The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest Christian poems in the corpus of Old English literature and an example of the genre of dream poetry. Like most Old English poetry, it is written in alliterative verse. Rood is from the Old English word rod ‘pole’, or more specifically ‘crucifix’. Preserved in the 10th century Vercelli Book, the poem may be considerably older, even one of the oldest works of Old English literature.
A part of The Dream of the Rood can be found on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross, which was an 18 feet (5.5 m), free standing Anglo-Saxon cross that was perhaps intended as a ‘conversion tool’. At each side of the vine-tracery are carved runes. On the cross there is an excerpt that was written in runes along with scenes of Jesus healing the blind, the Annunciation and the story of Egypt. Although it was torn down and destroyed during a Protestant revolt, it was reconstructed as much as possible after the fear of iconography passed. Fortunately during that time of religious unrest, those words that were in the runes were still protected in the Vercelli Book, so called because the book is kept in the Italian city of Vercelli. The Vercelli Book, which can be dated to the 10th century, includes twenty-three homilies interspersed with six poems:The Dream of the Rood, Andreas, The Fates of the Apostles, Soul and Body, Elene and a poetic, homiletic fragment.
The author of Dream of the Rood is unknown, but by knowing the approximate date of the Ruthwell Cross, scholars have been able to suggest possible authors. These include the Anglo-Saxon poets Cædmon and Cynewulf.
The poem is set up with the narrator having a dream. In this dream or vision he is speaking to the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The poem itself is divided up into three separate sections: the first part (ll. 1–27), the second part (ll. 28–121) and the third part (ll. 122–156). In section one, the narrator has a vision of the Cross. Initially when the dreamer sees the Cross, he notes how it is covered with gems. He is aware of how wretched he is compared to how glorious the tree is. However, he comes to see that amidst the beautiful stones it is stained with blood. In section two, the Cross shares its account of Jesus’ death. The Crucifixion story is told from the perspective of the Cross. It begins with the enemy coming to cut the tree down and carrying it away. The tree learns that it is not to be the bearer of a criminal, but instead Christ crucified. The Lord and the Cross become one, and they stand together as victors, refusing to fall, taking on insurmountable pain for the sake of mankind. It is not just Christ, but the Cross as well that is pierced with nails. Adelhied L. J. Thieme remarks, “The cross itself is portrayed as his lord’s retainer whose most outstanding characteristic is that of unwavering loyalty”. The Rood and Christ are one in the portrayal of the Passion—they are both pierced with nails, mocked and tortured. Then, just as with Christ, the Cross is resurrected, and adorned with gold and silver. It is honoured above all trees just as Jesus is honoured above all men. The Cross then charges the visionary to share all that he has seen with others. In section three, the author gives his reflections about this vision. The vision ends, and the man is left with his thoughts. He gives praise to God for what he has seen and is filled with hope for eternal life and his desire to once again be near the glorious Cross.