The Dream of the Rood: a dream of a poem

Plus: my new close reading activity

During this, my second year teaching junior and senior English, I’ve been teaching loads of content I’ve never taught before. Prior to my current position, I taught middle school ELA for eight years. Gone are the days of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, I Am Malala, Flesh & Blood So Cheap and all the other texts I was so accustomed to teaching.

Now, I’m teaching the full scope (yikes!) of British Lit to my senior classes.

So far this year, I have introduced my students to the major Anglo-Saxon elegy poems; Beowulf; Le Morte d’Arthur; The Canterbury Tales; Everyman, the morality play; the sonnets of Sidney, Shakespeare and Spenser; Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal,” and probably a few more that I can’t think of off the top of my head.

Oh, yes… and I can’t forget the Anglo-Saxon dream vision poem “The Dream of the Rood!”

How to describe this jewel of Anglo-Saxon poetry? In short, it’s beautiful, imaginative, accessible, and probably one of my favorite texts we’ve studied all year. And that’s surprising because I could have so easily missed it as I planned out my lessons.

At right is a photo of my Prentice-Hall textbook. Despite being quite old, it’s a solid resource.

Last fall, as I read and planned lessons for Beowulf, “The Wanderer,” and “The Seafarer,” I kept coming across “The Dream of the Rood.” For example, in the documentary In Search of Beowulf, the narrator Michael Wood mentions the poem as a pivotal text. (By the way, rood means cross or pole and in the poem an unknown poet dreams that he meets the tree upon which Christ’s crucifixion took place.)

However, since “The Dream of the Rood” wasn’t included in our Prentice-Hall British literature textbook, I dismissed it initially. But then it kept popping up, and and since it was included in my trusty Norton anthology, I became more and more curious.

Eventually, I decided to add it — however briefly — to my curriculum. And I’m so glad I did.

My close reading activity for “The Dream of the Rood” includes a key and will guide your students through this beautiful poem. Order it on TpT.

At the time, I was homebound with Covid-19 for a solid two weeks. On one of those days, I decided to create a worksheet of sorts that would 1) give students a taste of this beautiful old poem and 2) guide them through a close reading of the poem.

To do this, I created a “Dream of the Rood” close reading worksheet with key. I’ve made it available for purchase on my TpT store, where believe it or not, it’s the ONLY resource on the entire site for the poem.

The activity features an introduction to the poem and then fill-in-the-blank portions for each of three different sections of the reading, which is based on the prose translation by E. T. Donaldson found in the Norton Anthology of English Literature (through the eighth edition).

Side note: I will be creating a similar activity for the current alliterative verse translation by Alfred David soon.

Learn more about this old, old poem

In case you’re unfamiliar with “The Dream of the Rood,” here’s how the encyclopedia Britannica describes this beautiful poem:

The Dream of the Rood, Old English lyric, the earliest dream poem and one of the finest religious poems in the English language, once, but no longer, attributed to Caedmon or Cynewulf:

In a dream the unknown poet beholds a beautiful tree—the rood, or cross, on which Christ died. The rood tells him its own story. Forced to be the instrument of the saviour’s death, it describes how it suffered the nail wounds, spear shafts, and insults along with Christ to fulfill God’s will. Once blood-stained and horrible, it is now the resplendent sign of mankind’s redemption.

The poem was originally known only in fragmentary form from some 8th-century runic inscriptions on the Ruthwell Cross, now standing in the parish church of Ruthwell, now Dumfries District, Dumfries and Galloway Region, Scot. The complete version became known with the discovery of the 10th-century Vercelli Book in northern Italy in 1822.

Britannica, dream of the rood

Eighteen verses of “The Dream of the Rood” are found on the Ruthwell Cross (680 AD) inside the Ruthwell Parish Church near Dumfries in southern Scotland, part of the former kingdom of Northumbria.

This photo is taken inside the Ruthwell Parish Church, which houses the Ruthwell Cross, the 18-foot Anglo-Saxon cross that was possibly used as a conversion tool. It contains an inscription in runes of a version of Dream of the Rood. Photo: Heather Hobma, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The cross, which is mentioned in Michael Wood’s documentary Beowulf on YouTube, is thought to be one of the most impressive Anglo-Saxon Era monumental sculptures in existence. “Featuring intricate inscriptions in both Latin and, more unusually for a Christian monument, the runic alphabet, the Ruthwell Cross is inscribed with one of the largest figurative inscriptions found on any surviving Anglo-Saxon cross,” according to Visit Scotland, Scotland’s national tourist board.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Showing students images from Dumfries and of the Ruthwell Cross will provide a real-world angle to their reading of the poem. Showing images and taking virtual tours when they’re available as been a real help to me this year. I like to “travel” in my British lit classes as much as possible to show students the actual landscapes from which our texts descend.

Ruthwell Paris Church, Scotland | Photo: DeFacto, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Writing for an audience

Just as we teach students to write for an audience, “The Dream of the Rood” was written with its own audience, the pagan Anglo-Saxons.

Some scholars believe “The Dream of the Rood” may have been a tool to gradually convert Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.

The idea of Christ as a hero who bravely conquers death upon the cross may seem foreign to contemporary Christians, but that kind of heroism likely appealed greatly to Anglo-Saxon warriors.

The personification of the cross by the poet is also a fresh, unusual approach and provides a clear and extended example of this literary device in Anglo-Saxon poetry. (In the poem, the anonymous author tells of a cross that feels duty-bound to provide the foundation upon which Christ may show his heroism.)

If you teach British literature, consider giving your students a taste of this beautiful, imaginative poem. Even if it’s not included in your current text or curriculum, it’s worth checking out.


Thanks for reading again this week!

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ELA Brave and True | Love teaching. Make it memorable.

Published by Marilyn

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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