Rune 12: Dream of the Cross


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 dreamer.
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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 principle.
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. 1985 and 2001 by Karl Young. 

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