‘The Dream of the Rood’ is an Old English poem that belongs to the genre of dream poetry. How the cross felt during the crucifixion of Christ, is the theme of this verse.
This alliterative verse of the Old English canon of literature is one of the oldest surviving works of Anglo-Saxon literature. “Rood” originated from the Old English word, “rōd” meaning pole. It is a reference to the “crucifix” on which Christ accepted his glorious death. ‘The Dream of the Rood‘ was preserved in the Vercelli Book in the 10th century. However, the 8th-century Ruthwell Cross contains this poem, predating any manuscripts having Old English poetry. Apart from that, there is not any clarity regarding the authorship of the poem. The argument regarding the authorship deals with two famous Anglo-Saxon poets, Caedmon and Cynewulf.
Summary of Dream of the Rood
In this Old English poem, there are three sections. In the first section, the speaker presents an image of the rood or cross on which Christ was crucified. Thereafter, in the second section, the cross describes how it suffered along with Christ and did not yield to the torments of the crucifiers. In the last section, it seems the speaker has woken up from his dream. Then he elaborates on his realization and will to accept what the rood has told him in his dream. He wishes an eternal life along with other saints who were true to Christ’s words.
Meaning of The Dream of the Rood
The title of the poem, ‘The Dream of the Rood’ refers to the dream or vision that the speaker had about the rood on which Christ accepted death. The “rood” originated from Proto-Germanic “rōdō”. The term is cognate with Old Norse “róda” which means rod or cross. From this Proto-Germanic origin, the Old English word “rōd” came. It means a “pole” or the “crucifix”. Crucifix meaning “(one) fixed to a cross”, is an image of Jesus on the cross. The representation of Christ on the cross is known in English as the “corpus” or “body”. However, in this poem, the speaker talks about the dream of the cross that he saw in the middle of the night after the “speech-bearers lie biding their rest.”
Structure and Form of The Dream of the Rood
This poem is written in alliterative verse. In prosody, alliterative verse is a form of verse that uses alliteration, the repetition of identical initial consonant sounds in successive or closely associated syllables within a group of words, even those differently spelled, as the principal rhetorical device to help indicate the underlying metrical structure, unlike other devices such as rhyme. This form mostly appears in the oldest literature of the Germanic languages. The alliterative verse form is also present in the Old English epic ‘Beowulf’, as well as most other Old English poetry. Many Middle English poems such as ‘Piers Plowman’, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, and ‘Morte d’ Arthur’ all use alliterative verse.
Literary Devices in The Dream of the Rood
‘The Dream of the Rood’ contains alliteration throughout the verse. The poet employs similar devices called consonance and assonance as well. As an example, “brightest of beams” and “garnished with gold” contains alliteration. The stated examples also contain consonance. Apart from that, there is a metaphor in “speech-bearers”. It refers to humankind. Thereafter, In the description of the rood, the poet uses hyperbole. Moreover, there is a paradox in the lines, “Then I saw that streaking beacon warp its hue, its hangings —/ at times it was steamy with bloody wet, stained with coursing gore.” The poet also uses antithesis in the description of the cross. Moreover, the poet uses simile, metonymy, and synecdoche throughout the poem.
Themes in The Dream of the Rood
The most important themes of this poem are paganism and Christianity. In the first sections of the poem, there are many Christian and pre-Christian images. While in the end, the poem exhibits the Christian beliefs of salvation and the afterlife. The pre-Christian or pagan elements are present in the use of a complex, echoing structure, allusions, repetition, verbal parallels, the ambiguity, and wordplay of the Riddles, and the language of heroic poetry and elegy. The most important element of paganism inside the poem is the speaking tree. Pagans believed in the spiritual nature of natural objects. Here, the speaker recognizes the rood as an object of worship.
Thereafter, the theme of Christianity is present throughout the poem. The poet identities Christ as a heroic lord or heroic warrior. In this way, he infuses the pagan belief of heroism with the self-sacrificing spirit of Christianity.
Analysis of The Dream of the Rood
What I wish to say of the best of dreams,
what came to me in the middle of the night
after the speech-bearers lie biding their rest!
It seemed to me that I saw the greatest tree
brought into the sky, bewound in light,
the brightest of beams. That beacon was entirely
garnished with gold. Gemstones
prominent and proud at the corners of the earth—
five more as well blazoned across the span of its shoulders.
Every angel of the Lord warded it there,
a brilliant sight of a universe to come.
Surely it was no longer the gallows of vile crime
in that place—yet there they kept close watch,
holy spirits for all humanity across the earth,
and every part of this widely famous creation.
The following analysis of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ centers on the translation of the text available on the website of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. The renowned scholar Faith H. Patten in his “Structure and meaning in The Dream of the Rood” (1968) divides the poem into three parts, based on the speaker: Introductory Section (lines 1–26), Speech of the Cross (lines 28–121), and Closing Section (lines 122–156). This line by line analysis of this poem also follows the pattern provided by Patten.
The first person speaker of the poem (that makes it an example of a lyric poem as well) narrates the “best of dreams” that came to him in the middle of a night. It appeared after the “speech-bearers” went asleep. This phrase is a circumlocution of the simple word “humans”. Thereafter the narrator describes the “greatest tree” or the rood that becomes the point-of-focus in the next section of the poem. In his vision, the “brightest of beams”, adorned in divine rays, towering close to the sky (a hyperbolic expression or can be true as it appeared in the speaker’s dream). That beacon was garnished with gold and gemstones. Five more of them blazoned across the span of its shoulders.
It seemed to the speaker that every angel of the Lord (a reference to God) warded it there. It was going to become a brilliant sight in the future. Thereafter, the speaker says it was not any vile criminal gallows. In the contemporary time, the roods were used while executing criminals. However, that cross was a special one. Hence, holy spirits kept a close watch on it as it held importance for all humans.
Surpassing was this victory-tree, and me splattered with sins—
struck through with fault. I saw this tree of glory,
well-worthied in its dressing, shining in delights,
geared with gold. Gemstones had
nobly endowed the Sovereign’s tree.
Nevertheless I could perceive through all that gold
a wretched and ancient struggle, where it first started
to sweat blood on its right side. I was entirely perturbed with sorrows—
I was fearful for that lovely sight.
Then I saw that streaking beacon warp its hue, its hangings —
at times it was steamy with bloody wet, stained with coursing gore,
at other times it was glistening with treasure.
Yet I, lying there for a long while,
beheld sorrow-chary the tree of the Savior
until I heard that it was speaking.
Then the best of wood said in words:
In this section of ‘The Dream of the Rood’, the speaker feels ashamed for his sinful life. In comparison to him, the tree was victorious and worthwhile. The tree was glorious in its adornment, shining in delights, and last but not least geared with gold. Holy spirits generously endowed gemstones to the “Sovereign’s tree”. Here, Christ is compared to a sovereign or king. However, amid such bright things, there was a “wretched and ancient struggle.” This “ancient struggle” is a reference to the crucifixion of Christ.
The speaker saw the rood sweating blood on its right side. When Christ was crucified, the soldiers first fixed the nail to his heart. Hence, in his dream, he saw the rood was bleeding on the right side. But, it was Christ who was bleeding on this rood. Seeing this sight, the narrator became perturbed with sorrows and fearful for that “lovely sight”. Here, the poet uses a paradox. Moreover, the speaker saw the cross changing its appearance. At times, it was stained with blood but, at the same time, it changed its appearance and again appeared as glistening with treasures like before.
Thereafter, the narrator says he was lying there for a long while watching “the tree of the Saviour.” Then suddenly he heard the cross speaking. In the following section, the poet records what the “best of wood said in words.”
Speech of the Cross
“It happened long ago—I remember it still—
I was hewn down at the holt’s end
stirred from my stock. Strong foes seized me there,
worked in me an awful spectacle, ordered me to heave up their criminals.
Those warriors bore me on their shoulders
until they set me down upon a mountain.
Enemies enough fastened me there.
I saw then the Lord of Mankind
hasten with much courage, willing to mount up upon me.
This long section of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ contains what the cross told the speaker in his dream. Here, the poet portrays the cross as a co-sufferer with Christ during the crucifixion. The personified rood refers to Christ’s crucifixion that happened a long time ago. It was hewn down and seized from the forest to use it as a tool to torment the savior. The soldiers ordered him to heave up the criminal and bore him on their soldiers. Thereafter, they set him down upon a mountain and fastened him to the ground firmly.
Then came the most glorious event when the cross saw the “Lord of Mankind” hastening with courage and mounting up willingly to embrace his death. Christ was not lethargic and fearful to accept his death. There was a greater purpose behind his calm acceptance, nor devoid of heroism. It needs the courage to accept what is insufferable in itself. And Christ was courageous enough!
“There I dared not go beyond the Lord’s word
to bow or burst apart—then I saw the corners of the earth
tremor—I could have felled all those foemen,
nevertheless I stood fast.
“The young warrior stripped himself then—that was God Almighty—
strong and firm of purpose—he climbed up onto the high gallows,
magnificent in the sight of many. Then he wished to redeem mankind.
I quaked when the warrior embraced me—
yet I dared not bow to the ground, collapse
to earthly regions, but I had to stand there firm.
The rood was reared. I heaved the mighty king,
the Lord of Heaven—I dared not topple or reel.
The cross also knew he was going to observe the most heinous act ever happened on earth. Still, he dared not go beyond his Lord’s word. If he wished he could bow or burst apart. But, he kept his calm like Christ was. Then he saw the ground trembling when Christ was going to ascend on him. Christ, “the young warrior”, stripped himself and climbed up onto the high gallows. A magnificent sight it was! Why could it not be so? He had the purpose of redeeming mankind. The pain he was suffering was nothing in comparison to his great purpose.
However, when the warrior Christ embraced the speaker, he quaked. Yet, he dared not bow to the ground or collapse to the ground. He had to stand firm there. His purpose was to stand firm on that day. The cross was destined to heave the weight of the mighty king, the “Lord of Heaven.” Here, the poet presents one of the elements of the Anglo-Saxon heroic code. It is loyalty. Hence, the rood says he dared not topple or reel. It was his loyalty to Christ. Like a liegeman had to be truthful and obedient to his lord, the rood was loyal and trustworthy to Christ. In this way, the poet infuses the elements of paganism and Christianity excellently.
“They skewered me with dark nails, wounds easily seen upon me,
treacherous strokes yawning open. I dared injure none of them.
They shamed us both together. I was besplattered with blood,
sluicing out from the man’s side, after launching forth his soul.
“Many vicious deeds have I endured on that hill—
I saw the God of Hosts racked in agony.
Darkness had covered over with clouds
the corpse of the Sovereign, shadows oppressed
the brightest splendor, black under breakers.
All of creation wept, mourning the king’s fall—
Christ was upon the cross.
Thereafter, in ‘The Dream of the Rood’, the cross remarks the soldiers skewered him with dark nails. The wounds of Christ were easily seen upon him. The poet metaphorically refers to the marks on the cross as “treacherous strokes yawning open.” However, the cross dared not to injure any of them even if they were mocking both of them, the cross and Christ. He was spattered with Christ’s blood, sluicing out from his side after he launched forth his soul to heaven.
On that hill, he had endured many vicious deeds. He saw Christ, the “God of Hosts”, racked in agony. Dark clouds covered the sky upon the corpse of the “Sovereign”. Shadows oppressed the brightest splendor of the event that was “black under breakers.” Seeing the event, all of the creation wept in disgust and agony. They mourned over the fall of Christ—his corpse upon the cross.
“However people came hurrying from afar
there to that noble man. I witnessed it all.
I was sorely pained with sorrows—yet I sank down
to the hands of those men, humble-minded with much courage.
They took up there Almighty God, lifting up him up
from that ponderous torment. Those war-men left me
to stand, dripping with blood—I was entirely wounded with arrows.
They laid down the limb-weary there, standing at the head of his corpse,
beholding there the Lord of Heaven, and he rested there awhile,
exhausted after those mighty tortures.
“Then they wrought him an earthen hall,
the warriors within sight of his killer. They carved it from the brightest stone,
setting therein the Wielder of Victories. Then they began to sing a mournful song,
miserable in the eventide, after they wished to venture forth,
weary, from the famous Prince. He rested there with a meager host.
When the soldiers left that place, the followers of Christ came hurrying from afar for that nobleman. The rood noticed it all. He was also sorely sad with sorrows. Hence, he sank to the hands of those men, humble-minded but with much courage. Those who came there took up “Almighty God” from that “ponderous torment.” Moreover, the rood remarks that those soldiers left him to stand there, dripping with the blood of Christ. With Christ, he was also wounded with arrows.
However, when they took Christ off the rood, they laid him down. Seeing his corpse they became so agonized that they could even stand on their feet. Hence the poet uses the reference, “limb-weary”. Whatsoever, they stood around the head of his corpse beholding the “Lord of Heaven”. There, it seemed to the speaker, Christ rested for a while being exhausted after those mighty tortures.
Thereafter they wrought him an “earthen hall”, a metaphor for an earthen grave. The warriors were within the sight of his killer. However, they carved the grave of the “Wielder of Victories” from the brightest stone available at that place. Thereafter, they began to sing a mournful song that sounded more miserable in the evening. Afterward, they wished to move forth, with a weary heart after seeing the “famous Prince” in that condition. After their departure, Christ rested there with the “meager host”, a metaphor for the rood.
“However, weeping there, we lingered a good while in that place,
after the voices of war-men had departed.
The corpse cooled, the fair hall of the spirit.
Then someone felled us both, entirely to the earth.
That was a terrifying event! Someone buried us in a deep pit.
Nevertheless, allies, thanes of the Lord, found me there
and wrapped me up in gold and in silver.
In this section of the ‘The Dream of the Rood’, the rood says they wept there together and lingered a good while in that place after the voices of war-men had departed. The corpse of Christ cooled the “fair hall of the spirit.” Here, the poet beautifully refers to the body of Christ as a “fair hall of the spirit.” Thereafter, someone felled them entirely to the ground. According to the cross, it was a terrifying event. Then someone buried them in a deep pit. However, the loyal “thanes of the Lord” found the cross there and wrapped him up in gold and silver. Here, the phrase, “gold and silver” contains metonymy. It is a reference to the valuable things that were used to adorn the cross. Here, the poet resorts to the vocabulary of Heroic Poetry, e.g. “thanes” and “allies”.
“Now you could hear, my dear man,
that I have outlasted the deeds of the baleful,
of painful sorrows. Now the time has come
that men across the earth, broad and wide,
and all this famous creation worthy me,
praying to this beacon. On me the Child of God
suffered awhile. Therefore I triumphant
now tower under the heavens, able to heal
any one of them, those who stand in terror of me.
Long ago I was made into the hardest of torments,
most hateful to men, until I made roomy
the righteous way of life for them,
for those bearing speech. Listen—
the Lord of Glory honored me then
over all forested trees, the Warden of Heaven’s Realm!
Likewise Almighty God exalted his own mother,
Mary herself, before all humanity,
over all the kindred of women.
After the recapitulation of the event, the cross shares his message to the speaker of the poem. The cross had outlasted the “deeds of the baleful” sorrowfully. Now, the time has come for the speaker as well as all the humans on the earth. As he suffered on that hill, now he has become a beacon of mankind. Moreover, the rood says on him the “Child of God” suffered awhile. Therefore, they both were triumphant. The rood can heal any one of them those who remain fearful of his divine powers. Long ago, people used the cross as an instrument to inflict the “hardest of torments” that were “most hateful to men.” But, when he decided to suffer alongside Christ for the sake of humanity, he became the holiest symbol of Christianity.
Moreover, the rood says the “Lord of Glory” honored him over all the forest trees and made him the “Warden of Heaven’s Realm.” Christ also exalted his mother, Virgin Mary before all humanity as well as before all the “kindred of women.” Likewise, the rood was glorified for remaining faithful to Christ on the day of crucifixion.
“Now I bid you, my dear man,
to speak of this vision to all men
unwrap it wordfully, that it is the Tree of Glory,
that the Almighty God suffered upon
for the sake of the manifold sins of mankind,
and the ancient deeds of Adam.
Death he tasted there, yet the Lord arose
amid his mighty power, as a help to men.
Then he mounted up into heaven. Hither he will come again,
into this middle-earth, seeking mankind
on the Day of Doom, the Lord himself,
Almighty God, and his angels with him,
wishing to judge them then—he that holds the right to judge
every one of them—upon their deserts
as they have earned previously here in this life.
In this section of ‘The Dream of the Rood’, the cross orders the speaker to speak of this vision to all men. The speaker should unwrap it properly. He must tell others about the “Tree of Glory” on which the Almighty God suffered upon for the sake of the manifold sins of mankind and the ancient deeds of Adam. Christ tasted death here on earth, yet, he arose for his mighty power as a redeemer of humankind. Thereafter, he mounted up into heaven, like a victorious king.
Moreover, the rood says that Christ will come again into this middle-earth for seeking mankind on the Doom’s day. The Lord will arrive along with his angels wishing to judge mankind. According to the rood, Christ holds the right to judge every one of them according to their acts on this earth.
“Nor can any remain unafraid there
before that word that the Wielder will speak.
He will ask before the multitude where that man may be,
who wished to taste in the Lord’s name
the bitterness of death, as he did before on the Cross.
Yet they will fear him then, and few will think
what they should begin to say unto Christ.
There will be no need to be afraid there at that moment
for those who already bear in their breast the best of signs,
yet every soul ought to seek through the Rood
the holy realm from the ways of earth—
those who intend to dwell with their Sovereign.”
In the last section of the cross’s speech, the rood says nobody should be unafraid to speak in front of Christ on doomsday. Then Christ, the Wielder, will ask before the multitude who wished to taste the bitterness of death in the Lord’s name as he did before on the cross. Yet, some of them will fear him then and few will think of what they should tell Christ. For this reason, the cross assures the speaker that there will be no need to be afraid at that moment. Those who already bear the best of signs in their breast, should not be fearful on that day. According to the cross, every soul should bear the sign if they want to enter the holy realm from the earth and intend to dwell with their Sovereign, Christ.
I prayed to that tree with a blissful heart,
great courage, where I was alone,
with a meager host. My heart’s close was
eager for the forth-way, suffering many
moments of longing. Now my hope for life
is that I am allowed to seek that victorious tree,
more often lonely than all other men,
to worthy it well. The desire to do so
is strong in my heart, and my guardian
is righteous in the Rood. I am not wealthy
with many friends on this earth,
yet they departed from here from the joys of the world,
seeking the King of Glory—now they live
in heaven with the High-Father, dwelling in magnificence,
From this section of ‘The Dream of the Rood,‘ the speaker of the poem presents his will to follow the advice of the rood on which Christ suffered to redeem humankind for their sins. Here, the speaker says he prayed to the tree (another pagan custom) with a blissful heart and great courage. He was alone there with the vision of the “meager host”. After seeing this dream of the rood, he was eager to follow the path shown by it. There was nothing that could stop him from walking on the path of Christ. He was suffering many moments of longing for having the divine feast with the Lord.
Now his hope for life is to seek the teachings of the victorious tree. He feels more lonely than all other men when he thinks about how worthy the rood has become after the crucifixion. The desire to do so is strong in his heart. Above all, when he has the “Rood” as his guardian, he has nothing to worry about. Moreover, the speaker says he is not wealthy with many friends on this earth as they departed from earth to heaven. They renounced the joys of the world to seek the “King of Glory”. For their loyalty to him, now they live in heaven with the “High-Father” or God, dwelling in magnificence.
and I hope for myself upon each and every day
for that moment when the Rood of the Lord,
that I espied here upon the earth,
shall ferry me from this loaned life
and bring me then where there is great bliss,
joys in heaven, where there are the people of the Lord,
seated at the feast, where there is everlasting happiness
and seat me where I will be allowed afterwards
to dwell in glory, brooking joys well amid the sainted.
May the Lord be my friend, who suffered before
here on earth, on the gallows-tree for the sins of man.
Thereafter, the speaker says he hopes for himself every day for that moment when the “Rood of the Lord” that he espied in his vision, will ferry him from this loaned life of his. Then the rood will bring him to that place where there is great bliss. It is a reference to the “joys in heaven.” Moreover, the speaker longs to join the holy souls seated at the feast of the Lord (another pagan custom related to the heroic code). There is everlasting happiness in heaven. He will be pleased if the Lord allows him to join the saintly souls who dwell in glory and brooking joys in heaven. Lastly, the speaker wishes to be a friend of the Lord who suffered on the “gallows-tree” for the sins of man.
He redeemed us and gave us life,
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
with buds and with bliss for those suffered the burning.
The Son was victory-fast upon his journey,
powerful and able, when he came with his multitudes,
the army of souls, into the realm of God,
the Almighty Ruler, as a bliss for the angels
and all of the holy, those who dwelt in glory
before in heaven, when their Sovereign came back,
Almighty God, to where his homeland was.
In the penultimate section of this poem, the speaker goes on talking about his desire for eternal life after having the dream of the rood. He says Christ redeemed mankind and give the truthful souls a heavenly home. The Lord renewed hope like buds of a plant renews hope of regeneration and life. For those who suffered the burning of mortal sins, Christ blessed them with all his heart. The son of God, Christ, was victorious on his journey. He was weak and suffering during the crucifixion. But, he became powerful and able afterward when he came with his multitudes, “the army of souls”, into the realm of God the “Almighty Ruler”.
It was a blissful sight for the angels and all of the holy souls who dwelt in glorious heaven. After the crucifixion, the Sovereign of heaven, Jesus Christ came back to his homeland as it was his real kingdom. The speaker also wants to join Christ there as a true liegeman and devotion to his real homeland that was in heaven.
Historical Context of The Dream of the Rood
This Old English poem, ‘The Dream of the Rood’ survives in the Vercelli Book. The Vercelli Book dates back to the late 10th century. It includes twenty-three homilies and six religious poems. These are ‘The Dream of the Rood,’ ‘Andreas,’ ‘The Fates of the Apostles,’ ‘Soul and Body’, and ‘Elene’. However, a section of the poem also appears on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross. It is an 18 feet free-standing Anglo-Saxon cross that was perhaps a “conversion tool”. There is an excerpt on the cross written in runes along with the scenes from the Gospels, lives of saints, images of Jesus healing the blind, the Annunciation, and the story of Egypt.
The cross was torn down after the Scottish Reformation. Later it was reconstructed in the 19th century. Scholars think that the runes were added later to an existing monument with images. Hence, it is not possible to say when the poem was written.
Apart from that, there are some important elements in this poem, that helps readers to understand the age. The flux of Christianity in an existing pagan culture gets reflected in this alliterative verse. Along with that, the Christian missionaries tried to convert the pagans in several manners. One of them was through poetic works. For this reason, one can see how the poem shows Christ as an Anglo-Saxon hero or warrior, accepting the torment as a gallant soldier fighting for a greater cause. Such a representation of Christ might have convinced the populace of the Old English period.
Like ‘The Dream of the Rood’, there are several poems that contain Christian elements as well as a speaker’s devotion to Christ, the redeemer. Readers can also refer to Old English poetry such as ‘The Wife’s Lament,’ ‘The Husband’s Message,’ and ‘The Wanderer’ for understanding the dominant themes of Anglo-Saxon literature.
- Cædmon’s Hymn by Cædmon – In this Old English poem, the poet praises God and his creation of Heaven and “middle-earth” for humankind.
- The Coronet by Andrew Marvell – This poem refers back to the Crucifixion story and the poetic persona wants to make amends for the wrongs done to Christ.
- Battle-Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe – In this poem, the poet talks about the Second Coming of Christ and portrays him as a warrior.
- Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness by John Donne – In this poem, the speaker, (similar to the tone of the speaker in the concluding section of ‘The Dream of the Rood’) hopes to gain access to heaven and dwell in heavenly bliss. It’s one of the best John Donne poems.