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The Characteristic Of The Crucifix In Anglo-Saxon Poem Dream Of The Rood

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The Dream of the Rood is an Anglo-Saxon poem written around the 8th century, which is of Christian value. Scholars are unaware of who the poet actually was, but due to other significant texts written at the time, it can be guessed to be written by poets such as Caedmon or Cynewulf, who have their names signed to other famous poems. The Dream of the Rood is one of the first Christian texts to be written in the English language as well as being one of the first to effectively portray a new genre of dream poetry. ‘Rood’ meaning crucifix, so immediately when a reader translates the title into modern English, they will have a fair judgement on what this poem may entail. A single section of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ was originally carved into a part of the Ruthwell cross, as an act of conversion to Christianity, but ultimately was destroyed during the protestant reformation. However, the poem was successfully persevered in the ‘Vercelli Book’ The poem has been granted its success and famous title due to the fact, it is the first of a dream genre but more importantly it brings the inanimate cross to life to tell its side of the story leading to the death of Jesus. The poet was able to dramatically convey that the crucifix was human like, and went step by step with Jesus, even before when the crucifix was merrily a tree about to be torn down and shaped to a cross. This poem would have been effective during the conversion of many people to Christians, as it helped the struggle to strip the image of the horrific death that Jesus died to, but instead stood as a symbol for faith, as it recognised the crucifix as something that held Jesus in his final minutes, therefore it is holy and almighty like him. This essay will therefore, analyse how the crucifix is characterised throughout ‘The Dream of the Rood’.

Firstly, one of the most effective and important techniques used in the poem is the ability to make an object tell a conveying moral story, that ultimately praises faith for Jesus and God and combines the two. This device of bringing inanimate objects is a classic technique used by the Anglo-Saxons which was referred to as ‘Prosopopoeia’ (Oxford reference) or commonly known today as personification. Moreover, surrounding the idea of the dream genre, from the titles itself, it is reinforced when the reader learns that the narrator is in the middle of a dream, and this entails having a conversation with the crucifix and how Jesus died. The poem is divided into different sections, and the first section the narrator or the person who is dreaming, is captured in a vision of the cross and its beauty, then in the next section the crucifix begins to tell its story of Jesus, and the final section is where the narrator develops his thoughts and feelings regarding the story he has been told, and of Jesus and Christian faith. The second section, the poet uses personal pronouns when translated like ‘I, and when the poet writes ‘he me wolde on gestigan’ (line 34, Dream of the Rood), which translates to ‘wanted to climb up on me’ in reference to Jesus about to be nailed to the crucifix. The poets use of personal pronouns in the sentence, explains how the crucifix was able to feel Jesus climb upon him, as if he had sensory abilities and feelings to remember, and be in this moment with him. It reflects the idea that the crucifix stood for Jesus, and was strong for him in his final moments.

This poem could be argued to be somewhat like a parable from the Bible itself, and could be argued to be ‘bibliomancy’ (https://www.crystalinks.com/bibliomancy.html) where a story from the Bible is retold to fit spiritual need . Depending on a person’s religious outlook, it could be viewed that this poem, is like a story which people can gain significant morals and lessons from, and give people insight into Jesus and God. For the poet to speak of the crucifix in such grace would have been a very bold move during the 8th century or before, as the ideologies regarding death by tree or cross, are quite significant in the fact that they are death penalty punishments for criminals. The poet conveys the crucifix as angelic, and subverts the criminal image when he writes ‘bearm beorhtost…begoten mid golde’, (lines 6,7, Dream of the Rood, The Vercelli Book) when translated the poet has used alliteration in; ‘brightest of crosses’ and ‘beautiful jewels’. Alliteration was a common Anglo-Saxon technique to use, as it beautifully helped the listener to capture the image that was being portrayed and continued to help the poem be spoken smoothly.

Furthermore, the reversal and the subversion of the once classified view that the crucifix was seen as a criminal’s death or would bring bad luck, is further reversed when the poet writes ‘Syllic waes se sigebeam’ (line 13, Dream of the Rood, The Vercelli Book) which translate to ‘tree of victory’. The poet’s way of describing the tree as a ‘victory’ suggests underling themes of championship and righteousness. The cross itself, describes himself as the ‘tree of victory’, as it alone carried Jesus, had his blood soaked through it and watched as his enemies murdered him. The tree is victorious as Christ is a King himself, and he was once at one with him; that it is something to be worshipped, and foretells the common idea that people pray and ask for protection of the crucifix that has been replicated worldwide. The crucifixes further characterisation is further analysed as supporting Christ when Robert. B Burlin writes;

‘…But with its selection as the instrument of the Crucifixion, this tone changes. What had been mere humiliation becomes, by association with the Creator, a plaintive yet triumphant humility. As the ‘retainer’ of the geong haled, the cross must stand far in obedience and loyalty to its Lord, though paradoxically the exhibition of these heroic virtues requires not only tolerance of, but complicity in the death of that Lord. While all the earth trembles, the Cross must stand firm, though it claims the power to strike down His enemies (35-38). It trembles only at the embrace at the Lord’ (line 13-21, Pg 28, Burlin)

Moreover, the crucifixes ‘victory’ as a crucifix to be worshipped through its association with Jesus, is further emphasised, as the it can convey how powerful Jesus’ death was. In many translations of the poem, the poet uses a wider range of verbs and adjectives to describe Jesus such as ‘Warrior’ and ‘God Almighty’ and other versions such as ‘young hero’ and ‘fair knight’. The crucifix is a symbol of Jesus’ strength, and how he gave his life for the sins of the world, which would have appealed to an Anglo-Saxon audience. The poem recognises that Jesus and the crucifix are connected but only in a warrior like way, and the poem doesn’t convey the brutality Jesus was subjected to as it is in some passages of the Bible.

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As quoted in Jeannette C. Brock’s essay, (Pg. 4) ‘Michael Swanton, Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Exeter, suggests that’, ‘the extent of Christ’s physical condition [is] carefully masked in favour of his victorious rule from the cross.'(Swanton,100). The poem unites Christ and the crucifix, and without communicating how Jesus was severely abused, it instead adds strength to the cross’s champion victory, that it held the ‘warrior prince ‘who died for all humans. The referral to Christ as a warrior also parallels many other works of Anglo-Saxon literature such a Beowulf, and how they protect everyone for the better good of mankind, which suggests the power the cross has.

Furthermore, the crucifix is characterised as being quite emotional and tormented by the death of Christ, when the poet writes ‘Hwaeoere we oaer reotende gode hwile’(line 70) which translates to ‘Nevertheless, weeping, we stood there a good while’(line 70, Dream of the Rood). Looking through the crucifixes ‘eyes’ in this line, the poet portrays the cross as having emotions towards this incident like Mary in the Bible, watching her son die on the cross. The cross is among others who have witnessed his death penalty, and it too has wept for Christs death. The Crucifixes characterisation is further developed when the poet describes how several inflictions that would have caused grave pain to Jesus, actually caused the crucifix severe pain as well. This is evident when the poet writes ‘purhdrifan hi me mid decoran naeglum; on me syndon pa dolg gesiene,…opene inwidhlemmas;’(line 45,46, Dream of the Rood), this translates to in most translations, as ‘they drove dark nails into me; dire wounds are there to see, the gaping gashes of malice’(line 45, 46). The poets use of strong metaphorical images, shows how the crucifix felt the pain rather than Christ, to avoid an image of Christ anything less than strong and warrior like. In this poem, the crucifix takes the pain and suffering from Christ. Moreover, the crucifix explains how ‘Bareon me…’ (line 32, Dream of the Rood) or ‘men shifted me’. This is a great example of ‘anthropomorphism’ (https://www.britannica.com/topic/anthropomorphism), where an object is given the ability to speak about physical, mental or emotional pain. Due to the fact that men had shifted the crucifix already into position in the poem, it doesn’t refer to the many times in the bible, Jesus fell while carrying the cross, and how it had to be lifted off him. This helps to keep the ongoing image, that the crucifix knew itself it had to be strong for Jesus, and it was privileged to have such a prince be placed upon him. Highlighting and creating a perfect light for Jesus made this poem an epic story to listen to during the Anglo-Saxon period. Moreover, due to the fact that the crucifix lives the pain that originally is bestowed upon Christ, it unites them together, and because he poet or the ‘dreamer’ is witnessing this vision from the crucifix, he too is given insight into Jesus’ pain. This reinforces the common idea, that Christ and God are connecting to each single person, and they feel every humans pain and suffering and try to give some relief through prayer, just like the crucifix felt Jesus’ pain, and held him up.

In addition, the crucifixes’ strong and convincing speech, is foreshowed in the opening lines when the poet writes, ‘Hwaet, le swefna cyst scegan wylle…gesawe syllicre treow…’(lines 1,4, Dream of the Rood). This roughly translates to ‘Listen! I will tell the best of visions…more wonderful tree’. The strong ‘Listen!’, is very conveying to an audience listening; it is a command that wants the listeners respect and silence for this poem. Referring to a wonderous tree, foreshadows at how that tree will become the crucifix that Jesus will be nailed too. This sets a high tone for the crucifix’s speech, and how it will be wondrous, so the poet has skilfully captured the audience’s attention, and commands them to listen to how the crucifix is respectable and conveying. Moreover, the crucifixes speech is further convincing, through the poets use of rhyme and rhythm. There is no real rhyme scheme to the poem, other than the commanding opening lines, that further emphasis the foreshadowing of the crucifixes story. The poem would have been traditionally read aloud, as before poems were written into textual transcripts, they were passed down generations through oral tradition. The poet uses a rather musicality approach towards the poem, and this would have created a beautifully poetic narrative for audiences to listen to; therefore, enhancing the crucifixes story, for an audience to learn Christian faith lessons from. To appeal to the Anglo-Saxons, musicality helped, but the reference to the tree, and its journey from tree to crucifix, could showcase to the Anglo’s how they too can convert to Christianity, and follow Jesus on their path to strengthening their faith.

Furthermore, in the final section of the poem, which is the speaker/dreamer’s colloquy, it gathers the final thoughts regarding the crosses story, and how the speaker now feels enlightened. The crucifix in these final lines are furthered characterised as being ‘God-like’, as the crucifix acting symbolic for Christ gave his life for the sins of mankind, people will one day face the cross again. This is evident when the poet writes, ‘On me Bearn prowode hwile;…hlifige under heofenum…’(lines 83,84, Dream of the Rood’), which translates to ‘On me the son of God, suffered for a while…glorious now, towering under the heavens’. Here, it is visible that the crucifix now upholds itself with the stature of Christ. It knows it will be used to bow down and pray to, and it will serve as protection for anyone who asks. This is furthered emphasised when the poet writes ‘Nu ic…min se leofa…secge mannum’(line 95,95, Dream of the Rood) which translates to, ‘Now I urge you…to tell men about this vison’. This signifies an urgency to spread the word of God. God is almost using the crucifix to speak to mankind, and reassure them. The poets use of commanding language in these sentences engage the listeners, who as previously mentioned would have been Anglo-Saxons who may have been the position of converting to Christianity, to perhaps fulfil their conversion. The crucifix is characterised as being a physical reach to God, and it know people will bow their heads in prayer to it, as it has survived like Christ, for humans.

Lastly, the crucifix is also characterised as being something worldly; it was made from a tree that grows on earth, which is like mankind, they are not angels or other-worldly, they reside on earth. Jesus was born on earth, and was kike any other human, and he died like any other human. This is evident when the poet writes, ‘Dryhten freond…her on eorpan’ (lines 144, 145, Dream of the Rood), this translates to ‘he who on earth suffered previously’. This reinforces the idea that Jesus and the crucifix were both on earth like any other human, so we all or the Anglo-Saxon audience, can make that spiritual journey into enlightenment and to have faith in Christianity.

To conclude, over the course of the poem, the crucifix is characterised as going through a journey, quite like when someone begins a spiritual enlightenment journey. It showcases the hardship and brutality the crucifix has been subjected too. However, the crucifix witnesses Christ’s punishment, and knows he was not attached to a criminal but rather a prince. It adds value to the crucifix and it reinforces how people now pray and bow their head to a cross in times of need or to give thanks. Jesus and the crucifix both were on earth, and like them, many Anglo-Saxons began their journey to Christian faith.

Bibliography

  1. Crossley-Holland, K. (1999). The Anglo-Saxon World. 3rd ed. Oxfords World’s Classics, pp.200-204.
  2. Magennis, H. (2011). The Cambridge introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Dream of the Road OE and MoE, Canvas, Queens University Belfast (2019), Cynewulf, ‘The Vercelli Book’file:///C:/Users/seanna/Downloads/Dream%20of%20the%20Rood%20OE%20and%20MoE%20(1).pdf

Works Cited

  1. ‘prosopopoeia.’ Oxford Reference. . . Date of access 1 Dec. 2019,
  2. Burlin, Robert B. “The Ruthwell Cross, ‘The Dream of the Rood’ and the Vita Contemplativa.” Studies in Philology, vol. 65, no. 1, 1968, pp. 23–43. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4173589.
  3. Jeanette C. Brock (1998) ‘Dream of the Rood and the Image of Christ in the Early Middle Ages’ https://religiondocbox.com/91175399-Christianity/The-dream-of-rood-and-the-image-of-christ-in-the-early-middle-ages-jeannette-c-brooks-1998.html
  4. Michael Swanton. English Literature Before Chaucer. (New York: Longman, 1987), 100.
  5. ‘Bibliomancy’, https://www.crystalinks.com/bibliomancy.html
  6. ‘Anthropomorphism’ https://www.britannica.com/topic/anthropomorphism

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The Characteristic Of The Crucifix In Anglo-Saxon Poem Dream Of The Rood. (2021, September 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-characteristic-of-the-crucifix-in-anglo-saxon-poem-dream-of-the-rood/
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