Monday, September 16, 2019

Crist wæs on rode

Saturday's post of the first 69 lines of The Dream of the Rood has already become the most popular post on this blog. I don't have any explanation for this, unless it is that the poem is uniquely beautiful and also too little known. If that's the case, I am happy to have brought it to the attention of so many people. I thought I'd do a quick post this morning just to highlight what I find to be one of the most poignant passages in the whole poem: lines 39-56.

To explain why this passage works so well, one must know a little bit about Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter. To say everything that could be said about this deceptively simple meter would be the study of many lifetimes. At its most basic, however, it goes like this: Each line is made up of two half-lines (the double-space in the middle of each lines in the passage below indicates the break between these half-lines). The first half-line has two "beats" which place the stress on two alliterating sounds (with vowels always alliterating with other vowels). The second half-line has two beats as well, the first of which alliterates with the first half-line, the second of which introduces a new sound.

To give an example of what I mean, here's line 56 of the poem, with the alliterating stresses in bold:

cwiðdon cyninges fyll.  Crist wæs on rode.

There are of course endless variations to this basic line type, based on where the stresses fall and how many "filler words" (which function as extra, unstressed syllables) are allowed. Certain poems, such as Caedmon's Hymn, exhibit an extremely "tight" meter:

Nu sculon herigean         heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte         and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,         swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,         or onstealde.
He ærest sceop         eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,         halig scyppend;
þa middangeard         moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,         æfter teode
firum foldan,         frea ælmihtig.

Even if you can't read Anglo-Saxon, it should be easy to tell that these lines keep a fairly steady beat and, for the most part, stick to the alliteration rules I mentioned above. The stereotype that exists about alliterative verse is that the earlier stuff is tighter, the later stuff is looser and more "artsy"; some have drawn parallels between the breakdown of heroic society and the breakdown of heroic verse.

But The Dream of the Rood bucks this stereotype. It features a large number of what are referred to as "hyper-metrical lines"--lines that basically break the metrical rules I listed above. Usually, this is done for the sake of effect. But it almost seems that in the Dream of the Rood, it is metrical lines which are used for effect, and not the other way around. Let's return again to lines 39-56, which recount the crucifixion of Christ:


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.]

I have tried to put the stressed syllables for each line in bold, but for some of the hyper-metrical lines (easily visually identified due to the fact that they are much longer than the last 6 or so lines) it is sometimes difficult to hear exactly where the stress should go. In my opinion, this contributes to the dream-like effect of this mystical poem.

But notice what happens in those last six lines, starting at "wraðra wyrda..." The alliteration becomes perfectly regular, and the lines "tighten," at precisely the moment when the nails would be driven into the hands and feet of Our Lord. The dreamlike vision becomes, for a moment, something concrete. Each beat falls like a hammer-blow. And Crist wæs on rode.

This use of the meter creates an incredible aural effect. It's just one small example of the great genius of this poem, and one reason why it's almost impossible to translate well.

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