Dream of the Rood is considered a masterful expression of the theme of the crucifixion. It is one of the oldest Christian poems known to have been written in Britain, and was originally written in Anglo Saxon. Although no one knows for sure who wrote it, it was probably written around the 8th century.
The poem has three parts: the Dreamer’s account of his vision of the Cross, the Cross’s monologue describing the Crucifixion, and the Dreamer’s resolution to seek the salvation of the Cross. In this section from the start of the poem, the cross tells the story of how it used to be a tree and was cut down to be the cross on which Jesus died. The fact that the rood tells the story is significant, implying nature has the capacity to teach man how to praise God.
Dream of the Rood
Hear while I tell about the best of dreams
Which came to me the middle of one night
While humankind were sleeping in their beds.
It was as though I saw a wondrous tree
Towering in the sky suffused with light,
Brightest of beams; and all that beacon was
Covered with gold. The corners of the earth
Gleamed with fair jewels, just as there were five
Upon the cross-beam. Many bands of angels,
Fair throughout all eternity, looked on.
No felon’s gallows that, but holy spirits,
Mankind, and all this marvellous creation,
Gazed on the glorious tree of victory.
And I with sins was stained, wounded with guilt.
I saw the tree of glory brightly shine
In gorgeous clothing, all bedecked with gold.
The Ruler’s tree was worthily adorned
With gems; yet I could see beyond that gold
The ancient strife of wretched men, when first
Upon its right side it began to bleed.
I was all moved with sorrows, and afraid
At the fair sight. I saw that lively beacon
Changing its clothes and hues; sometimes it was
Bedewed with blood and drenched with flowing gore,
At other times it was bedecked with treasure.
So I lay watching there the Saviour’s tree,
Grieving in spirit for a long, long while,
Until I heard it utter sounds, the best
Of woods began to speak these words to me:
“It was long past – I still remember it –
That I was cut down at the copse’s end,
Moved from my root. Strong enemies there took me,
Told me to hold aloft their criminals,
Made me a spectacle. Men carried me
Upon their shoulders, set me on a hill,
A host of enemies there fastened me.
And then I saw the Lord of all mankind
Hasten with eager zeal that He might mount
Upon me. I durst not against God’s word
Bend down or break, when I saw tremble all
The surface of the earth. Although I might
Have struck down all the foes, yet stood I fast.
Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men,
When He intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
Fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.
A rood I was raised up; and I held high
The noble King, the Lord of heaven above.”
Questions for reflection
- In this poem, the tree which became the cross is sentient. How does this offer a different perspective on the crucifixion?
- The tree has a place in God’s plan, just like Jesus – how do you think nature fits into God’s plan for the world?
- In the poem there is much symbolism around the tree, described as ‘wondrous’ and ‘glorious’ and it has been richly decorated by people. How does this align with other biblical depictions of trees that you know?
- Later in the poem, the cross says that “all creation wept” when Jesus died. Matthew 27 says that at the moment of Jesus’s death “the earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open”. If the natural world can react to Jesus’s death, how might that change our view of it?
Ed. SAJ Bradley, Anglo Saxon Poetry
Jurgen Moltman (1972), The Crucified God