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The Dream of the Rood: A New Translation

A new translation of the Anglo-Saxon dream vision.

The translation of poetry is a vexed business. The task of the poet is to find that frisson between the connotative and the denotative, the space where language’s meaning and language’s sound come together in a resonance—either harmonic or dissonant—that brings us very near the heart of things. Sense and sound both matter, are, in fact, the matter of a poem. When one is changed, so is the other. 

Faced with the task of translating a poem as ancient and renowned as “The Dream of the Rood,” there are any number of reasons to hesitate. Quite a number of good translations already exist, and a few are excellent. So why bother?

It is no accident that God created this world through words, and then moved St. John the Evangelist to speak of Our Lord as the Word. It is also no accident that λόγος translates equally well as “word,” “argument,” “test,” “meaning,” “proportion,” “grounds,” and “plea.” Part of the glory of words is that many words can dwell in one; as Heinrich Böll put it, “Behind every word there is a world.” Another translation—another foray into that vast world behind the words—is rarely unwarranted. 

Translation, at least as we experience it, is a result of the Fall. Without the Tower of Babel, none of this would be necessary; every act of translation is essentially an attempt to recover a scrap of the blessed universality of speech that was ours before Babel. The task is, of course, impossible, but that is no reason to despair. For here we can hearken back to the teaching that whenever the Almighty permits evil, He does so because through evil there is potential for greater grace. This is the doctrine underlying the felix culpa of the Paschal Vigil Mass Exsultet (O felix culpa, quæ talem ac tantum méruit habére Redemptórem!). If this is true, if even the Fall can be called fortunate, if God can make from the shattering of His own Son the greatest happiness, then surely He can make from the shattering of tongues a greater knowing. 

We believe this. We believe that in the relationship between different languages, along with shadows, we find light. So it is here, in “The Dream of the Rood,” where there are many lines and words that drive a translator to madness. How, for example, can one render the double meaning of treow, which in Anglo-Saxon means both “tree” and “truth” or “troth,” so that every time the image of the tree occurs it bears with it the sense of a troth fulfilled, a promise kept, a betrothal consummated? How to capture the wildness and wonder of a universe that is gesceaft, or flung forth at creation like a bright spear into the dark? How to stir the tragic wordplay between fæge (“fated”) and fæger (“fair”) when speaking of Our Lord’s cold corpse? And behind these individual lines, there is an entire world: a world of strange and potent loyalties, of souls flitting through life like sparrows through the rafters of a great house, of heroes roaming in search of their homeland. How to render all this in our little Modern English tongue? Well, you must see what we have done and judge if it succeeds. 

Yet for all the maddening meagerness of a translation, there are flashes of consonance between tongues, startling moments when a translation opens up the text beyond the limitations of either language. Some translations may call it cheating; we call it grace, hidden in the crevices of our sundered tongues to remind us that beneath all, there is meaning, and that meaning is beautiful. 

Allow us to share just one example of this, one that does not appear directly in our translation but the sense of which undergirds the whole: the Anglo-Saxon word dream, pronounced dreh-ahm. There is no evidence currently of a philological or etymological link here with our modern word “dream,” meaning a sleeping vision. Dream appears three times in “The Rood,” once in line 133, once in line 140, and once in line 144, all within one sentence, a piling up of dream on dream, and the translation of dream into modern English is “joy.” 

So that is why we translate: because here within the poem we find a gift, a connotation beyond any language’s denotative limits, one that does not merely consent to translation but demands it for its revelation. Here we discover the dream as joy, a coincidence verging upon miracle, and with an imaginative leap permitted not by faith in philology but in theology, we discover in this ancient poem the paradox, ever-fresh, of the joy of the Cross.


Come—I sing of a splendid dream,
a mighty marvel, that came at midnight
when the tongues of men are silent.
A strange tree—most wondrous strange!—
stretched forth branches in a blast of light.

Each beam showed brilliant, bright as noon.
Gold glanced from every gap.
Gems crusted that corner of earth; five jewels
blazed from the cross-beam, while angels empyrean
flung their fiery gaze upon that gallows.
No sinner’s scaffold was this! All the fairest forth-brought ones
with wakeful witness met that marvel.

Uncanny stood that ancient tree, while there I lay—
marked and marred, foul with worm-eaten wounds.
That truest tree—glad with glory, morning-mantled—
was ringed with riches. A veil of gems
wrapped the shaft of the Ruler’s chosen tree.
Yet, beneath that jewel-bright shield, I beheld
an ancient anguish. The cross began to bleed,
its right side shedding sweat. Each part of me was stabbed
with dread, frightened by that fair sight. I saw it stir,
the sign swayed, sometimes robed in streaming blood,
swilling in saltflow; sometimes garmented in gold.
I lay there long, fierce tears falling before the tree,
until it spoke to me, that true Rood:

“That day was long ago—my memory summons it—
when I was cloven from earth and made captive,
torn from my roots and seized by fiendish men
who made me a stage for exposing thieves.
I was brought to a barrow and set high on a hill,
bound fast by brutes.
Then I saw the Lord, the Man-King,
coming with power and strength to scale my heights.

I dared not defy the Maker’s decree.
Though the earth shook, I would not shatter or bend;
though I could have crushed those crooked ones
and hacked them through, I held my ground
as the Young Hero—he was God Almighty—made battle-ready.

Steeling himself, this warrior stripped down to mount the gallows-tree
that before the sight of untold souls, he might break their bonds.

How I trembled when he took me! Yet I did not bend to earth
or crumble into dust, but stood rock-solid.
Raised to be a Cross, I raised aloft a mighty King,
Heaven’s Healer, and by his grace I dared not bow.

They stuck me through with grim spikes—even now, the evil wounds
reek of spite. Still I left those thralls unscathed,
the jeering throng who sneered at Cross and King. I was soaked with blood
leached from his side, when he let his spirit go.

High on that hill, I was hollowed out
by doom of dark deeds. I saw the King of Hosts
splayed out, a wretch wrapped in shadows.
Darkness collected his radiant corpse.
A shadow appeared and advanced on us
under the clouds, while all creation keened,
grieving the death of the King:
Christ was on the Cross.

Then fair-minded men swept in from far off
to serve the King’s Son. All this I watched, weighted
by sorrow. With my last strength, I bowed,
and gave God Almighty into their hands. They took him,
raised him up from his torment. They left me there,
all stabbed with spears, steaming in blood.
Him they laid down, sapped in every limb, andstood by his crown,
Heaven’s Lord now fallen low. There he slept,
bone-spent after battle. They dug an earth-barrow
before the rood that slew him; for the Wielder of Victory
they carved a cave out of clear, shining stone.
They wailed a heartsore song until evening,
when the stricken stumbled home. Their Prince stayed, alone.

Still we trees—the three of us—stood long, sorrowing,
deep-dwelt in our dirge after others departed.
In the chill of the crypt the corpse lodged,
his fair soul’s dwelling, fate-marked. Then axe-men
returned and felled us to earth—a dreadful turning!
Dug deep into dank ground, there we dwelt,
until true friends of the King found me out
and arrayed me with garlands of gold.

Now, my beloved, you have heard
what torment I suffered, what trials
were mine because of evil ones. The time came
when worthy men from far and wide longed to honor me.
From over all the earth, every part of this flung-forth creation,
this beacon bid them come. Though the Son of the King
was wrecked on my beams, now I am made magnificent,
high under heaven, and mighty to heal
each and every one who kneels in fear of me.

Of old I was made the most terrible torture,
a horror to all. Then was I remade: I held open the way
to true life for all gifted with speech.
So then the Eldest, the Author of Glory, Heaven’s Guardian,
held me highest, above all other trees, even as before
he raised up his mother, Mary herself,
and for the sake of all souls, the Lord favored her,
honored her above all women!

Now, my beloved, I give you this burden:
Tell of this vision; speak of this dream, and reveal
through your words that this wondrous beam
is where Almighty God waged war,

enduring all desolation, for the sake of men’s sins
and for Adam’s breach in bygone days.
Death the Lord drank, and yet did not die.
In fearsome power, he sprang forth to save all men.
He ascended to heaven—but yet again he shall hasten,
in his quest for mankind, to this middle earth
on the Day of Doom, when the Earth-Shaper—
the Lord God Almighty, the only just Ruler—
amid all his angels will wield greatest justice
and judge every creature for good and for bad,
whatever each has woven in his short life’s thread.

No one shall be fearless before the Wielder’s words.
Before all, he will ask for the one
who would drink to the dregs the same draught
as his Lord, who for the sake of the name
would hang his head upon the Tree.
They will tremble when they try to speak
before the Word himself, the Christ. Yet
no one who bears the True Sign on his heart,
that brightest beacon, will need to feel dread
but will come into the kingdom
through the truest of Trees; he will walk

the earth-way that each soul wends
who desires to dwell with his Prince.”

Then I bared my soul to that tree, beaming with joy,
and my spirit swelled with courage and strength,
though I was alone. My mind went leaping
forward to the final wayfaring, though before that I must bear
many love-longings, for now my one hope
is to seek out that beam, the brave Victory Tree,
with all of my ardor, and reverence it rightly.
This is my highest desire, my heart’s right,
fought and won by my Lord on the Rood.

Few of my friends
remain in this middle earth, for they have all gone forth
from this world’s brief joys to seek the Wonder-King,
whom they now bountifully behold.
They abide forever in the sweet air of his land.
Each day I await a word from that Wood,
the Lord’s Tree, who will take me
and bear me to that place of unsurpassed bliss,
joy of heaven. There the holy sit
at the blessed feast; there his beloved folk
eternally exult; there I eagerly hope
to be seated, rejoicing; there may I join the saints
in great gladness, in the glory in his presence.

May the Lord befriend me,
he who endured the curse of the cross,
who hung on the gallows for all us sinners.
He it waswho loosened our bonds and our lives bestowed
anew on us. Amid glory and delight,
hope was born again for all who bore the burning fire.

Triumphant and joyous was his journey below—
the Son’s plowing was prosperous, for he led plenteous hosts,
great crowds of souls, into God’s country,
the Sole Mighty Wielder, much sung by many angels
and the holy saints, heaven’s citizens,
whose happiness was forever fixed when their Hero came,
almighty God, to where his homeland was.