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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

IV. Old English Christian Poetry

§ 9. The Dream of the Rood

But the poem which, above all others, betrays the spirit of tender yet passionate veneration, of awe and adoration for “the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died,” is The Dream of the Rood. It is transmitted to us in a West Saxon form in the Vercelli Book, and portions of it are to be found carved in runes on the Ruthwell cross in Dumfriesshire. The poem is now claimed as Cynewulf’s by probably the majority of English scholars, though it is possible that he worked on older material. At the same time, we have none but aesthetic evidence to go upon. A resemblance has been fancied or detected between the reference to the cross in the concluding portion of Elene discussed above and the subject and treatment of this poem. It would be possible to overrate the value of this coincidence. References to the cross are frequent in both prose and verse. They need prove nothing beyond the undoubtedly early custom of the adoration. At the same time, the two poems have much in common: the character of the intimate self-revelation contained in each, the elegiac tone of the reflections on the transitoriness of the world and the sinfulness of man, the phraseology and syntactical structure are alike to a degree which makes the Cynewulfian authorship of both more than probable. The Dream of the Rood is the choicest blossom of Old English Christian poetry; religious feeling has never been more exquisitely clothed than in these one hundred and forty lines of alliterative verse. It is full of imaginative power and enters deeply into the mysteries of sin and of sorrow. We have no other instance of a dream-poem in pre-Conquest England, though Bede relates several visions. The poet dreamt a dream and in it saw the holy rood decked with gems and shining gloriously. Angels guarded it, and, at its sight, the singer was afeared, for he was stained with guilt. As he watched, the tree changed colour; anon it was adorned with treasure, anon stained with gore; and, as he watched, it spoke, and told the story of the crucifixion, the descent from the cross, the resurrection. This conception of the cross as being gifted with power of speech lends a charm to the poem. The address is followed by the poet’s reflection on what he has seen: the cross shall be henceforth his confidence and help. The concluding ten lines of the poem seem superfluous and are possibly a later accretion. The theme concludes with line 146. The characteristic opening of the poem may be noted. As in Beowulf, Andreas, Exodus and other poems the singer arrests the attention of his hearers by the exclamation: “Hwaet!” = Lo, comparable to the “Listneth, lordings” of the later minstrels. The device must have been a common one in days when the harp was struck at festive gatherings and the scop urged his claim to a hearing by a preliminary chord.