“The Dream of the Rood” is the most famous of all English religious poems. It was composed to celebrate the find of a piece of the True Cross. The poem is totally preserved in three different forms – inscribed by hand in stone, on the skin, and in silver. However, it is called a “devotional poem” for a few reasons.
“The Dream of the Rood” is unique in the Anglo-Saxon literature. It is the only poem that deals with the significance of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ in a proper and serious manner. But the poet here assimilates the heroic tradition of Germanic poetry with the Christian sentiment. The poem begins with the tale of the speaker. He tells how the Rood appeared to him in a dream and spoke to him. The vision is presented to the reader in the form of a riddle. Past scholars are divided among themselves as to who wrote “The Dream of the Rood.” Some think that it is a lost poem by Caedmon; others consider it as a poem by Cynewulf.
The narrator in the poem narrates a dream of the tree in a monologue – that of the tree itself. All one point of the poem, the cross addresses the dreamer of the narrator and tells him the story of Christ’s crucifixion. The end of the poem reverts to the narrator’s monologue and ends in a homiletic passage exhorting the Christians to the tree or the Cross appears to the narrator in a double form. One moment it appears to be covered with gold and jewels shining most resplendently in the sky as beacon-light. The next moment it is a wooden Cross besmeared with Jesus’s sweat and blood. The tree is bleeding because it bore the body of Christ on it.The bleeding tree was not without significance for early Anglo-Saxon Church. The poet makes the Cross of the dream a double symbol. It is at once both the shameful instrument of pain and death and the means of life eternal. It seems the rough wood of gallows strained with blood, at other times it seems a shining symbol of the ultimate victory of man over death.
In the narrator’s dramatic monologue, the poet describes how he was ashamed to see the tree which caused Christ’s death. Through the gold and jewels mashing it, he could perceive: “what terrible sufferings were once sustained thereon it bled from the right side.”At one point of the poem, the Cross starts its own monologue. It describes how it was cut down, dragged off by strong enemies and made into a roadside scaffold to hang the criminals. The soldiers bore it to the hill-top and set it up. Then it saw that Christ the mankind’s brave king came to climb upon the Cross. The Cross here is given a true heroic personality. It stood steadfastly though it suffered inside further pains of Christ. At the same time, it showed the Christian virtue of obedience to God’s will and endurance. The poet turns the Cross into a dramatic character with self-will and a conscience. “I dared not break or bend a ride against God’s will, through the ground itself shook at my feet.”
There is a tragic dilemma in the Cross. The tree is a sympathetic, yet unwilling instrument of death. He is not only refused the permission to avenge the death of his lord but is himself forced to play a major part in it. The conflict between heroic ideal and Christian obedience is utilized to show the personal conflict in the mind of the Cross. Christ is also presented not as a victim but as a man of heroic courage and self-sacrifice. Christ is not led into the Cross by a jeering mob; he is stripped by no mocking soldiers. Instead, we see Christ as a young, confident champion. He climbs the Cross to embrace it. It is the act of dominant free will and resembles Beowulf’s heroic self-sacrifice. The Anglo-Saxon Poet, thus, mixed the old pagan heroic ideal of honor with the Christian theme of Christ’s death.
The Cross continues its story to the dreamer. Men eager to serve their lord come to take down the exhausted Christ from the Cross and cut for the tomb on the side of the Cross. The Cross is cut down and hidden in a deep pit. Later, it is rediscovered and decorated with gold and silver.
Now the vision of the Cross explains to the dreamer its evangelic capacity. It has a healing power. Although it was the instrument of squalid death, it has now become the means of eternal life. The Cross now gives the dreamer the evangelic mission of preaching the word of Christ to the ignorant people. “I now command you, my dear man to tell men about this sight, reveal in words that this is the tree of glory on which Almighty God suffered for the many sins of mankind.”
The poem then reverts to the words of the original dreamer. If the poem ended simply with the words of the Cross, it would have been structurally weak. The poem ends with the homiletic words of the narrator who exhorts the reader to a religious life. He resolves to seek out the holy roods he has seen in the dream and worship it fully. He is no longer passive and silent but declares his veneration for the Cross powerfully. He is now old and friendless, his soul yearning to follow those who have already sought their heavenly home.