One for Good Friday. A (free) translation I made some years ago (and am still tinkering with) of the anonymous Old English poem. Known today from a tenth-century manuscript, it appears to date from around the seventh century, from the fact that phrases from it are seemingly quoted in the runic inscriptions on the magnificent Ruthwell Cross.
Old English poetry, and writing in general, often gave a first-person voice to a range of inanimate objects, in a way which suggests (to me at least) a vestige of an old mythic way of looking at the world, in a way which saw pretty much everything in the cosmos as sentient, or at least endowed with personhood in some form (cf. this previous post on myth). The inscription on the famous Alfred jewel reads “Alfred had me made,” and the Exeter Book famously preserves a hundred or so riddles, derived ultimately from classical Latin models, in which various non-human phenomena speak in the first person to tantalise the reader/listener with cryptic and defamiliarised accounts of their own nature. The Exeter Book riddles are fully achieved poems, and not mere guessing games; in some of them, the answer is obvious, and the implied requirement to guess it seems beside the point. The idea of narrating the central Christian myth of the Atonement through the imagined eyes of the central sacrificial weapon itself – and then giving the cross a voice of compassionate piety – is a stroke of genius which builds on a long legacy of learning and a complex poetic tradition.
By these means, the Dream of the Cross (often termed “The Dream of the Rood,” which means the same thing, bearing in mind that the poem has no title at all in the manuscript) testifies to a potent but ambivalent fascination with the figure of Christ, which scholars such as Tolkien have long discerned in Old English literature. On the one hand, the English poets were Christians. They believed in the Atonement and they knew that Jesus could hardly have achieved it by fighting back against his enemies or striving for worldly glory. They knew that he was meek, mild, humble, a lover and forgiver of his enemies, and so forth. Like good medieval Christians, they praised the many saints who took their emulation of Christ’s example to commensurately self-destructive extremes. On the other hand, they inherited a culture and tradition which had celebrated warlike virtues time out of mind, according to which fighting back against one’s enemies and striving for worldly glory were highly commendable. Old English religious literature is the record of various attempts to wrestle with the resulting contradiction, which, seemingly, was never finally resolved. Anglo-Saxon monks persisted in the bad habit of listening to heroic poetry and storytelling, and were famously rebuked by their superiors for doing so. Even the accounts of military campaigns in the early days of English Christianity, and the use of Christian symbols on weapons and armour, all suggest that the Christian God was worshipped at least partly because he was seen as an effective war-god – a view which the Christian Old Testament, and the contemporary expectation of a Last Judgment, would, of course, have corroborated. The fact that the paradox endured in Anglo-Saxon culture inspired some truly breathtaking art and poetry – as John Keats might have predicted it would.
In the Dream of the Cross, it has been suggested, the paradox leads the poet to tell the mythic story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and the legend of the loss and rediscovery of the Cross by St Helena, in the genre conventions developed for praise-poetry about the legendary feats of warrior heroes, pointedly adapted to flag up the paradox of a hero who emerges triumphant in his very refusal to fight. Behind the pious Christian sentiments, and underneath the rich and sonorous verse, and vivid imagery and storytelling (which of themselves are enough to justify the study of the poem) one can discern a living mind, veritably boggling. Whose mind it was that boggled, we will never know. But perhaps that doesn’t really matter. The Dream of the Cross records a vision of awe before ineffable reality which is compelling in its conviction and cosmic in its scope.
Now I bring news of the brightest dream
that ever I met in the midst of night
when the wit of the world lay wound in sleep.
I thought I saw the cross of Christ
raised high in splendour, wreathed round with light.
The beam, as I saw, was bright as a beacon,
gilded with gold: its jewelled foundation
was rooted in earth, with a five-fold jewel
clustered close at its core; so would the court of heaven
have seen its lord. That was no mere gibbet,
indeed and surely, for angels in hosts adored it,
and all well-made and mortal things, this
marvel beyond measure; and I – mired as I was in my sins,
wounded and wicked at heart – I saw the same bright beam
so glad and joyful with glistening gold,
so worked and adorned and worthily woven,
the wood of God with glorious jewels inlaid -
but there upon it, for all its beauty,
were marks of old evil: before my sight
its side sweated blood. And I sorrowed.
Afraid for this fair thing, I saw its light, its fire
turning, adorned with garlands, drenched with blood by turns
and soaked with dripping streams, by turns clustered with gems.
So I stood for a long time, and I
watched the turning cross with anguished care
until time loosened the tree’s tongue
and, solid wood as it was, it began to speak:
“Long years ago – yet still I remember -
ground axe hewed me by greenwood side,
razed me at root; rough hands seized me.
Foes mocked me, forced me to hang their thieves,
hauled me off on their shoulders, shored me up high on a hill;
foes enough fastened me there. Then the son of the father
hurried to meet me with heart full and free.
And then indeed for fear I never dared
shudder or bend, though the whole world
was shaking before me. I could have easily
felled them all. But I stood fast.
He gathered himself up – that was God almighty,
stern, strong-minded: he walked to his own gallows,
proud before people, to pay for their lives’ ransom.
I trembled as he touched me. I dared not bow down
or fall to the ground. I was forced to stand fast.
Then I was a cross, upraised; and I raised up the king,
the lord of the heights; and I dared not falter,
though black nails drove through me and death was upon me,
wide, hateful wounds which I could not even avenge.
They mocked my lord then, and me – soaked as I was in blood
that ran from his side, as his soul went out of him.
High on the hill I had harsh speech,
hateful utterance. I knew the lord of hosts’
suffering in sorrow. The black of night
covered the body of God in shadow,
his bright shining body: the darkness came
with its wan weather; all the world wept
for the fallen king. Christ was crucified.
Good people came from far off, in haste
to that high lord – I knew it all
under the weight of grief, and I bowed down low to their hands,
humbled and full. They took the lord
and carried him away, and the proud people left me
there to stand, still blood-drenched, torn with iron.
Weary they laid him down, kept watch at his head,
looked down on the lord as he lay there at rest,
worn out with his work. They made him a tomb;
carved it before me, a crypt of bright stone;
there they laid him in glory, lifted up their voices,
sang out their sorrow at sunset, set their foot to the road
outward, left none to keep him company.
And we trees – we kept to our places. But we wept then,
wept our own tears, and our cries, too, went up,
our own mast and mould of grief at the slow cooling
of the shining flesh. And then we were all cut down,
hacked down to earth. That was hard to bear.
We were buried deep. Then, later, the lord’s people
found me; his followers unearthed me,
then decked me out with gold and silver -
and now you have heard, my dearest of friends,
the way I have weathered the work of the wicked,
suffered its sorrows: and now, now is the time
to announce my honour, both near and far
among all mortal and well-made things,
to light their prayers. Since on me, long ago,
the son of God suffered a little while,
I am raised to heaven, with glory and healing
for all who find it in them to fear me.
Before, I was thought the worst of all deaths,
most vile to look on, before I unlocked
the right road of life to the whole of the world.
But now the king of glory has crowned me
great in the green wood, heaven’s great keeper,
just as he made Mary his mother
worthiest among all womankind
before all men, almighty God!
And now I urge you, dearest of friends:
tell out the truth as I tell it you now!
Speak in plain speech of the one tree
that bore all the grief of almighty God,
for all the world and its measureless sins,
all the evil of old Adam.
Death was buried here. God has broken his grave
in his greatness of strength, for sinners’ rescue.
For, risen to heaven, hereafter he cannot help
but search you all out, all over the earth
on the day of judgment – the lord of dread,
almighty God, all his angels with him -
and to answer, as wielder of all,
each one of you, as here before
you have all asked by the loan of your lives;
none shall go free, unfettered by fear
of the right answer God will then offer;
in sight of all nations, he will speak well with those
who would suffer for him the bitter
taste of the death which he suffered on me.
All shall be afraid, and none will know
how to approach the all-wielding Christ -
but none need ever fear that hour of ordeal
who bears my weight as the brightest beam in their breast;
through me, through the cross, to the kingdom each soul shall come
who has wandered the wide ways of earth
with trust and hope in the healer on high.”
I bowed to the cross in gladness of mind
and fullness of heart, alone as I was,
none other beside me. My longing awoke
for the journey before me, just as it has
times since beyond number: and now my hope
is only to reach that tree in its splendour
alone, more often than any other
to honour its worth. My will is fast
and firm to that goal: my shield and protection
is set in the cross: and no firm friend
have I in the world but those who have already gone
out beyond the world’s joys to the king of glory,
found home in heaven with the high father,
haven of wonder. So too, with longing
each day I wait for the saviour’s cross
which here in the world I met with once,
to bear me out from the loan of my life
and bring me back to the fullness of joy,
the vastness of heaven, the lord’s host
arrayed in harmony, rapture incalculable,
living with him forever and ever,
established in splendour among the saints,
knowing all good things. God be my friend -
God who here on earth once suffered such grief
as God on the gallows for all the godless!
For he forgave us, he gave us life
and heavenly home. Hope was replenished,
drunk up with delight by the dead of Hell,
when his son returned, steadfast, exulting,
mighty, most powerful, lord of multitudes,
leading lost souls to the house of God,
the ruler of all, the rapture of angels
and all the saints who stand in the heavens
fixed in splendour, since first their saviour,
God almighty, came back to his home.