In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses a minor classic of Anglo-Saxon poetry
‘The Dream of the Rood’ is one of the gems of Anglo-Saxon poetry. ‘Rood’ is an Old English word for ‘Cross’, and poem tells of a pious man’s encounter with a talking crucifix, which is a novel idea for a poem, to say the least. ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is thus the first great Christian dream-vision poem in English literature, a precursor to the fourteenth-century Pearl and Langland’s Piers Plowman among many other later works.
As Michael Alexander notes in his introduction to ‘The Dream of the Rood’ in his The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics), the history of the poem is almost as fascinating as ‘The Dream of the Rood’ itself. The first record of the poem, Alexander observes, is an 18-feet-high cross in the church at Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, Scotland.
Lines from the poem are literally inscribed, runically, on this giant rood which dates from the eighth century. A century or so later, in 884, Pope Marinus sent Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, a piece of the True Cross, and an expanded version of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ was made in response. This copy is found in the Vercelli manuscript, housed in Italy and one of just four sources we have for Anglo-Saxon poetry (the others are the Cotton manuscript, our sole source for the long heroic narrative poem Beowulf; a collection of manuscripts of the Bodleian Library at Oxford; and the Exeter Book).
And then, soon after this, Aethelmaer, who was also a member of the royal house of Wessex, made a reliquary to house Alfred’s piece of the True Cross, and lines from ‘The Dream of the Rood’ were inscribed upon this silver container, known as the Brussels Cross because of where it is now kept. As Michael Alexander points out, it’s a fine tribute to the unity of Christendom that these three very different artefacts, each of which contains lines from this iconic early English poem, should all be housed in different countries, none of which is England itself.
‘The Dream of the Rood’ is an English poem that made its way abroad, and is perhaps, therefore, the first successful English literary export.
What actually happens in ‘The Dream of the Rood’? It’s not a long poem, so a summary is easy enough to offer: the poet dreams one midnight that the Cross on which Jesus was crucified appears and speaks to him. Initially, when the Cross or Rood appears to him, it is covered with gems, but then the poet sees it also has blood on it from the Crucifixion.
The Cross then speaks to the poet, and recounts the story of the Crucifixion, telling of how it was originally a tree that was cut down and fashioned into a cross, which was then put in the ground before Christ was brought and nailed to it. The Cross recounts its own suffering alongside that of Jesus Christ, and how Jesus’ body was taken down after his death and the Cross was then salvaged by Jesus’ followers and covered with the gems it now bears.
This is the point at which the ‘authentic’ sections of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ end; the later section, which Michael Alexander among others considered inferior to the rest, was added sometime after the earlier poem and sees the poet musing upon his encounter with the Rood.
In a previous post I have discussed the Anglo-Saxon riddle, which, as Michael Alexander notes, usually takes one of two forms: the ‘I saw’ type or the ‘I am’ type. In the former, a (human) speaker tells is what he saw; in the latter, an animal, inanimate object, or some other natural force such as a weather phenomenon is given a voice. (The most enigmatic of all Anglo-Saxon riddles, which simply reads ‘I saw a woman sit alone’, is possibly a deliberate conflation of these two types of riddle, if we accept the proposed solution of ‘A mirror’.)
In ‘The Dream of the Rood’, we effectively get the same thing, but on a much bigger canvas: the inanimate object, the rood or cross, speaks (‘I am’), while the human speaker tells us about his encounter with the rood (‘I saw’).
The Ruthwell Cross is a celebrated Anglo-Saxon monumental sculpture, but it is also perhaps the oldest surviving piece of Anglo-Saxon text, since it is probably earlier than the manuscripts which preserve Old English verse. So ‘The Dream of the Rood’ occupies a special place in not only the history of Anglo-Saxon verse but the history of English literature in general. It has been there in the church at Ruthwell for more than twelve centuries, a physical embodiment of the very early days of English poetry.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.