How Old Is 'the Dream of the Rood' and What Does It Mean?

An ornate carved stone cross at the center of a domed church building.
The South face of the Ruthwell Cross.

Heather Hobma/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

"The Dream of the Rood" is the earliest English dream poem to be found in written form. "The Dream of the Rood" is an explicitly Christian poem that attempts to appeal to Anglo-Saxons from a pagan culture.

Origins and History of 'The Dream of the Rood'

The poem was first discovered on the Ruthwell Cross, a large, stone carving dating to the early eighth century. Eighteen verses of "The Dream of the Rood" were carved into the cross in runic lettering. This was all that was known of the work to scholars until the complete poem was discovered in 1822 in northern Italy in the 10th-century "Vercelli Book."

Content of the Poem

In "The Dream of the Rood," an unknown poet dreams that he encounters a beautiful tree. It is the "rood," or cross, on which Jesus Christ was crucified. It is gloriously decorated with gold and gems, but the poet can discern ancient wounds. The rood tells the poet how it had been forced to be the instrument of Christ's death, describing how it, too, experienced the nails and spear thrusts along with the Savior.

The rood goes on to explain that the cross was once an instrument of torture and death, and is now the dazzling sign of mankind's redemption. It charges the poet to tell of his vision to all men so that they, too, might be redeemed of sin.

Historical Significance

The poem has been the subject of literary and historical study for generations and has been interpreted in a variety of ways. "The Dream of the Rood" also provides a valuable window into early Christian England.

The dream vision uses strong images of Christ in order to reach members of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, who valued strength above humility. This may have been a deliberate strategy to convert pagans to Christianity. It also reflects how the image of Jesus was adapted to suit different cultures.

Source

Glenn, Jonathan. "The Dream of the Rood." Teresa Glenn, Lightspill, 2016.