Saturday, September 21, 2019

þær his eðel wæs: The Dream of the Rood, lines 70-156


Last week, in celebration of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, I shared the first half of the Anglo-Saxon poem known as The Dream of the Rood. Earlier this week, I took a closer look at a few lines from the poem which I find particularly poignant. 

As we come to the conclusion of the afterfeast, here's the rest of the poem, again with translation and some notes for students provided. Going through the second half of this poem again, I am struck by how deftly the author weaves a number of theological themes which feature prominently throughout medieval literature. Indeed, it is not the poets themes which are unusual, but the highly original way in which they are presented.

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Initial from a Breviary (12th c.) for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross


70-89

Hwæðere we ðær greotende    gode hwile

stodon on staðole,    syððan stefn up gewat
hilderinca.    Hræw colode,
fæger feorgbold.    Þa us man fyllan ongan
ealle to eorðan.    Þæt wæs egeslic wyrd!
Bedealf us man on deopan seaþe.    Hwæðre me þær dryhtnes þegnas,*
freondas gefrunon,**
gyredon me    golde ond seolfre.
Nu ðu miht gehyran,    hæleð min se leofa,
þæt ic bealuwara weorc    gebiden hæbbe,
sarra sorga.    Is nu sæl cumen
þæt me weorðiað    wide ond side
menn ofer moldan,    ond eall þeos mære gesceaft,
gebiddaþ him to þyssum beacne.    On me bearn godes
þrowode hwile.    Forþan ic þrymfæst nu
hlifige under heofenum,    ond ic hælan mæg***
æghwylcne anra,    þara þe him bið egesa to me.
Iu ic wæs geworden    wita heardost,
leodum laðost,    ærþan ic him lifes weg
rihtne gerymde,    reordberendum.****


[Yet we there weeping a good while stood in place, after the voices of the warriors had departed. The body cooled, fair life-dwelling. Then one began to fell us all to earth. That was an evil fate! One buried us in a deep pit; nevertheless there one of the Lord’s servants,* friends heard,** and adorned me with gold and silver. Now you can hear, my good man, that I the Evil One’s works have endured, painful sorrows. The time is now come that men should honor me far and wide; that men over the earth, and all this glorious creation should pray to this Sign. On me the Son of God suffered for a while; therefore, I rise glorious now under heaven, and I am able to save*** each of those for whom there is fear of me. Long ago I was made of punishments the cruelest, most hateful to the peoples, before I them the true way of life cleared for speech-bearers.****]

*The word I have translated here as “servant” is “thegn,” Modern English thane. This word usually means the aristocratic retainer of a king or chieftain in ancient Germanic society, and by extension, the noble class in general. The reference is to St Helen, who—in an event commemorated every September 14th—is said to have found the True Cross (along with the other two crosses from Golgotha), which had been buried beneath a temple to Venus built on the site by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

**We’re missing a half-line here, so it’s hard to say what the actual meaning of this line is.

***The verb is gehælan, “to heal, to comfort, to make whole.” A related word, Hælend, is used in Anglo-Saxon to refer to Christ as Savior.

****reordberend “speech-bearers” is a simple kenning for humans, employed several times in this poem for the sake of alliteration.

A Rood in a church in Gotland, Sweden


90-114

Hwæt, me þa geweorðode    wuldres ealdor
ofer holtwudu,    heofonrices weard,
swylce swa he his modor eac,    Marian sylfe,
ælmihtig god    for ealle menn
geweorðode    ofer eall wifa cynn.
Nu ic þe hate,    hæleð min se leofa,
þæt ðu þas gesyhðe    secge mannum,
onwreoh wordum    þæt hit is wuldres beam,
se ðe ælmihtig god    on þrowode
for mancynnes    manegum synnum
ond Adomes    ealdgewyrhtum.
Deað he þær byrigde,    hwæðere eft dryhten aras
mid his miclan mihte    mannum to helpe.
He ða on heofenas astag.    Hider eft fundaþ
on þysne middangeard    mancynn secan
on domdæge    dryhten sylfa,
ælmihtig god,    ond his englas mid,
þæt he þonne wile deman,    se ah domes geweald,*
anra gehwylcum    swa he him ærur her
on þyssum lænum    life geearnaþ.
Ne mæg þær ænig    unforht wesan
for þam worde    þe se wealdend cwyð.
Frineð he for þære mænige    hwær se man sie,
se ðe for dryhtnes naman    deaðes wolde
biteres onbyrigan,    swa he ær on ðam beame dyde.**

[Behold, the Lord of Glory then honored me over all the wood of the forest, the Heaven-Kingdom’s Ward, in much the same way as he his mother also, Mary herself, the Almighty God for all men exalted above woman-kind. Now I command you, my good man, that you tell this vision to men, reveal with words that it is the Tree of Glory that the Almighty God suffered upon for mankind’s many sins and Adam’s ancient wrongs. Death he there tasted, yet afterwards the Lord arose by his great might, mankind to help. He then to the heavens ascended, and hither afterwards hastens to this Middle-earth, mankind to seek at Doomsday—the Lord Himself, Almighty God, and his angels with him. He will then doom—who has the power of doom—each of them according as he earlier merited in this transitory life. Nor may any be unafraid there, because of the word that the Ruler pronounces. He asks there in the presence of the multitude where the man be who for the Lord’s Name would taste of bitter death, as he [the Lord] did on the Tree.**]

*The word used repeatedly for “to judge” or “judgment” is some version of deman (“to judge, to deem, to praise”) or dom (“judgement, justice majesty, glory, honor”). The reference here is clearly to the Last Judgment as it was understood in medieval Christian theology, however it is important to point out that this is no merely judicial power as we might think of it today in an at least nominally democratic form of government—Christ’s power to judge is directly associated with his glory, majesty, and kingly attributes. There is a certain tendency in modern thinking and storytelling to assume that the idea of glory is inversely proportional to justice. Our poet (along with his audience) is completely comfortable with the idea that Christ’s coming in judgment would not be possible without his also coming in glory.

**Here I think we can most clearly glimpse the theological “goal” of this imaginative poem—to help the listener identify with the sufferings of Christ by considering them from the perspective of the Cross itself. Medieval devotion often employs this strategy, and many comparisons might be here made to the hymnography of the Eastern Orthodox Church as it has come down to us today. The goal of this approach is not (as many Protestant reformers would later think) to create an unnecessary barrier between the devotee and Christ; it is rather to provide yet another avenue of devotional engagement by considering the Lord’s Passion through the perspective of those who witnessed it firsthand—usually the Mother of God or St John the Beloved, or others who stood at the foot of the Cross. In this poem, uniquely, we are given the perspective of the Cross itself.

Another Rood from Gotland, this one over 800 years old. It is significant for portraying Christ triumphantly (as does this poem). Even on the cross, he is already wearing his crown.


115-156

Ac hie þonne forhtiað,    ond fea þencaþ
hwæt hie to Criste    cweðan onginnen.
Ne þearf ðær þonne ænig    anforht† wesan
þe him ær in breostum bereð    beacna selest,
ac ðurh ða rode sceal    rice gesecan
of eorðwege    æghwylc sawl,
seo þe mid wealdende    wunian þenceð."
Gebæd ic me þa to þan beame    bliðe mode,
elne mycle,    þær ic ana wæs
mæte werede.*    Wæs modsefa
afysed on forðwege,**    feala ealra gebad
langunghwila.    Is me nu lifes hyht
þæt ic þone sigebeam    secan mote
ana oftor    þonne ealle men,
well weorþian.    Me is willa to ðam
mycel on mode,    ond min mundbyrd is
geriht to þære rode.***    Nah ic ricra feala
freonda on foldan,    ac hie forð heonon
gewiton of worulde dreamum,    sohton him wuldres cyning,
lifiaþ nu on heofenum    mid heahfædere,
wuniaþ on wuldre,    ond ic wene me
daga gehwylce    hwænne me dryhtnes rod,
þe ic her on eorðan    ær sceawode,
on þysson lænan    life gefetige
ond me þonne gebringe    þær is blis mycel,
dream on heofonum,    þær is dryhtnes folc
geseted to symle,    þær is singal blis,
ond me† þonne asette    þær ic syþþan mot
wunian on wuldre,    well mid þam halgum
dreames brucan.    Si me dryhten freond,
se ðe her on eorþan    ær þrowode
on þam gealgtreowe    for guman synnum.
He us onlysde    ond us lif forgeaf,
heofonlicne ham.    Hiht wæs geniwad
mid bledum ond mid blisse    þam þe þær bryne þolodan.****
Se sunu wæs sigorfæst    on þam siðfate,
mihtig ond spedig,    þa he mid manigeo com,
gasta weorode,    on godes rice,
anwealda ælmihtig,    englum to blisse
ond eallum ðam halgum    þam þe on heofonum ær
wunedon on wuldre,    þa heora wealdend cwom,
ælmihtig god,    þær his eðel wæs.

[But they are afraid, do not even know how to begin to speak to Christ. They do not have any reason to be afraid who before in their breasts bears the Best of Signs, but by means of the Cross wills the Kingdom to seek, from earthly regions—every soul who with the Ruler intends to dwell.” Prayed I then to that Cross, glad at heart, strong in courage, where I was alone with a small company.* Mind was focused on departure;** I endured many times of longing. It is now my life’s hope that I the Tree of Victory may seek alone, to offer it honor above all men. The desire for that is great in my mind, and I look to that Rood for patronage.*** Nor have I many wealthy friends on earth, but they forth hence departed from this world’s joys, sought for themselves the King of Glory, live now in the heavens with the Highfather, dwell in glory; and I expect every day when the Lord’s Rood, who I here on earth before saw, will fetch me from this transitory life, and bring me then to where there is great bliss, joy in the heavens, where the folk of God are set at banquet, where is everlasting bliss, and being set there I afterwards might dwell in glory, well with the saints, enjoying joys. The Lord shall be to me a friend, who here on earth formerly suffered on the gallows-tree for mankind’s sin. He redeemed us and gave us life and a heavenly home. Hope was renewed, with glories and with bliss, for those who there burning suffered.**** The Son was secure in victory on the journey, mighty and successful when he came with a multitude, a troop of spirits, into God’s Kingdom, Almighty Ruler, with angels to bliss, and with all the saints whom in the heavens before lived in glory when their Ruler came, Almighty God, where His homeland was.]

*Compare line 69b.

**That is, departure from this world.

***Literally taken, this line is: “and my mundbyrd is directed to that Rood.” Nearly everyone in Anglo-Saxon society had a mundbora, a patron and protector—ones parent, master, chieftain, earl, or king, depending on the position one held in society. By association, the word came to be used for the protection that God—via His saints and angels—offered to His people. The author or visionary is claiming the Rood as his own particular heavenly patron.

****The poem ends by connecting three themes which seem to have been closely intertwined for the poet (and probably for his audience as well): First, the visionary’s hope that he will gain heaven and the company of the saints by the intercession and patronage of the Cross; second, his expectation that the Lord will prove his “friend” at the day of judgment; third, that all of this—his own hopes for salvation and mankind’s hopes in general—rest upon the victory of Christ in the “Harrowing of Hell” (the Anglo-Saxon name for the Descent into Hades), the events of which are briefly recalled in the final lines of the poem. For the poet, the ideas of heavenly patronage, steadfast devotion, and the sure victory of Christ are not mutually exclusive—rather, they are complementary, woven together into a beautiful tapestry which would begin to unravel if any of the various threads were removed.


Rood screen at Our Lady of Egmanton, Nottinghamshire





Currently reading: The Life in Christ, Nicholas Cabasilas
Current audio book: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, Roger Crowley
Currently translating: The Dream of the Rood

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