The Dream of the Rood
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,
ond gyredon me golde ond seolfre.
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).