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.

I was working on this translation for many years before I read the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, and learned the complete legend of the Cross and its rediscovery – a vast and fascinating story in its own right, and a centrepiece of British legend, although referenced only in passing here.

 

Now I bring news of the brightest dream

that ever I met in the midst of night

when the wit of the world lies wound up 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 might the king

of heaven have seemed, on earth. That was no mere

gibbet, truly, for angels in hosts adored it,

and every mortal and well-made thing, 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 loosed 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 to fasten 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

shook 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 out to the gallows,

proud before all people, to pay 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 raised, the cross, and I raised up the king,

the lord of the heights; and I dared not falter,

though black nails drove through me, and death hung on me,

and 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 heard harsh speech,

hateful utterances; I shared the lord of hosts’

suffering and 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

with the weight of grief, and I bowed down low to their hands,

humbled, but full. They took the lord

and carried him away, and the proud people left me

there to stand, still blood-drenched, torn with iron.

Wearily they laid him down, and 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, and lifted their voices,

sang out their sorrow at sunset, set their foot to the road

outward, left none to keep him company.

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 a hard thing 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 upon 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,

the evil things old Adam awoke.

Death was buried here. God has broken his grave

in his greatness of strength, for sinners’ rescue

and, risen to heaven now, 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 repay, as ruler of all,

each one of you, as here before

you have all earned in the loan of your lives;

none shall go free, unfettered by fear

of the right answer God will then give;

in sight of all nations, he will speak well with those

who suffered 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

if they bear 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.

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