The Dream of the Rood

Our visit to the Ruthwell Cross was enchanting. Until about 12 months ago we had no idea that the Cross existed or that it was discovered, and is now located, just half an hour from Carlisle. It was quite an amazing sight - Chris's photographs show how fabulous the Cross is and how well preserved considering its heritage.So whilst Chris has described the Ruthwell Cross and its history, or as much as is known about it, I want to write about the poem which is partly carved on the Cross.

The Dream of the Rood is the earliest dream-vision poem in the English language and one of the central documents of Old English Literature. Although no definite date can be assigned to the poem, many scholars agree that the most probable date of composition was during the 8th century. However, the poem may also have influenced many later works in both Old and Middle English.

The fragment of the poem which is carved on the Cross is quoted below (in translation):

The runic inscription
on the Ruthwell Cross
God almighty stripped himself,
when he wished to climb the Cross
bold before all men.
to bow (I dare not,
but had to stand firm.)

I held high the great King,
heaven’s Lord. I dare not bend.
Men mocked us both together. I was slick with blood
sprung from the Man’s side…)

Christ was on the Cross.
But then quick ones came from afar,
nobles, all together. I beheld it all.
I bowed (to warrior hands.)

Wounded with spears,
they laid him, limb weary. At his body’s head they stood.
They that looked to (heaven’s Lord…)

In the metaphoric battle within the poem, Christ and the Cross are warriors. Ultimately, the theme is of triumph achieved through suffering as both the Rood and Christ undergo a transformation from defeat to victory. We can assume that by using heroic language and metaphors the poet was trying to appeal to an audience acclimated to heroic verse, and some critics have contended that the poet had knowledge of the imagery of warfare and naturally used it in his poetry. Other critics believe that the composer of the poem must have been well acquainted with religious and ecclesiastical services because The Dream of the Rood draws so heavily on the language of Christianity.

Whatever the origins of the poem and the poet, The Dream of the Rood is beautiful and extremely moving and by presenting the Crucifixion from the Cross's persepective brings a new understanding and meaning to the most important event in Christian history.