A TO Z Literary Principles from History of English Literature: Note 34

Short notes on History of English Literature 

 The Dream of the Rood

A Set of 26 Objective Questions & Answers

1.   In Old English, few books were written; most of those were written in Latin, for religious purposes. 
2.  Most of those that got written have disappeared. Four books of Old English poetry exist today. All seem to have been written about the year 1000.
3. One (the so-called Junius Manuscript) contains stories from the Old Testament turned into Old English poetry: Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel.
4. One (the Vercelli Book, which turned up, rather mysteriously, in a small town in northern Italy) contains Christian poems based on themes from the New Testament or lives of saints; the best known of these is the “Dream of  the Rood,” spoken by the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
5.  One (the Exeter Book) is a kind of anthology of different short poems; it contains “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Wife’s Lament.”
6.  The fourth (known as the Cotton Manuscript, or, more formally, MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv), contains Beowulf. This manuscript was badly burned in 1731; today it is carefully preserved in the British Museum, in London, but its edges keep flaking off, making it harder and harder to read.
Ruthwell Cross
  1. There are certain religious poems in the old English period which seem to have been written under the influence of Cynewulf. It is known as Cynewulf Cycle, and of some of these Cynewulf (born cir . 750) was certainly the author, since he wove his name into the verses in the manner of an acrostic.
  2. One (the Vercelli Book, which turned up, rather mysteriously, in a small town in northern Italy) contains Christian poems based on themes from the New Testament or lives of saints; the best known of these is the “Dream of  the Rood,” spoken by the cross on which Jesus was crucified. 
  3. The best-known surviving Christian poem, probably written by Cynewulf, “The Dream of the Rood,” shows how the religious message could be blended with the traditional heroic motifs.
  4. The text of The Dream of the Rood is chiseled as runic text onto the Ruthwell Cross of Northumbria.
  5. The Dream of the Rood and Elene both are discoveries of the cross- The discovery in Elene is pseudo-historical; that in the Dream is visionary.'
  6. The role of the Cross formulates an interesting paradox: The Cross serves as a faithful retainer, but in order to obey its Lord, it has to become his slayer.
  7. The poem has quite a few apocalyptic elements. One of those is the idea of the Cross as a salvatory instrument before judgement.
  8. Similar poems with Cynewulf’s guidance: Juliana;  The Christ ; Andreas , a story of St. Andrew; Elene , which describes the search for the cross on which Christ died, and which is a prototype of the search for the Holy Grail; Fates of the Apostles.
  9.  There is little agreement among scholars as to who wrote most of these poems. The only works to which Cynewulf signs his name are The Christ , Elene , Juliana and Fates of the Apostles . All others are doubtful, and our biography of Cynewulf is largely a matter of pleasant speculation.
  10.  Aside from the value of these works as a reflection of Anglo-Saxon ideals, they are our best picture of Christianity as it appeared in England during the eighth and ninth centuries.
  11. Most of the poem tells of a dream in which the “Rood” (the cross on which Jesus was crucified) tells of the crucifixion. 
  12. But instead of showing Jesus as a passively suffering victim, the poem depicts him as a conquering hero, eagerly embracing the cross. Old English heroes were supposed to fight fiercely, not turn the other cheek.
  13. It is the oldest surviving English poem in the form of a dream or vision.
  14.  It falls into three parts: the opening words of the dreamer, the words spoken by the Rood, and the words of the dreamer, after the dream is over.
  15. The speaker beings with his dream in which he saw the true Cross and it spoke to him, telling him its history from the time when it was a tree growing in the woods to the time.
  16. The Rood goes on to urge the dreamer to promote its cult, where the practical point and purpose of the dream comes out.
  17.  Which the Rood’s speech the dreamer ends his narration.
  18. The dreamer now exclaims how his dream about the Rood has changed his life for ever since he has devoted himself to the cult of the True Cross, and hopes to win a heavenly home thereby.
  19.  In this way, the poem concludes with the dreamer’s account of his own religious hopes.        
  20. This poem is charged with a simple eloquence and sustains a high note of religious fervour.

Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert, 
      2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature
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