Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Dream of the Holy Rood, translated by Anthony Esolen

I am not a poetry lover but this might be my favorite poem of the few I do like. I just love it. As today is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, it seems a good time to publish it.

"Rood" means rod or, in this case, crucifix. This is one of the oldest works of Old English literature and is an example of dream poetry. I love that category - dream poetry. 

This translation is not easy to find and I long ago copied it into my quote journal. The place where I found it years ago isn't available anymore to general access.

Listen! When lapped in rest lay all who speak,
to me in a vision in the middle of the night
came the choicest of dreams, as I wish to recount.
Seemed to me that I saw one most splendid tree
arise into the air enwound with light,
beam-brightest, a beacon all beglazed with gold
showered upon it, with shimmering jewels
(like the five that shone up on the shoulder-span)
at its foot, on the earth — no felon's gallows, that,
but made lovely by the fore-shaping of the Lord of the hosts
who beheld it there, the hallowed, the angels,
with men the world over, and all this marvelous creation.

Wondrous was the victory-wood, and I, wounded with sins,
gashed, stained by guilt. I saw the tree of glory
robed in reverence and rays of joy,
garbed all in gold, with goodly gems
like the wrapping of lacework to honor the Ruler's tree.
Yet through that gold I glimpsed the grievous strife
endured by doomed men of old, as drops of blood sweat
from the strong side, the heart's side. With sorrow was I stirred,
shook before that sight so fair, for I saw that shimmering sign
change color and cloth, now clotted with the wet,
drenched in the running blood; now decked out in treasure.

Still I lay there a long while, beheld
raw-hearted with cares, the Healer's tree,
sign of the Savior, till I heard it speak out;
the best of all wood with these words began:

"It was years ago — as I yet call to mind —
when I was hewn down at the holt's end,
stripped up from my roots. Strong men seized me, men of hate,
carved me into a spectacle, commanded me to carry their criminals;
enemies enough bore me on their shoulders till on the bald mount they
set me,
planted me fast. Then I saw, full of heart,
mankind's Master make haste that he might climb upon me.
Then I dared not, against the dread Chieftain's words,
bend or break, when I beheld the ground trembling;
could have felled all those foes beneath,
struck them down, but I stood fast.

"Then the young Hero ungirt himself — that was God almighty —
strong, stiff-willed, and strode to the gallows,
climbed stout-hearted in the sight of many; intended to set men free.
I trembled when the bold Warrior embraced me, yet I dared not bend to
the earth,
fall to the ground for fear; to stand fast was my duty.
A rood was I reared up, bore the rich King,
the Guardian of heaven; I dared not give in.
They drove me through with dark spikes, deep wounds could be seen upon
open envy-thrusts, yet not a one of them dared I harm.
They mocked us both together. I was bedrenched with blood
spilled from the side of the Man as he sent up his spirit.
On that mount I endured many agonies,
words of wrath, saw racked in pain
the God of hosts. Then a gloom fell
and clouds shrouded the corpse of the all-Wielder,
its shimmering sheen; a shadow went forth,
wan, under the clouds. Then all God's creatures wept,
lamented the King's fall: Christ was on the cross.

"Nevertheless from afar to the noble Earl
eager men hastened; I beheld it all.
Stirred I was with deep sorrows, still I bowed to the men's hands,
humbly, brave of heart. Then from the heavy torments they took him,
bore away almighty God. The battle-grooms abandoned me there,
standing spike-pierced and spattered with blood.
They led him, limb-weary, away; beheld the Lord of heaven,
stood by his body, at his head, as, tired after the great strife,
he lay to rest awhile. Then they wrought for him an earth-house,
fighting men, in sight of the killer, carved it of bright stone,
laid in it the Lord of victories. A lay of sorrow they sang him,
grieving, as evening fell. From the glorious Prince they now parted,
wearily; there he rested, few of his band of warriors near.
But we three crosses wept for a good while, standing
where we had been set, as the song went up
from the bravers of battle. The body cooled,
fair fortress of life. Then felled were we all
to the hard earth — a horrible fate!
They dug us a deep pit; but the dear thanes of the Lord,
his friends sought me out and found where I was buried,
and girt me thereafter in gold and silver.

"Now, my good man, you may hear tell
that I have borne bale-dwellers' deeds,
terrible troubles. Now the time has come
that I am honored from east to west
by men the world over and by all this marvelous creation,
beseeching this beacon in prayer. On me the brave Son of God
suffered awhile; therefore wondrous I now
tower high beneath the heavens, and have the might to heal
any man of them all who meets me with awe.
I had been hewn once as the hardest of torments,
most loathsome to men, till I lay clear
the right road of life for the race of mankind.
Listen! The Ancient of glory exalted me then
over all the wood of the forest, the Watcher of heaven's kingdom,
as he did once for his mother, Mary herself,
almighty God, for the good of all men,
granting her worth above all womankind.

"Now, my dear man, this duty I give you,
that you say to men what you have seen tonight,
unwind in words that it is the wood of glory,
the same that almighty God suffered upon
for mankind's many sins
and for Adam's ancient deed.
Death's fruit Adam tasted; but after him the Lord
rose in his great might for man's salvation.
Then he ascended to the heavens. Here he will come again
to this middle-garden to seek mankind
on the day of doom, the dread Lord himself,
amidst his angels, almighty God,
intending then to judge, for the power of judgement is his,
what every man will have earned for himself,
living here in this lean short life.
There may no man remain unafraid
of whatever word the all-Wielder shall utter;
he shall seek among the many where that man should be
who would willingly die for the name of his Lord,
taste the same bitter death he once endured on the tree.
But no man then shall need to fear
who bears in his breast the best of signs,
for he shall come, through the cross, to that kingdom he seeks,
every soul from the earth-way,
who longs to dwell with the Lord almighty."

Light-spirited then I turned to the tree in prayer,
full of heart, bold, where with few fellows
I lay alone. Leaned my mind now,
made eager for the forth-way, for it had felt many
a longing-hour. It is now my life's joy
that I may try to seek the tree of triumph
once more often than all other men,
to honor it well; my will to do that
burns warm in my heart, and my hope, my salvation is
turned right to the Cross.
For I cannot boast
of rich friends on the earth, but forth have they gone,
fled the world's joys, wished to find the King of glory,
are home now in heaven with the High Father,
dwelling in glory, and every day I look
forth for that time when the tree of the Lord,
which here on earth I have once beheld,
shall lead me away from this lean short life
and bring me where the bliss is great,
the joys of heaven, where joined for the feast
sit the folk of the Lord, and bliss is forever,
and seat me then where ever thereafter
I may dwell in glory, delighting in joys
with the holy saints. Let him who on earth
suffered once for the sins of men
on the felon's wood be a friend to me,
for he loosed our bonds, gave us life again,
a heavenly home. Hope was made new,
with blessings and bliss for those who had burned in the fire;
the Son on that journey stood victory-fast,
mighty, triumphant, when amain with a host
of spirits he came to the kingdom of God,
the one-Wielder almighty, for his angels' joy
and the happiness of all the hallows who in heaven already
had been dwelling in glory, when God almighty,
their Lord, returned to his land, his home.

In the original formatting except for where a bit of punctuation didn't translate and I was left to guess what the unicode was replacing. My guess — an "em" dash.

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