A Dream of the Cross
Notes and translation by Karl Young
Sometime between 690 and 750 a.d. an elaborately carved stone cross was raised at
Ruthwell, north of the Humber. The cross bore an intricate program in its carved
relief as well as lines of a poem cut in runic letters. Around the end of the tenth
century a scribe, presumably in Wessex, compiled a volume of Anglo-Saxon
devotional works. The tight and regular insular script of this volume includes
several poems about the cross on which Jesus of Nazareth suffered His Passion. The
stone cross at Ruthwell has been taken apart and reassembled several times since it
was first carved. The book now resides in the cathedral library at Vercelli, Italy, and
is known to modern scholars as The Vercelli Book. The Ruthwell cross was
carved at a time when Anglo-Saxon England had reached its first period of stability
- a time of small-scale warfare and great religious and artistic achievement. The
Vercelli Book was written at the end of the second period of Anglo-Saxon
stability under the patronage of the Cerdinga kings of Wessex. A wave of Danish
raids destroyed Northumbria's golden age, as another onslaught was destroying the
golden age of Wessex when the Vercelli Book was written. England went
through many changes between the carving of the Ruthwell cross and the copying
of the Vercelli Book. Yet the lines carved on the cross are found, in a
different dialect, in the Vercelli Book. Very little Anglo-Saxon poetry has
survived to this day -- what remains owes its survival to flukes of history: the
Vercelli Book, for example, probably owes its survival to the relative
stability of the library in which a pilgrim may have left it on his way to Rome, or
according to legend, where the book was washed up on shore after the pilgrim's
ship sank. The poem, now called "A Dream of the Rood," must have enjoyed
extreme popularity and wide distribution to have come down to us from two
sources widely separated in time and place.
The lines on the Ruthwell cross represent only a portion of the text as we have it
in the Vercelli Book. We don't know how much was added to the poem
between the time the carver cut his runes and the scribe copied the poem in his
book. Some scholars think that the last 78 lines are later additions. Though this is
pure conjecture, we may assume that the poem underwent major changes between
the eighth and tenth centuries. Whatever the case, late seventh-early eighth century
Northumbria provided an appropriate milieu for the poem's composition. This
was the milieu fostered by intense and fervent holy men like Saints Cuthbert and
Guthlac, presided over by scholars like the Venerable Bede and Alcuin of York,
perhaps the keenest minds in western Europe in their day; the milieu that saw the
flourishing of great monasteries like Wearmouth-Jarrow; the milieu that produced
the Lindisfarne Gospels, the best example of Hiberno-Saxon painting we have.
During the seventh century the Celtic Church was reconciling itself with the
Church of Rome, amid heated debate. This was also the time when one of the
paroxysms of the iconoclastic controversy raged in the Eastern Church, sending
waves of confusion throughout Europe. The Anglo-Saxon clergy were painfully
aware of the controversy. On the farthest edge of the civilized world, in a time of
religious fervor and scholastic intensity, of recent and ongoing evangelism and
conversion, of schismatic debate and the potential for reunification or apostasy, the
Anglo-Saxon clergy exerted a great deal of effort to avoid charges of heresy. The
author of "A Dream of the Rood" (or the churchman who gave him his subject
matter) shows a keen awareness of the controversies of the day, and a discrete
avoidance of dangerous iconography. Christ's suffering is mentioned but never
described in the poem - representation of harm done to the Person of the Savior
could be construed as heresy. Christ, then, is portrayed as an athletic hero, while
the graphic details of His agony are transferred to the cross. The first function of
the cross in the poem is to act as a proxy for Christ's suffering, which can be
graphically delineated when transferred to the wood of the cross.
In avoiding possible charges of heresy, the author made use of a kind of
personification found elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon poetry, most notably in "The
Husband's Message" and the Exeter Book riddles. In "A Dream of the
Cross" we see this convention in its most complex form, with frames within
frames, voices within voices, personae within personae.
In line 22, the dreamer-poet says that the cross in his vision changed "the
nature of its raiment." Clearly, he is seeing the cross move rapidly from one state
of its existence to another, one part of its biography to another, one of its functions
to another. The cross has many functions and many natures. It first appears as a
mystic cross, wound in light and radiating the purest rays as it rises in the sky. It
becomes the universal cross, quartering the cosmos, shining through eternity. The
cross begins its life living innocently in a garden, but it is degraded and forced into
misery and perversion by devils, recapitulating the history of fallen man. According
to a medieval convention that may or may not have been known to the poet, the
cross was made from the wood of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from
which Eve took the forbidden fruit. The cross is also man redeemed through
Christ: the cross is Christ's first and most intimate martyr and witness. The cross
imitates Christ: it experiences death, burial, and resurrection. In its fallen state, the
cross was "an instrument of torture/hated by everyone." After its resurrection the
wood of the cross becomes the material of relics, encased in gold and precious
stones, and its form becomes a radiant beacon in the darkness, telling fallen man to
imitate Christ and by so doing take part in His resurrection. As relic and beacon,
the cross acts as an evangelist, bringing the good news to fallen man. As part of its
evangelical duty, the relic must travel, becoming a pilgrim.
Part of its pilgrimage requires that it become several different forms of book.
The first recension of the poem we have was inscribed on a stone cross. The
inscriptions and images on crosses and other ecclesiastical objects, like the
programs painted in glass windows and painted and carved on the walls of
churches, from simple huts to cathedrals, formed prominent and essential books
for those who could read and those who couldn't. We may consider such public
media particularly important evangelical books for the people of Medieval Europe.
In the case of this poem, it literally went through one phase of its evolution when it
functioned as an open-air book made of stone before the time of its inscription in a
vellum codex. The etymology of the word "book" passes through "bark,"
suggesting the complex interrelation of the book and the wooden cross in the
evolution of European book forms.
As the dreamer saw it, the cross was sometimes "drenched with heavy blood .
sometimes it blazed with treasure." This points out one of the cross's most
important functions: it is Christ's weapon, Christ's sword. Like the sword of an
Anglo-Saxon king, it is ornamented with gold and jewels and highly polished till it
seems to blaze when used for ceremonial purposes, is covered with heavy blood
when it fights for its lord. The shape of the cross is much like the shape of a sword
and this formal analogy may have lead to such practices as swearing on swords or
holding swords up like crosses during prayers, particularly before, during, and after
battles. Like a sword, the cross must be totally subservient to its master's will. And
here we come to one of the poet's most brilliant conceptions. The poem is in the
tradition of old Norse military verse, using phrases and tropes common to poems
of courage and battle. In such poems, a sword's duty is to fight its owner's enemies
directly. This the cross would like to do - it would like to fall on the fiends and
crush them with its own strong arms. But Christ wills it to stand fast, to restrain
itself from killing His enemies. Christ's weapon obeys its master's will, even when
its own desire is for active combat. Christ, however, defeats His enemies by willing
that His weapon should kill Him instead of the fiends. It is probably impossible for
us to realize the effect of this profound irony on an audience accustomed to Norse
poetry about heroic swords loyally conquering their masters' enemies by cutting
them to pieces. The cross's heroism lies in its passive and obedient restraint; it wins
victory for its Lord by fighting its own nature rather than its Master's enemies.
The cross calls the dreamer "dear warrior" and tells him to reveal Christ's
message to the world. An Anglo-Saxon sword was identified with its master, seen as
an embodiment of his will. It might be said of a king that he had a hundred swords
at his command, meaning a hundred warriors with swords. As with the Samurai, a
true warrior's heart and his sword had to be one. The cross is the ideal Christian
warrior, and it commands the dreamer to imitate the cross, as the cross has
imitated Christ. When the dreamer first sees the cross he is "stained with ...
sin,/cut with ... shame." He has already joined in the battle. He, too, must endure
his hour of torment so he may hope for resurrection. The cross commissions him,
as a loyal retainer, to fight for his Lord by becoming a pilgrim and an evangelist. As
well as reveal his vision, he must devote his life to seeking the cross in the world
and revealing it to humanity. Christ sought the cross; the cross seeks the dreamer;
the dreamer seeks the cross after receiving his vision of it; in the process, the
dreamer must help Christ and the cross seek out mankind. The cross imitates
Christ; the dreamer must imitate Christ and His cross. The cross receives the Word
of God; the dreamer receives the words of the cross; we receive the words of the
+ + +
The basic unit of O.E. prosody is a line of unspecified length but containing
four major stresses and a strong caesura in the middle. This poem contains quite a
few hypermetric lines, lines with two additional stresses. The poet uses these longer
lines in places where he wishes to add extra dignity or weight to what he says.
Several stressed syllables alliterate in each line according to complex rules in the
original text. In my translation, I have followed the pattern of stresses in the poem,
but have reserved alliteration as a sort of extra decoration rather than a basic
My sources for the O.E. text were The Dream of the Rood, Michael
Swanton, ed. Manchester University Press, 1970 and The Vercelli Book,
George Philip Krapp, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Record, Vol. II, Columbia
University Press, New York, 1932.
I will disclose the deepest vision
that came in a dream at night's center
when all human voices rested in sleep.
It seemed I beheld the tree of the Mystery
rise in the heavens, spinning out rays
of perfect light. That beacon glowed
spattered with gold, shining with jewels,
clear to earth's corners: five gems
defined the crossbeam. All God's angels were witness,
splendid throughout eternity. This was no common gallows.
Many observed it: both angelic hosts
and men on earth: it ran through creation.
The victory wood was a marvel, and I, stained with my sins,
cut with my shame, saw the glory tree
robed in its honor, radiating splendor,
decked with gold, magnificently cased
in precious stones, the axle of power.
Yet through that radiance I could witness
the primal agony when it first began
to bleed on its right side. I was overwhelmed with sorrow,
afraid of this terrible vision. I saw the moving beacon
change the nature of its raiment: sometimes it was soaked through,
drenched with heavy blood, sometimes it blazed with treasure.
But I lay there a measureless time
watching in pain the Savior's tree,
until I heard the words of the cross.
The greatest of trees began to speak:
"It was long ago, but still I remember
the day I was cut at the forest's edge,
severed from my roots, taken by demons,
forced to amuse them as a rack for their criminals;
they carried me on their shoulders and placed me up on the hill:
there the fiends planted me. Then I saw the Redeemer
stride forward in confidence, ready for His ordeal.
There I dared not, against the Lord's will,
bend or break, as I saw the world's edges
tremble around me. I could have dropped,
let myself fall and crushed all those fiends
with my mighty arms, but I dared not move
without the Lord's consent. The resolute Hero,
who was God Almighty, cast off His cloak
and climbed the high gallows, brave in the sight of many,
eager to ransom mankind. I shook as the Warrior gripped me,
not daring to bend to the ground, fall to the earth's face.
I had to stand fast. The Cross was raised.
I lifted the King, the Lord of Heaven.
They drove nails through my skin; the wounds are still there,
the hate-opened gashes. I dared not move.
They mocked us together. I was covered with blood
shed from the Man's side after His spirit ascended.
It was my cruel fate to endure it all there on the mount.
I felt the God of hosts
stretched on the wrack. Darkness fell,
the sky veiled the Ruler's corpse;
the Light of the world was hidden in shadow,
dark under clouds. All creation wept,
lamented the King's fall. Christ hung on the Cross.
Yet zealous people came from all around
to the Prince of Peace. I witnessed it all.
I was torn with anguish yet bowed to the men's hands,
much humbled in strength. They brought Almighty God
down from His place of trial. The soldiers left me there
standing spattered with blood, all wounded with spikes.
They laid Him down, weary of limb, and stood around His body;
they watched over heaven's Lord during His hour of rest,
weary from the cosmic struggle. They began to fashion his tomb
in the sight of His killers: they carved it from shining stone,
and there placed the victorious Lord. They began to sing his dirge
in the sad evening before they left,
exhausted by the King of kings. He rested in the small congregation.
We wept long in that desolate place
fixed in the silence after the warriors' voices
had faded away. The body cooled,
the great Spirit's home. Men brought us
down to the ground and buried us there
as providence ordained. Yet the Lord's servants,
His friends had heard [. . . ]
they dressed me up in gold and silver.
Now you may know, dear warrior,
that I have endured the scourge of the fiends,
the anguish and torment. The time has come
for me to be honored from kingdom to kingdom
by men over earth; the whole glorious creation
worships this beacon. On me God's Son
suffered his trial. Now I am exalted,
towering under Heaven, and I can save
every person who looks to me.
Long I was used as an instrument of torture,
hated by everyone, until I opened
life's true path to those who seek it.
Yes, He blessed me, the Prince of Glory,
the Kingdom's Master, more than all trees,
as He had His mother, Mary herself,
the one most blessed among all women
by Almighty God for the sake of mankind.
Now I command you, dear warrior,
reveal to the world this holy vision,
deliver this message: that on the glory tree
Almighty God sustained His torment
for all mankind's innumerable sins
as well as Adam's ancient crime.
Death He there tasted, but then the Lord rose
in His infinite power to guide humanity.
He ascended to Heaven. God Himself,
the Lord of Creation, will come again
to this our world and visit mankind
on the day of judgement, along with His angels:
then will He judge, will pass His verdict
on every soul as it deserves,
what each has earned in this flickering life.
No one then will be without fear
of His just sentence, the word of the Lord.
He will ask the multitude where is the man
who in God's name would willingly find
death's bitterness as He did on the tree.
Then the thoughtless will shudder with fear
for what they can say to Christ for themselves.
But none of those need fear His wrath
who clasp in their hearts this highest of beacons.
For through the Cross every soul
that crosses earth's path may arrive in the Kingdom
if with the Lord they wish to abide."
I prayed to the tree, glad in spirit,
strong in zeal, though I was alone,
small in my solitude. Then my soul
urged me forward; I had to endure
my hour of longing. Now my life's hope
is to seek out that triumphant wood
as a lone pilgrim so that all souls
may fully adore it. This is my hope,
the strength of my heart: my purpose comes
straight from the Cross. I have few friends
here in earth's kingdoms: for they have departed,
left the joys of this world, seeking the King of Glory;
they live in Heaven with God the Father,
abiding in splendor; thus I wait
day after day for the Lord's Cross
to come here on earth as I formerly saw it
in this hollow life, this vain passage,
and take me away to the place of gladness,
the delights of Heaven - there God's people
sit at His banquet in joy everlasting;
and establish me there where I may always
live in splendor, sharing delight
along with the saints. May the Lord be merciful,
who here on earth once endured
the tree of torment for your sins and mine.
He redeems us and gives us life
and a home in Heaven. He grants renewal
with blessings and with pleasure to those who pass through the fire.
His Son was triumphant on His lonely mission,
the Almighty Sovereign: strong and sure
He brought the myriads, the multitude of souls,
into God's Kingdom, to bliss with the angels
and all the saints that live in Heaven,
abiding in glory: the Ruler came,
God Himself, into His homeland.
Copyright © 1985 and 2001 by Karl Young.
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