The Dream of the Rood, a poem composed in the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and recorded in the Vercelli manuscript in the tenth century of the common era, is a poem that explores in a very sophisticated way the complex theological discussions surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ that were of particular concern to Christian Anglo-Saxons struggling to come to grips with their new faith in a syncretistic cultural environment. The poem is significant for the clever way the poet uses the personification of the cross to express the poem's theological and eschatological arguments, and is the oldest surviving work of dream-vision poetry native to the English language. Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson call it "the central literary document for understanding that resolution of competing cultures which was the presiding concern of the Christian Anglo-Saxons" (256). The poem articulates the challenge of the Anglo-Saxon Christian to reconcile the ethical commandments of Christianity with the dominant warrior ethic of their society, appropriating the language of victory, of battle, and of glory to describe the crucifixion of Christ in imminent and personal terms familiar to them.
Despite the presence of a central narrator who reflects on his grief, and the theme of eternal reconciliation with Jesus after one's death in this transient world (both elements commonly associated with the loosely-defined genre of the Old English elegy) I would argue that structurally as well as thematically, The Dream of the Rood is a text concerned more with the paradox at the heart of Christian faith, a paradox embodied in the symbol of the cross that was both the cruel vehicle of Christ's torture and connected to the notion of the 'tree of life,' becoming a widespread symbol of the resurrection and cosmic power of Jesus. The poem establishes the divinity of Christ within the Christological debates of the early Northumbrian church, establishes the legitimacy of the developing "cult of the cross" as an expression of Christian faith, and attempts to inspire the audience to become reordberendum [witnesses, 'word-bearers'] for Christ, carrying the gospel message to new converts. The poem's style, structure, and thematic arguments suggest that the elegiac elements of the text are merely incidental to the more significant contemplation of the paradox of the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Christ, and the implications these events had for the individual Anglo-Saxon Christian living in a society ordered by a code of warrior ethics.
Rood does at first glance employ some elements associated with what Klinck attempts to define as the genre of Old English (OE) elegy. Klinck quotes Greenfield when she searches for a widely accepted definition of OE elegy in the first part of her book, The Old English Elegies. According to Klinck, Greenfield defines the genre as: "a relatively short reflective or dramatic poem embodying a contrasting pattern of loss and consolation, ostensibly based upon a specific personal experience or observation, and expressing an attitude towards that experience" (quoted in Klinck, 11). She provides further distinction as well, suggesting "the concept of 'elegy' in an Anglo-Saxon context provides us with a convenient locus for particular themes." Pointing to common elements such as a lyrical-reflective mode, monologue, personal introduction, and a gnomic conclusion, Klinck groups the elegies around the common themes of "exile, loss of loved ones, scenes of desolation, the transience of worldly joys" (11). It would be pertinent to note here that Klinck does not, in fact, group Rood into her classification of OE elegies.
The Dream of the Rood is a very sophisticated poem structurally, and while it does open with a personal introduction on the part of the dreamer, almost immediately after the opening of the poem the focus shifts with the change in voice from what one would expect of an elegy, (a melancholic reflection on the death of Christ) to a heroic description of the crucifixion by the cross itself; a narrative in which Jesus is described by the speaking cross in terms familiar to the tradition of the Anglo-Saxons speaking of great kings in battle (Jesus is referred to in line 42a as beorn 'warrior;' in 44b-45a as ricne Cyning, heofona Hlaford, 'mighty king, Lord of the Heavens').
The point here is that even the frame of the dreamer's reflection is part and parcel of the theological position and evangelistic agenda being advanced. As seen in such works as Bede's account of The Poet Caedmon, there is a tradition in Anglo-Saxon literature (not to mention the extensive Judeo-Christian mythology on this subject) of mystic visitations whereby one could intuit directly the will of God and gain access to a mystic understanding of the world. Rhetorically speaking, framing the poem in such a mystic tradition might lend weight to the poet's position by associating this dream with those experienced by prophets and other poets in the tradition, generally accepted to be inspired by God.
And so we have a pensive dreamer -- and from the very beginning, this dreamer is contrasted with the cross: he is passive, and stricken with grief and guilt, while the cross is the "beama beorhtost" (line 6a) [brightest of beams]. Look also at lines 13-14: "Syllic waes se sigebeam, || and ic synnum fah, / forwunded mid wommum" [Wonderous was the tree of victory, || and I stained with sins, / wounded with blemishes]. The poet is establishing the mental state of the dreamer, but only to set the stage for the message being carried by the cross in his dream.
Building on the riddle tradition in Anglo-Saxon culture, and a further association with the classical rhetorical concept of prosopopeia, the cross begins to relate the tale of Jesus' crucifixion. Rather than have Christ speak, the cross does so instead, and over the course of the narrative the humiliations and torture inflicted on Jesus in the gospel stories are here inflicted on the cross as well. Borrowing from the language and themes of the warrior code, the conflict in the cross' duties to its lord in this narrative would have been familiar to Anglo-Saxons -- the cross is the loyal retainer who is forced by wyrd to be the very instrument of its lord's demise.
This tragic dilemma for the cross draws from a common theme in Anglo-Saxon literature. As Katherine O'Keeffe tells us, "the ethos of heroic life pervades Old English literature, marking its conventions, imagery and values. The touchstone of that life -- as represented in Old English literature at least -- is the vital relationship between retainer and lord, whose binding virtue is loyalty" (O'Keeffe, 107). Faced with the humiliation of its lord, the cross denies its instinct to retaliate on His behalf ("Ealle ic mihte / feondas gefyllan," [I would have been able/ to kill all foes,] lines 37-38), and is instead submitted to the same ministrations as He:
Þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan naeglum; on me syndon þa dolg gesiene,
Opene inwidhlemmas; ne dorste ic hira aenigum sceððan.
Bysmereodn hie unc butu ætgædere;
[They drove through me with dark nails; on me the wounds are visible,
The open malicious wounds; nor dared I injure any of them.
They mocked us both together;]
How to reconcile in the mind of an Anglo-Saxon Christian convert the expectation for one's lord to return loyalty with might, against the necessary humiliation and death needed to set the stage for Jesus' resurrection and triumphal future return? The poet handles this problem deftly. By transferring the humiliation, the doubt, and even the vivid, bloody descriptions of the wounds associated with Jesus to the body of the Cross, the poet is able to elicit pathos while paradoxically maintaining the language of battle and victory when describing Christ. Not to downplay the intense grief and climactic cosmic significance of the passion as it is presented here so simply for great impact in lines 55-56, "Crist waes on rode" [Christ was on the cross] (in a moment reminiscent of the world's lament for Baldur in Germanic legend), but by having the focus of attention on the wounds of the cross rather than on Christ himself, the poet simultaneously elicits the pain and agony of the crucifixion in the minds of readers while at the same time transforming the passivity of Jesus' plight into a scene of bittersweet victory in battle. The cross is the lowly sinner, taking the position in this story of the whole of humanity, complicit in the death of Jesus and stained by our sins past and present, now extended the chance at redemption by the actions of this divine man. We are encouraged by the language in this passage of the poem to view the episode not as a passive defeat at the hands of the feondas, but rather a bold stand in battle performed by the young Cyning. The steadfast loyalty of the cross would move Anglo-Saxon hearts as readily as the injustice of this great King being brought so humiliatingly low.
The text supports an even further reading into the emphasis on the heroism of Christ than just an appeal to the Anglo-Saxon warrior ethic. There are wholly Christian and theological reasons for making use of the device of the personified cross in the manner employed here. Jeremy Wheelock draws our attention to the mention of "engel Dryhtnes" [angel of the Lord] in line 9 as a clue to the central theological motivation behind the poem.
After the apostles and their generation had passed on, there was a crisis in the Christian faith -- the expected return of Jesus, or parousia, which many people thought would come about in a single generation, had not yet occurred, and so a new understanding of Christ's expected return had to develop, tied into the notion of Christ as Logos, existing eternally and outside of time, present at creation. This is the Jesus described in the book of John. It is with regard to the Anglo-Saxons' familiarity with the gospel of John that Wheelock reads the Rood poet's "Beheoldon þær engel Dryhtnes ealle / fægere þurh forðgesceaft" [There all beheld the angel of the Lord / fair continually throughout creation] (lines 9-10) as a salvo in the debate over whether to emphasise Christ's divinity or humanity. In accepting this meaning for line 10, the result is a statement of Jesus' pre-existence before time, a statement of association with the concept of Logos. Wheelock also points to the explicit association of the cross with Mary in lines 90-94:
Hwæt, me þa geweorþode wuldres Ealdor
Ofer holtwudu, heofonrices Weard,
Swylce swa he his modor eac, Marian sylfe,
Ælmihtig God for ealle menn
Geweorðode ofer eall wifa cynn.
[Behold, the lord of the kingdom of the heavens, the guardian of heaven's kingdom,
ennobled me over the trees of the forest just as he, almighty God, for the sake of all men honoured his mother also, Mary herself, over all womankind]
He takes this connection as further support of the idea that there is a consistent theme of establishing Jesus' divinity throughout the poem, with the cross and Mary both seen as vehicles of Jesus' incarnation. With Jesus being presented as the cosmic warrior-king, the cross then serves as a very convenient device -- it allows the poet to establish a human connection with the audience by highlighting the physical tortures and fleshly shortcomings of the incarnated Christ through the cross, without sacrificing the doctrinal argument for Jesus' divinity. Wheelock explains this broader significance of the cross' central place in the poem:
Theologians tend to separate the divine and human aspects of Christ from one another. Thomas Hill points to the significance of the Cross in a liturgical ceremony found in the Regularis Concordia in which "the Cross on the altar is 'deposited' for the three days from Good Friday to the dawn of Easter Sunday in a receptacle which represents the tomb of Christ" He believes this custom analogous to the significance of the Cross in The Dream of the Rood. I, however, think the Cross less a symbol of Christ's human, fleshly nature (though not something to be rejected outright) than a symbol as an agent of Incarnation. (Wheelock, 6)
Wheelock shares evidence that the cross had become a central part of the Christian faith in England during the Anglo-Saxon period. It was a symbol of the paradoxical nature of Christ, both divine and human, embodied in the paradox of the cross itself -- once the device of torture, now a symbol of hope. In this poem, the cross is elevated further to the level of reordberend, given voice to speak personally to the dreamer.
It is here where we begin to fully understand the subtle complexity and coherent theme of the poem that makes it so fascinating. I conceded earlier that the poet uses the common elegiac device of a reflective, personal narrator to set the scene for the dream-vision. However, let us turn our attention to the state of the dreamer over the course of the poem now. Rebecca Hinton points to the poet's choice of verbs when describing the dreamer over the course of the poem as a significant structural component of the theme. Just as the cross, at first doubtful, questioning and afraid, sees Jesus approach "elne micle" [with great zeal] in line 34, and later bows down itself "elne mycle" after coming in contact with Jesus at the crucifixion, so too the dreamer is transformed from the melancholy and self-doubt of the reflective, elegiac tone set in the opening passage. Witness the "bliðe mode" [joyful heart] and "elne mycle" expressed by the dreamer after the challenge of the cross to tell men of this vision he has seen. The doubtful "þuhte me þæt ic gesawe" [I thought I saw] of line 4 is replaced by this language of optimism and purpose expressed in the closing passages of the poem.
The ultimate goal of the poem appears to be, from the very beginning, to inspire the audience to a life of spreading the gospel, and to resolve the doctrinal issue of Christ's paradoxical man/god nature in terms familiar to the Anglo-Saxon audience. The poet's choice of the word "reordberend" to represent "man" in line 3 of the poem takes on special significance from this perspective. The prominence of this echo of the challenge later made by the cross conclusively shows that the central focus of the poem, from the beginning, is not the melancholic reflection of this individual on the death of Christ, as in an elegy, but rather a very Christian attempt to correct this behaviour by restoring the dreamer's hope.
Hinton maintains there is a link between the sacramental procedures for penance in the church at this time and The Dream of the Rood: She believes the audience of the poet's day might understand the self-doubt and despair of the dreamer at the opening of the poem as the sin of dejection, something to be overcome through an act of penance. This makes the poem become like an episode of confession -- the dreamer confesses his sorrow and the cross commands the dreamer to spread word of his vision as a way of overcoming this sorrow. Hinton goes on to further underscore the progression in tone found in the word choices of the poet:
The poet's choice of verbs in The Dream of the Rood indicates a gradual renewal of the Dreamer's vigour and optimism. In the beginning of the work, the Dreamer is passively lying on the ground, enveloped in grief. When the vision of the Rood, or Cross, appears, he merely "sees" it: "Geseah ic wuldres theow" (14). As he continues to gaze, however, he begins to "ongytan," or perceive, signs of torment amid the effulgence of the Cross. After a long while of watching it fluctuate between an aura of splendour and one of pain, he comes to "beheold/behold" it (25). Since "perceive" and "behold" connote more intensity than "see," it is apparent that the Dreamer has started to regain his acumen. (Hinton, 77)
Over the course of the dreamer's ecstatic episode, the sorrowful reflection on loneliness and separation that is present at the beginning of the poem is discarded for a new-found hope and determination on the part of the dreamer. The poet effectively demonstrates for the audience both Jesus' cosmic divinity and the solace that can be sought in Christian faith, through the poetic device of the speaking cross. By having the cross speak rather than Jesus, the poet steps around the difficult doctrinal issue of Jesus' humanity, avoids blasphemously putting words in the mouth of Christ, and yet makes accessible the imagery of the passion in order to make use of this powerful imagery in evoking the pathos of the audience. The poet employs this arrangement in order to speak to the conflict in the mind of the Anglo-Saxon Christian whose expectations and cultural values stem from a tradition of loyalty, courage and victory, yet must come to grips with the paradox of the resurrection. Finally, the poet personifies the cross in such a way that the cross becomes a reordberend for Christ, transforming the doubt of the individual into a passionate zeal and charging the dreamer to do the same for others. In this way, The Dream of the Rood is an expression of the "cult of the cross" that spread throughout Europe. Rather than an elegy with an interjection about the myth of the cross, I believe that I have shown the poem to be instead a sophisticated and powerful statement of the transformative power of contemplation on the cross and a concerted effort on the part of the poet to correct dejection in the audience and transform it into hope and purpose. We can take it as a sign of the poet's wild success in this endeavour that fragments of a version of this poem were found on the Ruthwell Cross and on a silver reliquary in Brussels. When we understand the complexity of the themes presented in this poem, we gain a new appreciation of the significance of this text in the English literary tradition.
Hinton, Rebecca. "The Dream of the Rood." Explicator. Winter 1996, Vol. 54 Issue 2: 77.
Klinck, Anne L. The Old English Elegies. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992.
Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson (eds.). "The Dream of the Rood: or A Vision of the Cross." A Guide to Old English, 6E. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002. 256-263.
O'Keeffe, Katherine O'Brien. "Heroic values and Christian ethics." The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 107-125.
Wheelock, Jeremy I. "The Word Made Flesh: 'Engel Dryhtnes' in The Dream of the Rood." English Language Notes. March 2000, Vol. 37 Issue 3: 1.
1 I will refer throughout this essay to the version of The Dream of the Rood found in Mitchell and Robinson's A Guide to Old English, 6E. pp. 256-263
2 Interpretation of this line remains in contention, however I will follow Wheelock, Mitchell and Robinson in accepting the manuscript version without emendation. Wheelock argues compellingly for the poetic and structural integrity of this reading.