Saturday, September 14, 2019

Beama beorhtost: The Dream of the Rood, lines 1-69

Today marks the feast of the "Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross," also known as Holy Cross Day, Holy Rood Day, or Roodmas in various traditions. The story behind this feast day, which involves the finding of the True Cross by St Helen (the mother of emperor St Constantine the Great) can be read elsewhere, and I hope to touch more on it in the next post in this series.

The two primary subjects of this blog are Germanic Philology, and the Liturgical Arts & Liturgical Year. Over the last several posts I've been deeply interested in rood-screens and the way they function in sacred architecture, and how medieval literature might itself function as a sort of verbal rood-screen (as Tolkien in fact believed that it could). In the Venn diagram of all of these interests, an Anglo-Saxon poem known as The Dream of the Rood is the almond-shaped overlapping area which connects them all.

Eastern Orthodox icon of the Exaltation of the Cross

I won't give you a lengthy introduction to the poem. The facts are these: It is at least as old as the 8th Century Ruthwell Cross, a beautiful 8th century stone Anglo-Saxon cross, which bears a partial text of the poem as well as quite a bit of beautiful iconography; it was of course destroyed during the rampant iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, but we've been able to piece a good bit of it back together. There is a decent chance that the poem is older than this, though, and it's considered to be a good candidate for the title of "oldest work of Old English literature." 

The Ruthwell Cross, 8th c.
There are all kinds of theories about the origins of poem itself. Its content, which seems to blend the heroic ethics of the Anglo-Saxon warrior aristocracy with Christian virtues, and its inclusion on the Ruthwell Cross have led many people to speculate that it was composed as a missionary tool, intended to help pagan Anglo-Saxons understand where their old values could be situated within a Christian context. Other attempts have been made to attribute the poem to known poets such as Cynewulf or Caedmon, though these attributions do not seem to have stuck. 

What can be said about the poem is that it is a beautiful, remarkable work of art. I am staggered just trying to imagine the mind which could compose it. Ever since I first encountered this poem in my first semester of Anglo-Saxon, I have wanted to attempt a verse translation of this poem which would make some effort toward communicating the beauty of the original. I'm not there yet, but I thought over the octave of the present feast I would share a rough prose translation I've been working on along with some notes. There's nothing revolutionary here--just some thoughts and notes I have been putting together for the purpose of teaching the poem to students who have little-to-no ability to read it themselves in Old English.

The idea would be to read each section aloud to the students in Old English, then go through the translation and draw out certain interesting meanings and aural effects which the poem accomplishes. In this way, someone who cannot read Old English would at least be introduced to the poem, and would get some sense of its beauty, and might go on to study it for themselves.

Without further ado, here are some notes on the first 69 lines of the poem. I'll publish the rest in 1-2 more blog posts (which should include some notes about the finding of the Cross by St Helen, since it is briefly mentioned in the poem) over the course of the next eight days.

The Anglo-Saxon Reliquary Cross, 10th c.

Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst  secgan wylle,                                        
hwæt me gemætte  to midre nihte,                                         
syðþan reordberend  reste wunedon!                                     
þuhte me þæt ic gesawe  syllicre treow                                  
on lyft lædan,  leohte bewunden,                                             
beama beorhtost.*  Eall þæt beacen** wæs                                        
begoten mid golde.  Gimmas stodon                                      
fægere æt foldan sceatum,  swylce þær fife wæron                                          
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne.***  Beheoldon þær engel dryhtnes ealle,                                   
fægere þurh forðgesceaft.  Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga,                   
ac hine þær beheoldon  halige gastas,                                   
men ofer moldan,  ond eall þeos mære gesceaft.                

[Hark! I wish to tell of the best of dreams which came to me in the middle of the night, when speech-bearers seek their rest. It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous Tree suspended on the air, surrounded by light, of beams* the brightest. All that Sign** was covered with gold. Precious jewels shone forth, fair over the surface of the earth, and likewise there were five above the crossbeam***. I beheld there all the angels of the Lord, those fair from the foundation of the world. Nor was that indeed any criminal’s gallows, but there they kept watch: blessed spirits, men over the world, all this famous creation.]

*The word here is actually beama, the GP of beam, which can mean a tree (compare German Baum), a beam of wood, or (as throughout the rest of this poem) the Cross.

**OE beacen, from which we get our word beacon. It means a sign or portent. Throughout this poem it will be used both for the vision itself—the dream—as well as for the Cross. Given that this poem is never far from the legends of Sts. Constantine and Helen (and in fact will reference St Helen’s finding of the Cross later in the poem), I think it’s not unfair to see here an allusion to Constantine’s in hoc signo. Note though that there is already an OE borrowing from Latin signum: segn.

**OE eaxlegespann. I don’t have anything to say about this except that it’s a really cool word and “crossbeam” is a pretty uninteresting way to translate it.


Syllic wæs se sigebeam,  ond ic synnum fah,                                        
forwunded mid wommum.  Geseah ic wuldres treow,                                      
wædum geweorðode,*  wynnum scinan,
gegyred mid golde;  gimmas hæfdon                                      
bewrigene weorðlice  wealdendes treow.                                             
Hwæðre ic þurh þæt gold  ongytan meahte                                         
earmra ærgewin,  þæt hit ærest ongan                                  
swætan on þa swiðran healfe.  Eall ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed,                              
forht ic wæs for þære fægran gesyhðe.  Geseah ic þæt fuse beacen                                           
wendan wædum ond bleom;  hwilum hit wæs mid wætan bestemed,                                       
beswyled mid swates gange,  hwilum mid since gegyrwed.

[Rare and marvelous was the Victory-tree—and I guilty with sins, wounded all over with evils! I saw the Tree of Wonder worshipfully vested,* shining with joy, adorned with gold; precious jewels had covered honorably the Ruler’s Tree. Nevertheless, I could see through that gold the evidence of a previous and wretched combat, where it first started to sweat and bleed from its right side. I was all with sorrow afflicted—afraid because of the fair vision. I saw that noble sign changed in garments and colors; at times it was with liquid moistened, drenched with flowing sweat and blood, at other times with treasures adorned.]

*Literally wædum geweorðode. Wǣd can refer to any article or garment of human clothing, but as it is often used to gloss Latin vestīmentum and since geweorþian carries the sense of rendering honor to an object or person, I have rendered it thus.

Anglo-Saxon Rood, or crucifix, Romsey Abbey. 10th c.


Hwæðre ic þær licgende   lange hwile                                      
beheold hreowcearig  hælendes treow,                  
oððæt ic gehyrde  þæt hit hleoðrode.                                     
Ongan þa word sprecan  wudu selesta:                                  
"þæt wæs geara iu,  (ic þæt gyta geman),                                            
þæt ic wæs aheawen  holtes on ende,                                     
astyred of stefne minum.  Genaman me ðær strange feondas,                    
geworhton him þær to wæfersyne,  heton me heora wergas hebban.                                       
Bæron me ðær beornas on eaxlum,  oððæt hie me on beorg asetton,                                       
gefæstnodon me þær feondas genoge.  Geseah ic þa frean mancynnes                                   
efstan elne mycle  þæt he me wolde on gestigan.                                              
þær ic þa ne dorste  ofer dryhtnes word                
bugan oððe berstan,  þa ic bifian geseah                                              
eorðan sceatas.  Ealle ic mihte                                   
feondas gefyllan,  hwæðre ic fæste stod.                

[Nevertheless I, lying there a long while, beheld sad-minded the Savior’s Tree, until I heard that it spoke. The Best of Woods began to speak these words: “It was long ago (though I remember it still) that I was hewn down at the holt’s end, removed from my stump. Strong enemies took me from there, made me into an awful spectacle, and commanded me to raise up their criminals. They bore me there, men on shoulders, until they set me atop a mountain. Many fiends fastened me there. I saw then the Lord of Mankind hastening with great courage that he might mount up upon me.* There I did not dare to go beyond the Lord’s word, to budge or break—I saw the earth’s surface begin to quake—even though I might have felled all those enemies, nevertheless I stood fast.]

*Throughout this poem, Christ’s action on the cross are seen as willing, with Christ almost always referred to in the terminology (as elsewhere—see the Old Saxon Heliand) of the Germanic warrior aristocracy. Christ is portrayed as totally in command of what takes place on the Cross. Although this takes place within the poet’s own cultural idiom, it is most consonant with the portrayal of the Passion in St John’s Gospel:

And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour. Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes. Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die. (John xii)

Byzantine crucifix in the nave of St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas TX. Both Byzantine and Anglo-Saxon art and poetry place the focus on Christ's calm command of his passion, rather than on the suffering or gore. Thus, Christ is portrayed at rest.


Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð,*  (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),                                         
strang ond stiðmod.  Gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhðe,  þa he wolde mancyn lysan.                               
Bifode ic þa me se beorn** ymbclypte.  Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,                                    
feallan to foldan sceatum,  ac ic sceolde fæste standan.                                 
Rod wæs ic aræred.  Ahof ic ricne*** cyning,                                      
heofona hlaford,****  hyldan me ne dorste.
þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum.  On me syndon þa dolg gesiene,                                 
opene inwidhlemmas.  Ne dorste ic hira nænigum sceððan.                                         
Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere.  Eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed,                                   
begoten of þæs guman sidan,  siððan he hæfde his gast onsended.                                           
Feala ic on þam beorge  gebiden hæbbe
wraðra wyrda.  Geseah ic weruda god
þearle þenian.  þystro hæfdon                   
bewrigen mid wolcnum  wealdendes hræw,                        
scirne sciman,  sceadu forðeode,                              
wann under wolcnum.  Weop eal gesceaft,
cwiðdon cyninges fyll.  Crist wæs on rode.

[They stripped the Young Warrior*—he who was God Almighty—strong and resolute. He mounted on the gallows high, valiant in the sight of many, when he would ransom mankind. I shook when the Warrior** embraced me. Nor dared I to bow in any direction towards the ground—I had to stand fast. The Rood was raised. I exalted*** the Mighty King, Heaven’s Lord.**** I did not dare to bend. They pierced me with dark nails—scars easily seen in me; evil, open wounds. Nor dared I to harm any one of them. They besmirched both of us together. I was streaming all over with blood, drenched from that man’s sides, since he had his spirit sent forth. Much have I, on that mountain, tasted of an evil wyrd. I saw the warbands of God violently humiliated. Dark clouds closed over the Ruler’s corpse. Over shining splendor shadow went forth, dark under sky. All creation wept, bewailing the King’s fall. Christ was on the Cross.]

*geong hæleð

**beorn. As is well known, this particular word is packed with etymological controversy. It has a highly disputed link (which however I consider credible) to ON bjǫrn, a northern variant of the Proto-Germanic root for “brown.” Northern Indo-European languages have a great reticence to refer to bears by name (thus there is no Germanic cognate for Latin ursus), and usually refer to them as “brown one” or “honey-eater.” A warrior who is particularly fierce, hairy, and given to large meals and long naps (one finds many such people in Germanic folklore and legend) might be a “bear” by association, and since most aristocratic males were warriors and since the word is very close to bearn “son [of man]”, it seems to often just function as a poetic word for “man.” As Nelson Goering once told me, we have to understand ALL of the above layers (and probably some that I’m missing) as having been present for the original audience of these poems. In translation, highlighting one sense usually comes at the expense of the others.

***ahof could be translated “raised” or “exalted” and thus seems to be something of a pun, in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel passage cited above.

****Here I have to play around a bit, which I can do because this is a personal blog and not a scholarly publication. There are a few different words in Anglo-Saxon which are translated as “Lord.” This one is hlaford, which developed from earlier OE hlafweard or “loaf-warden,” as in the one who has control over, or gives out, loafs of bread. Over time, OE hlaford > ME louerd, lord > ModE lord. It’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate name for Christ than “loaf-warden,” and certainly Medieval Christians would not have been deaf to the Eucharistic associations of the term.


Hwæðere þær fuse  feorran cwoman                      
to þam æðelinge.  Ic þæt eall beheold.                   
Sare ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed,  hnag ic hwæðre þam secgum to handa,                          
eaðmod elne mycle.  Genamon hie þær ælmihtigne god,                
ahofon hine of ðam hefian wite.   Forleton me þa hilderincas                        
standan steame bedrifenne;  eall ic wæs mid strælum* forwundod.                          
Aledon hie ðær limwerigne,  gestodon him æt his lices heafdum,               
beheoldon hie ðær heofenes dryhten,  ond he hine ðær hwile reste,                           
meðe æfter ðam miclan gewinne.  Ongunnon him þa moldern wyrcan     
beornas on banan gesyhðe;  curfon hie ðæt of beorhtan stane,                   
gesetton hie ðæron sigora wealdend.  Ongunnon him þa sorhleoð galan                
earme on þa æfentide,  þa hie woldon eft siðian,               
meðe fram þam mæran þeodne.  Reste he ðær mæte weorode.

[But then noble folk came from afar off to that prince. I beheld it all. I was in pain, with sorry afflicted, nevertheless I bent down to those men, down towards the side of the hill, humble-minded and with great courage. They took there the Almighty God, lifting him up from that heavy torment. I relinquished that Warrior, remained with Moisture covered; I was all with arrows* gravely wounded. There they lay down the weary-limbed one and stood at the head of his corpse. There they looked on Heaven’s Lord, and he with them rested there a while, weary after the great struggle. They began the grave to make, those warriors, within sight of his killer; they carved that grave of bright stone, and set therein The Lord of Victory. They began then a burial hymn to chant on that miserable evening. Then, weary, they would afterwards leave that most excellent Lord. He rested there with a small host.]

*strælum “with arrows” seems to be a reference to the nails embedded in the wood of the cross. Here, we might think of certain iconography of Anglo-Saxon saints, or of St Sebastian, who were tied to a tree and then shot to death with arrows. The below illumination depicts the death of St Edmund, King and Martyr, shot to death by Viking raiders. The point of this and other references to the Cross’s wounds seems to be to transfer the Cross itself from an instrument of torment to a victim who suffered, obediently, along with Christ. The reference in line 60 to elne mycle “with great courage” highlights the Cross’s own courage in obedience. As has often been pointed out elsewhere, the whole poem casts the Cross in the light of the obedient thegn, the servant or bodyguard of his lord who is expected to stand with his lord until the end. The poem puts a particularly Christian twist on this idea, though, since the Cross is not supposed to fight or defend its lord (even though it seems capable of doing so); instead, it (and therefore we) must partake in and therefore identify with the sufferings of Christ. It is the peculiarly Christian understanding that sees this moment of greatest suffering as the moment of greatest exaltation. The double-vision of the cross streaming with gore/arrayed in gold and jewels and costly vestments is a good example of the paradox which the poet so effectively conveys.

Medieval illumination of the death of St Edmund

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