Texts: The Dream of the Rood


Richard Harmer, trans. Dream of the Rood (1970)
Mary Rambaran-Olm, trans. and OE Dream of the Rood
Roy Liuzza, trans. Dream of the Rood

Dream of the Rood in Old English



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The Dream of the Rood is a poem found in The Vercelli Book. It is anonymous. The Vercelli Book is kept in the cathedral library of Vercelli in northern Italy, where it is MS 117. It was brought there by an Anglo-Saxon traveller, possibly a woman named Edith. It contains a number of Christian homilies in Old English and six Old English poems. Rood is also found inscibed into a stone cross of the early eighth century at Ruthwell. The Ruthwell Cross is covered in images of Biblical figures. Between the figures is carved in ancient Germanic runes portions of the poem (you can see images here). The image on the left is of the first page of the poem, the first two lines of which read, "Hwæt ic swefna cyst segcan wylle | hwæt me gemette to midre nihte ...."

The standard edition is found in Krapp & Dobbie, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (Columbia University Press, 1936), volume 2.

The Dream of the Rood is told by a narrator who is sent a vision (the Old English reads, "...that was dreamed to me"). The vision is of the Cross, which at the time was becoming an object of formal Christian veneration. Also at the time, the Iconoclastic controversy raised questions about the validity of images as proper to Christian worship. The Cross then speaks. It evangelizes the dreamer by telling the story of the Crucifixion. Finally, it calls on the dreamer, who now understands his vision, to tell what he has seen. The poem raises issues about the relationship of images to narrative meaning, to emotion, and to memory. (Odin has two ravens on his shoulders: Thought and Memory. As well as being the All-Father, Odin is the god of poetry. Here we see the combination of poetry, thought, and memory addressed in Rood.) The poem prompts readers to consider how an image, coming in to the eyes, can spark understanding. In other words, how does the physical world around us relate to your understanding of it? How is that understanding shaped by stories and by the need to see the past (memory) in narrative form?