Cross, and Dreamer. [Return to text]

[ 13 ] victory-fast. I.e., secure in or sure of victory. [Return to text]

[ 14 ] with … good-speed. OE mihtig ond spedig ‘mighty and successful’ (the latter being the original meaning of speedy). [Return to text]