The Vercelli Book
Paradox and Unity: An Exploration of The Dream of the Rood
The Dream of the Rood is a poem that deals in riddles and paradox, yet a sense of unity pervades the piece. It is iconic for its depiction of the actual crucifixion of Jesus, told by the crucifix itself through the poet’s use of prosopopoeia – the assignment of a voice to an inanimate object. The language of the piece draws from both a Christian and arguably “Heroic Code” lexicon, reflected in the relationship between Christ and the Cross as that of a retainer and lord. Moreover, the passive language used to describe the former and active language used to describe the latter, reflects a dichotomy of femininity and masculinity, possibly indicating sexual undertones within the piece. Nonetheless despite use of paradoxical language and binaries, an attempt to unify Cross and Christ with the external world pervades the passage, as the crucifixion and the natural world are shown to be linguistically and thematically linked. Through use of language indicative of the heroic code, the poet links the relationship of Chirst and the Cross to that of a warrior and his retainer. Jesus is referred to both as “geong hæleð” (39) and “beorn” (42), common nouns used to describe Lords and heroes, yet this is juxtaposed with the Christian lexicon of “heofona Hlaford” (45). The events of the crucifixion are referred to as “miċlan ġewinne”, conflating the religious with the militaristic, which is further mirrored in the violent language of the passage. In addition, the repetition of the negative “Ne dorste Iċ” in lines 43, 45 and 47, for example “ne dorste Ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan”, reinforces a sense of duty between the Cross and Christ. This sense of loyalty can be conceived as fulfilling a representation of the relationship between lord and retainer. The fusion of a culture stemming from pagan tradition with a Christian vocabulary itself paradoxical, yet it is a conflict that pervades much Old English literature. What makes the Dream of the Rood stand out is its perversion of the very ideals of the heroic code. While it may appear that the cross is a loyal retainer of Christ, ultimately it is also the instrument used in inducing his death: a perversion of the underlying tenant of the heroic code, namely the protection of one’s lord. Rather than focusing on the suffering of Jesus himself, the cross laments its own scars “me syndon þa dolg gesiene”, with the switch to present tense emphasising the lasting physical toll of the crucifixion. Crucially, despite being the hero of the poem, the reader or listener is denied Christ’s perspective. Moreover, the repetition of “ne dorste Ic”, particularly in the line “ne dorste Ic hira nænigum sceððan” (47), also has the implicit suggestion that the cross had the power to protect or even save its Lord but did not dare do it. By perverting the norms of the Heroic code, the poet reinforces the idea that Christ’s death was a necessity to cleanse humanity of its sins. Furthermore, the depiction of Cross’s own suffering, rather than detracting from that of Christ, can be seen as a projection of his own pain onto the object, suggesting a strong unity between the two despite the paradoxical nature of their relationship. This unity is solidified in the line “Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere” (48) with the somewhat extraneous plural pronoun “butu” placed alongside the adverb “ætgædere” to stress the togetherness of both cross and Christ. Even the emotional and physical are conflated in this unity, as the cross repeats a section of line 20, crying “sare ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed” (59): yet at this point of the poem the cross is literally drenched from the blood of Christ, linking his internal emotional turmoil with the external fluid. We can also interpret the passive language used to describe the cross alongside the active language of Jesus to be indicative of an exploration of the duality of femininity and masculinity. Ironically, despite taking charge of the narrative voice of the poem, the ‘rood’ remains a passive object in regard to the story itself. As Christ ascends its mantle the cross does not dare to move but claims “Bifode ic” (42), a verb expressing weakness but also possessing sexual connotations when taken alongside the actions of Christ. Line 39 describes how he “Ongyrede hine” (39) –the imagery of nakedness used alongside the reflexive “hine” accentuating the active, masculine role of Christ in comparison to the feminine, passive cross. A naked Christ then “gestah he on gealgan heanne” (40), mounting the exterior of the rood, with the sexual undertones reinforced with the penetrative imagery of piercing “deorcan næglum” (46). The letting go of Christ’s spirit can be seen as the climatic point of this passage, but the idea of the feminine cross is further reinforced throughout the rest of the poem, most explicitly with its comparison of itself to the Virgin Mary. While we may see the dualities of femininity and masculinity as yet another paradoxical relationship of the poem, we can again also view Christ’s mounting of the cross as an attempt at sexual unity: a fusion of the masculine with the feminine which pervades the piece. Not only is a sense of unity expressed between Christ and the cross, a sense of unity is also shown in the relationship of the crucifixion to the natural world. As the poet describes Jesus being “þearle þenian” (52), the narrative also begins to stretch out from a micro view of the crucifixion to a macro view of nature. With the covering of Jesus’s corpse comes the covering of the light itself “scīrne scīman; sceadu forðēode”; the alliterative pattern putting stress on the “scīman” and “sceadu” a juxtaposition of darkness and light. Even the natural world is presented through use of dualities, yet keeping to the pattern of unity in the poem, the natural world appears to converge according to the crucifixion. The poet also conveys a sense of natural unity through the universal grief exhibited in the line “Wēop eal ġesceaft” (55). All of life comes under the singular noun “ġesceaft”, and as shown through the singular verb “Wēop”, acts as a singular, united entity. The implication is that through the crucifixion nature – including its opposing forces of light and dark – have been united.The Dream of the Rood is a poem that deals with binaries, reflected in the linguistic dualities of the piece; the reader is presented with the conflict of Christianity and paganism, feminism and masculinity and even darkness and light. Yet despite the paradoxical language that pervades the passage, it ultimately propagates a message of unity by converging these seemingly opposing forces. This unity exists not only between Christ and the cross, but also the crucifixion and the natural world itself, suggesting that through the sacrifice of the divine the world achieves some form of harmony. This message continues to develop as the poem progresses, operating simultaneously as a story and a tool for conversion.References:Krapp, George Philip. 2004. The Vercelli Book. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.