Home > Translation > The Dream of the Rood

The Dream of the Rood

March 4, 2011

translated by Marly Youmans

What follows is a translation of the narrative half of the Anglo-Saxon dream vision, a part of the tenth-century Vercelli Book. The text pre-dates the book (a portion in runic alphabet was found on the Ruthwell Cross in Northumbria, dated to the late seventh or early eighth century). The original poem, included below the translation here, is vivid, using warrior imagery to describe Christ, who could be said to become a strange sort of “goldgiefa” or Anglo-Saxon gold-giver, lord to the loyal thane-cross of Middle-earth. The poem is alliterative, hyper-metric, and marked by kennings. This version hews to the formal alliteration that binds half-lines (note that a vowel alliterates with any vowel), striving to give at least a sense of Anglo-Saxon prosody while retaining the sense and color of the original. When I was a young poet, I studied Old English with Geoffrey Russom and hope that he would not be too bothered by how I have dealt with the cruxes of the poem.

Listen! I tell the topmost     of trances,
the marvel met as dream     in middle-night
when speech-bearers     slumbered in bed!
Though sleeping I saw     a sight-surpassing tree
aloft in air     in aureoles of light,
the brightest beam.     That beacon-sign
was garbed all in gold     and gemstones stood
fair at earth’s four corners     and five also were
set on the axis-span.     All stared at the fair-destined,
this angel emissary     —no outlaw cross—
that holy spirits here     beheld,
men on earth-mould,     and all marvelous creation.
The triumph tree, wondrous!     Tarred by sin,
Sore stained by wounds,     I saw the glory-tree
All clad in costly raiment,     coruscating with joy,
geared in gold-gleam,     with gemmy stones that
Sheathed in splendor     a shaft from the weald.
Yet through gold-thickness     I then discerned
Ere-strife of sinners     that began to show,
Blood seeping from the side.     Sadness troubled me,
I feared the fair sight.     That fate-beacon at times
changed its cladding—     crowned with treasure
or dowsed in dankness,     drenched by bloodflow.
I long lingered,     lay there
Heavy-hearted and beheld     the healer’s tree
Till flawless fair-wood     framed words and spoke:
“In years now yore     —I yearn for them still—
I was hewn from havens     at holt’s selvage,
And severed from stalk.     Strong fiend-foes seized me,
showed me as spectacle,     summoned me to lift outlaws.
Some men shouldered me     and staked me on this hill;
fiends made me fast.     The friend of mankind
hankered to climb me, hastening     hearty in his zeal.
I dared not defy     the deeming of the Lord,
to shatter or stoop     when shudderings
shook the soil,     and so I did not strike
the enemy but abided     aloft, all firm.
Yahweh, young hero,     yare and resolute,
unclothed himself to climb     on the cross, naked
and brave before many, being     barter for all.
Embraced, I was not bold     to burst toward earth,
shocking its surface,     but stayed steadfast.
Raised as rood, I reared     the ruler of heaven.
They punched with pitch-dark nails:     the puncture-wounds
looked deep-maliced and dire.     I dared not hurt any . . .
we suffered scorn as one.     I was suffused with blood,
gore begotten from his side.     When ghost yielded,
a fierce wyrd-fate     found me on that hill:
I saw the Savior, Lord-of-Hosts     Sore-stretched, racked.
The darkness dragged a cloud-pall     on the dead leader,
that shining star-glow;     shadow went forth,
duskiness under dome.     Dolorus, all creation
cried at the king’s fall:     Christ was on cross.
Some coursed and quickened,     coming to that place,
to Almighty Aetheling.     All I witnessed;
though burdened by dole-blight,     I bent, fired
by humility, to hands of men.     They handled Almighty God,
upraised from riving pain.     I rose, bereft
and bloody, besprinkled, breached     by bolts of arrows.
They laid down the limb-wearied,     aligned themselves near his head
and looked on the Lord of Heaven,     lying at leisure,
weary from war-wrack.     Warriors made his earth-house
in sight of his slayer,     shaping the bright stone,
settled the sin-conqueror     and sang a sorrow-song,
woeful at waning eve.     Wanting to wend, wretched,
they left the Lord of glory     resting with little company.
Yet we were there, weeping     a good while,
Fixed, standing fast,     after the voice flared upward,
keen cry of the warrior.     Corpse cooled,
the comely life-castle.     Men cropped our boles
all to the earth—     an awful wyrd that was!
They thrust us in a trench,     but thanes of the Lord,
his feudal friends, harrowed me,     faced me with silver and gold.

*

Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst     secgan wylle,
hæt [hwæt] me gemætte     to midre nihte,
syðþan reordberend     reste wunedon!
þuhte me þæt ic gesawe     syllicre treow
on lyft lædan,     leohte bewunden,
beama beorhtost.     Eall þæt beacen wæs
begoten mid golde.     Gimmas stodon
fægere æt foldan sceatum,     swylce þær fife wæron
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne.     Beheoldon þær engel dryhtnes ealle,
fægere þurh forðgesceaft.     Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga,
ac hine þær beheoldon     halige gastas,
men ofer moldan,     ond eall þeos mære gesceaft.
Syllic wæs se sigebeam,     ond ic synnum fah,
forwunded mid wommum.     Geseah ic wuldres treow,
wædum geweorðode,     wynnum scinan,
gegyred mid golde;     gimmas hæfdon
bewrigene weorðlice     wealdes [wealdendes] treow.
Hwæðre ic þurh þæt gold     ongytan meahte
earmra ærgewin,     þæt hit ærest ongan
swætan on þa swiðran healfe.     Eall ic wæs mid surgum [sorgum] gedrefed,
forht ic wæs for þære fægran gesyhðe.     Geseah ic þæt fuse beacen
wendan wædum ond bleom;     hwilum hit wæs mid wætan bestemed,
beswyled mid swates gange,     hwilum mid since gegyrwed.
Hwæðre ic þær licgende     lange hwile
beheold hreowcearig     hælendes treow,
oððæt ic gehyrde     þæt hit hleoðrode.
Ongan þa word sprecan     wudu selesta:
“þæt wæs geara iu,     (ic þæt gyta geman),
þæt ic wæs aheawen     holtes on ende,
astyred of stefne minum.     Genaman me ðær strange feondas,
geworhton him þær to wæfersyne,     heton me heora wergas hebban.
Bæron me ðær beornas on eaxlum,     oððæt hie me on beorg asetton,
gefæstnodon me þær feondas genoge.     Geseah ic þa frean mancynnes
efstan elne mycle     þæt he me wolde on gestigan.
þær ic þa ne dorste     ofer dryhtnes word
bugan oððe berstan,     þa ic bifian geseah
eorðan sceatas.     Ealle ic mihte
feondas gefyllan,     hwæðre ic fæste stod.
Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð,     (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),
strang ond stiðmod.     Gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhðe,     þa he wolde mancyn lysan.
Bifode ic þa me se beorn ymbclypte.     Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,
feallan to foldan sceatum,     ac ic sceolde fæste standan.
Rod wæs ic aræred.     Ahof ic ricne cyning,
heofona hlaford,     hyldan me ne dorste.
þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum.     On me syndon þa dolg gesiene,
opene inwidhlemmas.     Ne dorste ic hira nænigum sceððan.
Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere.     Eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed,
begoten of þæs guman sidan,     siððan he hæfde his gast onsended.
Feala ic on þam beorge     gebiden hæbbe
wraðra wyrda.     Geseah ic weruda god
þearle þenian.     þystro hæfdon
bewrigen mid wolcnum     wealdendes hræw,
scirne sciman,     sceadu forðeode,
wann under wolcnum.     Weop eal gesceaft,
cwiðdon cyninges fyll.     Crist wæs on rode.
Hwæðere þær fuse     feorran cwoman
to þam æðelinge.     Ic þæt eall beheold.
Sare ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed,     hnag ic hwæðre þam secgum to handa,
eaðmod elne mycle.     Genamon hie þær ælmihtigne god,
ahofon hine of ðam hefian wite.     Forleton me þa hilderincas
standan steame bedrifenne;     eall ic wæs mid strælum forwundod.
Aledon hie ðær limwerigne,     gestodon him æt his lices heafdum,
beheoldon hie ðær heofenes dryhten,     ond he hine ðær hwile reste,
meðe æfter ðam miclan gewinne.     Ongunnon him þa moldern wyrcan
beornas on banan gesyhðe;     curfon hie ðæt of beorhtan stane,
gesetton hie ðæron sigora wealdend.     Ongunnon him þa sorhleoð galan
earme on þa æfentide,     þa hie woldon eft siðian,
meðe fram þam mæran þeodne.     Reste he ðær mæte weorode.
Hwæðere we ðær reotende [greotende]     gode hwile
stodon on staðole,     syððan stefn up gewat
hilderinca.     Hræw colode,
fæger feorgbold.     þa us man fyllan ongan
ealle to eorðan.     þæt wæs egeslic wyrd!
Bedealf us man on deopan seaþe.     Hwæðre me þær dryhtnes þegnas,
freondas gefrunon,
ond gyredon me     golde ond seolfre.


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Marly Youmans (website, blog) is the author of six novels, including The Wolf Pit (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/The Michael Shaara Award) and Val/Orson, which was set among the tree sitters of California’s redwoods, as well as a collection of poetry. Currently forthcoming are three novels: Glimmerglass and Maze of Blood from P. S. Publishing (UK) and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (winner of the Ferrol Sams Award/Mercer University Press), and three books of poetry: The Throne of Psyche from Mercer University Press, The Foliate Head from Stanza Press (UK), and Thaliad from Phoenicia Publishing (Montreal).

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  1. March 4, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    Lovely Marly! I had no idea you were so proficient in Middle English!

  2. Katherine
    March 4, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Oh my, how timely is this beautiful translation from the Old English, Marly! I am teaching Dream of the Rood this summer in Scotland. I will take it with me. . . ;)

  3. March 4, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Robbi,

    I spent a year studying Old English, but it was very long ago! I am sure that I know but a thimble-full of salt water when set next to a scholar of Anglo-Saxon, master of that whale-road, the sea.

    Katharine Durham Oldmixon,

    Just love saying that name. You ought to be a character in the Green Knowe series! That is lovely–I’m honored that you would even think of it.

  4. March 4, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Or was it another Katharine? I assumed because KDO and “qarrtsiluni” go together…

  5. Katherine
    March 4, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    LOL. . . I should sign my comments and include my nom de married plume, feather of the Garza, if KDO and qarrtsiluni did not go together. Thank you for that. ;)

    Ok, I’m a medievalist, but not an Anglo-Saxonist, and am greatly admiring of my teacher and friends who are. But aside from the scholarly thing, translating is a complex art and powerful life-giving strategy. The Dream of the Rood: what a crazy poem to us, now-but the way it works is primal and familiar, enduring. Your translation is elegant.

  6. March 4, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Yes, it is rich and wild! I’m glad you liked this version, Ms. KDO!

    And now I know you are a medievalist–very interesting. Love, love, love Gawain and the Green Knight. Love the lyrics and Chaucer too. And lots of Anglo-Saxon poems.

  7. vicki
    March 5, 2011 at 11:14 am

    This is magical, Marly. Truly lovely. Would love, much, if i had been/could be a student with you as teacher of these types of treasures.

    • March 5, 2011 at 8:15 pm

      Teaching is long gone with me–except for the occasional summer gig! And I love that, but I think that I like the shape of my life the way it is…

      • vicki
        March 6, 2011 at 10:28 am

        i assumed as much…i was just thinking that you would make a wonderful one.

        • March 6, 2011 at 12:23 pm

          Teaching demands a lot of time and a lot of creativity. It is fun, but I would not want to do it too often.

    • vicki
      March 6, 2011 at 10:32 am

      oh good grief.
      Moved enough by my first reading that i wanted to come back again…but…”lovely???” can’t believe i used that word. must have been wrought by the stomach bug that stayed around too long.
      What Paul Digby said. Yes!!

      • March 6, 2011 at 12:22 pm

        Hey, I’ll take lovely! Weird kind of thunderstruck lovely, though–as Paul said, thunder and light.

  8. Paul Digby
    March 5, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    There is thunder here, and light too.
    Marly – This is very beautifully done. I think that in other’s hands this could have plodded. In yours it soars. A wonderful translation!

    • March 5, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      Thank you, Paul–I like that description. Thunder and light!

  9. alex cigale
    March 6, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    I love how the formal demands of alliterative verse push us in the direction of diction choices we would not have likely otherwise arrived at on our own. Your “Rood” Marly, illustrates this over and over again. Some of my favorites are: coruscating, cladding, I just love “the deeming of the Lord,” and so many more. Not to diminish your accomplishment here, but as caveat re: straining the literal, as tempting as the alliteration makes it, I can’t help but notice that a different, Latinate tetragammaton (INRI and not YudVavHeyVav) is meant. I would add, apropos of our previous discussion here, how much this work gains in your recitation, which is of course the purpose and origin of the form.

    • March 6, 2011 at 10:10 pm

      Oops–reply below. I keep messing up on the “reply” button.

  10. March 6, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Yes, I am sure that is not the only place where I may have veered a tad, doing my little alliteration dance. And perhaps I will mull over and tweak that line before it goes out again… Alliteration does indeed sweep one away with its weird power.

    Thanks for the good comments! Glad you liked the reading too. It was definitely a challenge to read.

    • alex cigale
      March 7, 2011 at 12:35 am

      May we all get swept away more often, Marly; I for one, am not against taking liberties with the text. As I said, the particular issue is with sense only. Perhaps http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yehoshua_%28surname%29

      • March 7, 2011 at 7:00 pm

        Thanks, Alex–shall look!

        • March 7, 2011 at 7:26 pm

          That is, shall slide through when it’s not a dratted snow day…

          • March 7, 2011 at 7:48 pm

            In fact, shall look tomorrow between an appointment and Scouts (my crazy life.) Want to give me a line number? More anon.

          • alex cigale
            March 7, 2011 at 8:17 pm

            Sure, Marly: it is the first word in line exactly half-way down into the poem.

  11. kelly cherry
    March 6, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Terrific!

    • March 6, 2011 at 10:08 pm

      Thanks, Kelly–

      You surprised me! Glad you came by.

  12. tonya vickery
    March 8, 2011 at 10:55 am

    What a blessing to read as I prepare for Lent. Thank you, Marly. Blessings to you.

    • March 9, 2011 at 3:17 pm

      Tonya, thanks for visiting on Mardi Gras! And thank you.

  13. npcoward
    March 9, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Dear Marlene,

    I got out my old Anglo-Saxon poetry book from the days of Professor Wittig (his name sounds appropriately Anglo)to read “The Dream”; the translation is in prose–no attempt to do what you did. I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable to judge, but as an interested reader, I feel it is really an amazing translation. You have done what would seem to be an impossible task–to preserve the meaning while adhering to the rules followed by Anglo-Saxon poets> Your choice of words intrigues me. They are at the same time both unique and exact.I would write more,but this d—–machine leaves me a nervous wreck. Here’s to the ballpoint pen!

    • March 9, 2011 at 3:17 pm

      I am honored that you put down your pen and used the keyboard! Thank you!

  14. March 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    HEY ALEX–LOOK DOWN HERE!

    Okay, I’ll start a new thread to talk to Alex because the reply button vanished after a certain point… And first I should say sorry that it took me so long to come back. I had three kid-events last night, plus the kid in question and I had more than two feet of snow to shovel and thrust off the car before we could leave the drive. With my husband in Vietnam, I’m feeling full of admiration for the single mom.

    Alex, you said half way, so let me scoot down and see what that would be. I should have numbered, huh? Next time.

    Is this what you meant? This is at half:

    Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð, (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),
    strang ond stiðmod.

    Literally it’s something like:

    “Unclothed-stripped him(self) the young warrior-hero (that was God Almighty)
    strong and brave/resolute.

    But maybe that’s not the right spot. Am going out again but will check late this evening and see what you meant! Just paste in the lines?

    • alex cigale
      March 9, 2011 at 9:53 pm

      I meant half-way in the translation: I can’t quite tell if the lineation corresponds to original and am going by the context of the English:

      the enemy but abided aloft, all firm.
      Yahweh, young hero, yare and resolute,
      unclothed himself to climb on the cross, naked

      • March 10, 2011 at 5:50 pm

        Your second and third are the same as the ones I pasted in…

        And, yes, I have probably taken the biggest liberty of all there because I shifted from the literal translation “God Almighty” to “Yahweh,” which also entailed a tiny bit of pruning. I seem to have thought that I could get away with it because “God Almighty” is used elsewhere (17 lines up from the bottom in the translation, 18 in the original) and because I wanted the alliteration more than I wanted the exactitude. The swing of “Yahweh” with “yare” was probably too much to resist!

        Also, the translation seems a bit different in where the words land because I have, although pushing for the alliteration (and also for words that felt congenial with the Anglo-Saxon), chosen to hew close to what is for us a natural word order. That means that words are often a half-line off from their original place.

        Definitely need to number next time I do this! It makes it so much easier to find what you’re looking for in a hurry. (And aren’t we all in a hurry, alas?)

  1. May 9, 2011 at 3:31 pm
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