A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1
Then I saw, marching toward me,
Mankind’s brave King;
He came to climb upon me.
I dared not break or bend aside
Against God’s will, though the ground itself
Shook at my feet. Fast I stood,
Who falling could have felled them all.

Almighty God ungirded Him,
eager to mount the gallows,
Unafraid in the sight of many:
He would set free mankind.
I shook when His arms embraced me
but I durst not bow to ground,
Stoop to Earth’s surface.
Stand fast I must.

I was reared up, a rood.
I raised the great King,
Liege lord of the heavens,
dared not lean from the true.
They drove me through with dark nails:
on me are the deep wounds manifest,
Wide-mouthed hate-dents.
I durst not harm any of them.
How they mocked at us both!
I was all moist with blood
Sprung from the Man’s side
after He sent forth His soul ...

These last lines appear on the Rood at Ruthwell. The Ruthwell Cross is an expres-
sion of the veneration of the Cross which spread through Christendom from the 4th
ce ntury. Constantine had been granted a vision of the cross, which told him that in
that sign he would conquer. Victorious, the new emperor declared toleration for
Christianity, and built a basilica of the Holy Sepulchre on Mt Calvary. In excavating
for the foundations, fragments of what was believed to be the Cross of the crucifixion
were discovered, and miraculous cures were attributed to it. The emperor’s mother
Helena was later associated with this finding of the Cross. Encased in reliquaries of
gold and silver, fragments of the Cross were venerated all over Europe. One fragment
was presented by the Pope to King Alfred, and is now in the 10th-century Brussels
Reliquary, which is inscribed with a verse from The Dream of the Rood.
In warrior culture, it was the duty of a man to stand by his lord and die in his
defence. But the lord in The Dream is an Anglo-Saxon hero, keen to join battle with
death. The cross is the uncomprehending but obedient participant in its lord’s death:
‘Stand fast I must.’ The cross yields his lord’s body to his human followers, who bury
him.The three crosses are also buried. But ‘the Lord’s friends learnt of it: it was they
who girt me with gold and silver.’ In a devotional conclusion, the cross explains that
it is now honoured as a sign of salvation, and commands the dreamer to tell men the
Christian news of the Second Coming, when those who live under the sign of the
cross will be saved.
The poem exemplifies both the tradition of the vision, in which a bewildered
dreamer is led from confusion to understanding, and the medieval ‘work of affective

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