Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Christ On the Rood

One of the earliest Christian poems in Old English literature, and an intriguing example of dream poetry, is The Dream of the Rood. Like all Old English poetry, it's lines are alliterative. Rood derives from the Old English rod = pole, specifically crucifix. The poem is preserved in the 10th century Vercelli Book. The poem is probably considerably older, perhaps even one of the oldest works in Old English literature.

Some sections from The Dream of the Rood are found on the 7th century Ruthwell Cross, an 18 foot, free standing Anglo-Saxon Cross, perhaps intended as a sort of catechetical tool. At each side of the vine-tracery runes are carved. On the cross there is an excerpt, written in runes, along with scenes from Jesus' life. Torn down and destroyed during initial Protestant revolt, it was reconstructed as much as possible later. Fortunately, those words which were in the runes were still protected in the Vercelli Book, so called because the book is kept in Vercelli, Italy. The Vercelli Book (10th century) also holds 23 homilies interspersed with six poems; "The Dream of the Rood," “Andreas,” “The Fates of the Apostles,” “Soul and Body,” “Elene,” and a poetic, homiletic fragment.

As to who wrote The Dream of the Rood, we simply don't know. Nevertheless, with the Ruthwell Cross giving the poem a rough time period in which it could have been written, scholars have been able to tentatively suggest two possible authors: the Anglo-Saxon Christian poets Caedmon and Cynewulf. Caedmon was associated with St. Hilda of Whitby at her famous monastery, the site of which I was privileged to visit in 2007.

The following version of The Dream of the Rood is the work of an unknown translator. (from Wikisources):

Lo! I will tell of the best of dreams,
what I dreamed in the middle of the night,
after the speech-bearers were in bed.

It seemed to me that I saw a very wondrous tree
lifted into the air, enveloped by light,
the brightest of trees. That beacon was all
covered with gold. Gems stood
beautiful at the surface of the earth, there were five also
up on the central joint of the cross. All those fair through eternal decree gazed
[on] the angel of the Lord. [It] was certainly not a wicked person’s gallows there,
but holy spirits, men over the earth,
and all this famous creation gazed on him.

Wondrous was that tree of victory, and I stained with sins
wounded sorely with defects, I saw the tree of glory,
honoured with garments, shining joyously,
adorned with gold. Gems had
splendidly covered the Lord’s tree.

I was able, however, to perceive through the gold,
the ancient hostility of wretched ones, [that] it first began
to bleed on the right side. I was all troubled with grief,
I was afraid in the presence of that beautiful sight. I saw that noble beacon
change its coverings and colour; sometimes it was drenched with moisture,
soaked with the flow of blood, sometimes adorned with treasure.

Nevertheless, I, lying a long time there,
gazed troubled at the Saviour’s tree,
until I heard it speak.
The most excellent tree then began to speak the words:
'It was years ago (that, I still remember),
that I was cut down from the edge of the forest,
removed from my foundation. Strong enemies seized me there,
they made me into a spectacle for themselves, commanded me to lift up their criminals.
Men carried me there on their shoulders, until they set me on a hill,
many enemies secured me there. Then I saw mankind’s Lord
hasten with great zeal, that he wished to climb upon me.

There, I did not dare break to pieces or bow down
against the Lord’s words, when I saw the surface
of the earth tremble. I was able to destroy
all the enemies, nevertheless, I stood firmly.

The young hero stripped himself then (that was God Almighty),
strong and resolute. He ascended onto the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, there, [since] he wished to release mankind.
I trembled when the man embraced me. However, I dared not bow down to the earth,
fall to the surface of the earth, but I had to stand fast.

I was raised [as a] cross. I lifted up the mighty king,
the lord of the heavens; I dared not bend down.
They pierced me with dark nails. On me, the scars are visible,
open malicious wounds. I did not dare injure any of them.
They mocked both of us, together. I was all drenched with blood,
covered from the man’s side, after he had sent forth his spirit.

I endured many cruel events
on that hill. I saw the Lord of Hosts
severely stretched out. Darkness
had covered the bright radiance
of the Lord’s corpse with clouds, a shadow went forth,
dark under the sky. All of creation wept,
they lamented the king’s death. Christ was on the cross.

Nevertheless, eager ones came there from afar
to the prince. I beheld all that.
Grievously I was afflicted with sorrow, yet I bowed to the hands of the men,
humble, with great zeal. There they took God Almighty,
they lifted him up out of the oppressive torment. The warriors abandoned me
to stand, covered with moisture; I was wounded very badly with arrows.

They laid him down there, weary-limbed; they positioned themselves at his body’s head,
there they gazed at the Lord of heaven, and he, rested himself there for a while,
weary after the great battle. The men began to make a sepulcher for him
in the sight of his slayer; they carved it out of bright stone;
they put him, the Lord of Victories, therein. The wretched began to sing him a song of sorrow
in the evening-time, then they wanted to go again,
wearily from the glorious prince. He rested there with little company.

Nevertheless, we stood in a fixed position,
weeping for a good while, after the voice of the warriors
went up. The corpse cooled,
beautiful dwelling of the soul. Then they began to cut us all
down to the earth. That was a dreadful event!

We were buried in a deep pit. However, the Lord’s disciples,
friends, discovered me there,
and adorned me [with] gold and silver.

Now you can hear, my beloved hero,
what work of the evildoers that I have experienced,
the painful grief. The time is now come
that men over the earth and all this illustrious creation
far and wide honour me,
they pray to this sign. On me, God’s son
suffered a time. Therefore, now I rise up
glorious under the heavens, and I am able to heal
each one of those who hold me in awe.

Formerly, I was the most fierce of torments,
most hateful to people, before I opened the right
path of life to them, the speech-bearers.
Lo, the prince of glory, the guardian of the kingdom of the heavens,
honoured me over all the trees of the forest!
Just as he, Almighty God, before all men,
honoured his mother also, Mary herself,
over all womankind.

Now I command you, my beloved warrior,
that you tell this vision to men,
reveal in words that it is the tree of glory,
on which Almighty God suffered
for mankind’s many sins
and Adam’s deeds of old,

He tasted death there. However, the Lord arose again
to help men with his great power.
Then he ascended into the heavens. Hither again, the Lord, Himself,
will set out into this world
to seek mankind on the day of judgement,
Almighty God and His angels with Him,
since He who has power of judgement, He then will sentence
each one, just as he shall have earned
for himself here in this temporary life.

Nor can there be any unafraid there
because of the words which the Lord shall say:
He shall ask before the multitude, where the man might be,
who for the name of the Lord would taste
bitter death, as He did before on the cross.
But then they fear, and few think of
what to begin to say to Christ.
None needs to be afraid
of [him] who already bears on his breast the best of signs,
but through the cross, each soul must seek
the kingdom from the earthly way,
those who intend to dwell with the Lord.'

Then I prayed to the cross with friendly spirit,
with great zeal, where I was alone
with little company. My mind was
impelled on the way hence, it experienced very many
times of longing. Now this is my life’s joyous expectation
that I may seek the tree of victory
and honour [it] well
most often of all men. The desire for that is
great in my heart, and my patronage is
directed to the cross. I do not have many
powerful friends on earth, since they departed away hence
from the joys of the world, they sought the King of Glory;
now they live in the heavens with God the Father.

They dwell in glory, and each day
I look forward to the time when the cross of the Lord
that I previously saw here on the earth,
in this temporary life, will fetch me,
and will then bring me to where great bliss is,
joy in the heavens, where the Lord’s people are
seated at the feast, where perpetual joy is;
then it may set me, where afterwards I might
dwell in glory, with the saints
to enjoy bliss well. May the Lord be a friend to me,
who suffered here on earth before
on the gallows-tree for men’s sins;
he redeemed us and gave us life,
a heavenly home. Joy was restored
with blessings and with bliss, for those who endured the fire there.

The Son was triumphant on that expedition,
mighty and successful, when he came with the multitude,
the host of souls, into God’s kingdom,
the Lord Almighty, to the delight of the angels,
and of all the saints, who in the heavens before
dwelled in glory, when their Ruler, the Almighty
God came, where his homeland was.

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