The Dream of the Rood

  • Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell,
  • which came as a dream in middle-night,
  • after voice-bearers lay at rest.
  • It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
  • born aloft, wound round by light,
  • brightest of beams. All was that beacon
  • sprinkled with gold. Gems stood
  • fair at earth’s corners; there likewise five
  • shone on the shoulder-span[1]. All there beheld the Angel of God[2],
  • fair through predestiny[3]. Indeed, that was no wicked one’s gallows,
  • but holy souls beheld it there,
  • men over earth, and all this great creation.
  • Wondrous that victory-beam – and I stained with sins,
  • with wounds of disgrace. I saw glory’s tree
  • honored with trappings, shining with joys,
  • decked with gold; gems had
  • wrapped that forest tree worthily round.
  • Yet through that gold I clearly perceived
  • old strife of wretches[4], when first it began
  • to bleed on its right side. With sorrows most troubled,
  • I feared that fair sight. I saw that doom-beacon[5]
  • turn trappings and hews: sometimes with water wet,
  • drenched with blood’s going; sometimes with jewels decked.
  • But lying there long while, I,
  • troubled, beheld the Healer’s tree,
  • until I heard its fair voice.
  • Then best wood spoke these words:
  • “It was long since – I yet remember it –
  • that I was hewn at holt’s end,
  • moved from my stem. Strong fiends seized me there,
  • worked me for spectacle; cursèd ones lifted me.[6]
  • On shoulders men bore me there, then fixed me on hill;
  • fiends enough fastened me. Then saw I mankind’s Lord
  • come with great courage when he would mount on me.
  • Then dared I not against the Lord’s word
  • bend or break, when I saw earth’s
  • fields shake. All fiends
  • I could have felled, but I stood fast.
  • The young hero stripped himself – he, God Almighty –
  • strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
  • bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
  • I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
  • fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
  • Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
  • Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
  • With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
  • open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
  • They mocked us both, we two together[7]. All wet with blood I was,
  • poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.
  • Much have I born on that hill
  • of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
  • harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
  • wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
  • bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
  • dark under heaven. All creation wept,
  • King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.
  • But there eager ones came from afar
  • to that noble one. I beheld all that.
  • Sore was I with sorrows distressed, yet I bent to men’s hands,
  • with great zeal willing. They took there Almighty God,
  • lifted him from that grim torment. Those warriors abandoned me
  • standing all blood-drenched, all wounded with arrows.
  • They laid there the limb-weary one, stood at his body’s head;
  • beheld they there heaven’s Lord, and he himself rested there,
  • worn from that great strife. Then they worked him an earth-house,
  • men in the slayer’s sight carved it from bright stone,
  • set in it the Wielder of Victories. Then they sang him a sorrow-song,
  • sad in the eventide, when they would go again
  • with grief from that great Lord. He rested there, with small company.
  • But we there lamenting a good while
  • stood in our places after the warrior’s cry
  • went up. Corpse grew cold,
  • fair life-dwelling. Then someone felled us
  • all to the earth. That was a dreadful fate!
  • Deep in a pit one delved us. Yet there Lord’s thanes,
  • friends, learned of me,. . . . . . . . . . .
  • adorned me with silver and gold.
  • Now you may know, loved man of mine,
  • what I, work of baleful ones, have endured
  • of sore sorrows. Now has the time come
  • when they will honor me far and wide,
  • men over earth, and all this great creation,
  • will pray for themselves to this beacon. On me God’s son
  • suffered awhile. Therefore I, glorious now,
  • rise under heaven, and I may heal
  • any of those who will reverence me.
  • Once I became hardest of torments,
  • most loathly to men, before I for them,
  • voice-bearers, life’s right way opened.
  • Indeed, Glory’s Prince, Heaven’s Protector,
  • honored me, then, over holm-wood. [8]
  • Thus he his mother, Mary herself,
  • Almighty God, for all men,
  • also has honored over all woman-kind.
  • Now I command you, loved man of mine,
  • that you this seeing[9] tell unto men;
  • discover with words that it is glory’s beam
  • which Almighty God suffered upon
  • for all mankind’s manifold sins
  • and for the ancient ill-deeds of Adam.
  • Death he tasted there, yet God rose again
  • by his great might, a help unto men.
  • He then rose to heaven. Again sets out hither
  • into this Middle-Earth, seeking mankind
  • on Doomsday, the Lord himself,
  • Almighty God, and with him his angels,
  • when he will deem – he holds power of doom –
  • everyone here as he will have earned
  • for himself earlier in this brief life.
  • Nor may there be any unafraid
  • for the words that the Wielder speaks.
  • He asks before multitudes where that one is
  • who for God’s name would gladly taste
  • bitter death, as before he on beam did.
  • And they then are afraid, and few think
  • what they can to Christ’s question answer.[10]
  • Nor need there then any be most afraid [11]
  • who ere in his breast bears finest of beacons;
  • but through that rood shall each soul
  • from the earth-way enter the kingdom,
  • who with the Wielder thinks yet to dwell.”
  • I prayed then to that beam with blithe mind,
  • great zeal, where I alone was
  • with small company[12]. My heart was
  • impelled on the forth-way, waited for in each
  • longing-while. For me now life’s hope:
  • that I may seek that victory-beam
  • alone more often than all men,
  • honor it well. My desire for that
  • is much in mind, and my hope of protection
  • reverts to the rood. I have not now many
  • strong friends on this earth; they forth hence
  • have departed from world’s joys, have sought themselves glory’s King;
  • they live now in heaven with the High-Father,
  • dwell still in glory, and I for myself expect
  • each of my days the time when the Lord’s rood,
  • which I here on earth formerly saw,
  • from this loaned life will fetch me away
  • and bring me then where is much bliss,
  • joy in the heavens, where the Lord’s folk
  • is seated at feast, where is bliss everlasting;
  • and set me then where I after may
  • dwell in glory, well with those saints
  • delights to enjoy. May he be friend to me
  • who here on earth earlier died
  • on that gallows-tree for mankind’s sins.
  • He loosed us and life gave,
  • a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
  • with glory and gladness to those who there burning endured.
  • That Son was victory-fast[13] in that great venture,
  • with might and good-speed[14], when he with many,
  • vast host of souls, came to God’s kingdom,
  • One-Wielder Almighty: bliss to the angels
  • and all the saints – those who in heaven
  • dwelt long in glory – when their Wielder came,
  • Almighty God, where his homeland was.
  • Annotations

    [1] shoulder-span. OE eaxlegespanne. Of this hapax legomenon, Swanton writes: “It would be tempting to identify this with the ‘axle-tree’ or centre-piece of the cross, although ‘axle’ in this sense of wheel-centre is not otherwise recorded before the thirteenth century.… It might … simply refer to the beam of the gallows along which Christ’s arms were stretched, although the ‘crux gemmata’ normally has jewels along all four arms.”

    [2] All … God. Most editors assume that engel ‘angel’ is the subject of the sentence, but I follow Swanton in treating ealle ‘all’ as subject and engel as object. Swanton considers this to cause difficulties about identifying the engel, but the OE word can carry the sense ‘messenger,’ which obviously suggests that the Cross itself is the engel dryhtnes‘angel/messenger of God.’

    [3] fair . . . predestiny. OE fægere þurh forðgesceaft, an ambiguous phrase, forðgesceaftbeing used elsewhere to mean both ‘creation’ and ‘future destiny.’ See Swanton for a discussion of the possibilities. My translation indicates that I take it to mean ‘what is preordained.’ Thus the Rood is part of an eternal plan, like “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

    [4] old strife of wretches. OE earmra ærgewin, lit. ‘of wretches ere-strife.’ The phrase, in this context, appears to refer to the whole battle between Christ and Satan, Good and Evil; more immediately, of course, it refers to Christ’s Passion, viewed as battle.

    [5] doom-beacon. OE fuse beacen. Considering that “the word fus is commonly associated with death,” Swanton notes: “Clearly, within the poet’s vision we must recognize not simply the church year hastening to its sacrificial end, but a concrete symbol of death and the doom to come. This beacen is at once an emblem of death (Christ’s) and of doom (that of the dreamer and world). At Judgement Day it is this symbol that will be seen again in the heavens.…”

    [6] cursèd . . . me. As Swanton observes, the syntax could conceivably support the rendering “made me lift cursèd ones.”

    [7] both . . . together. OE unc butu ætgædere ‘we two both together.’ Unc is dual in number, underscoring the close relationship – the near identification – of Cross and Christ in the poem.

    [8] holm-wood. OE holmwudu, a hapax legomenon and obscure. Swanton notes three possible ways to find meaning in the term: (1) interpret it as ‘sea-wood’ (either ‘ship’ or – more understandably – lignum vitae ‘tree of life,’ which grows by the waters of Paradise); (2) emend to holtwudu ‘forest wood’; or (3) take holm in the OS sense ‘hill,’ providing a “powerful oblique reference to the gallows of Golgotha.”

    [9] seeing. OE gesyhð ‘thing seen, vision’ (> NE sight), clearly referring to the dreamer’s vision of the Cross. B. Huppé, Web of Words, entitles this poem “Gesyhþ rodes.”

    [10] Christ’s … answer. More literally: “what they may begin to say to Christ.”

    [11] most afraid. OE unforht, usually emended to anforht ‘fearful’; Swanton retains the MS reading un- as an intensive: ‘very afraid.’

    [12] small company. See line 69. This is one of the numerous echoes set up to link Christ, Cross, and Dreamer.

    [13] victory-fast. I.e., secure in or sure of victory.

    [14] with . . . good-speed. OE mihtig ond spedig ‘mighty and successful’ (the latter being the original meaning of speedy).


    Reproduced with permission from “The Dream of the Rood.” Trans. Jonathan A. Glenn. Jonathan and Teresa Glenn, 2006. Lightspill Web. 12 Apr. 2016. <>


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