Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Cross

Next Wednesday 14th September is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The day is being marked in one Catholic Church in London by a performance of The Dream of the Rood, the great Old English poem in which the cross on which Jesus was killed tells its own story. You can find the text (and translation) here or here. And you can hear it being read (in the original Old English) here.

The name of the poem itself is perhaps a little misleading because, as Mitchell and Robinson point out in their Guide to Old English, the poem has no title in its original manuscript: "It has also been called A Vision of the Cross," they explain, "which is perhaps more suitable."

Whatever you call it, it is a remarkable poem and has an amazing immediacy:

I remember the morning a long time ago
that I was felled at the edge of the forest
and severed from my roots. Strong enemies seized me
on their shoulders and set me on a hill.
Many enemies fastened me there. I saw the Lord of Mankind
hasten with such courage to climb upon me.
I dared not bow or break there
against my Lord's wish, when I saw the surface
of the earth tremble. I could have felled
all my foes, yet I stood firm.
Then the young warrior, God Almighty,
stripped Himself, firm and unflinching. He climbed
upon the cross, brave before many, to redeem mankind.

Mitchell and Robinson point out that the personification of the cross could have been suggested by old English verse riddles such as Riddle 30 on this page and Riddle 53 on this page, both of which may have been riddles about the cross. These riddles (and many others like them) are wonderful resources for the English Teacher.

But what about the obvious objection that all this is just too obscure for the classroom? I would argue that Old English can be fun. Students enjoy hearing and attempting to decipher what is of course their own language. And as for the subject matter: we cross ourselves with great frequency. We have crucifixes on our walls (and maybe even round our necks) so why not bite the bullet and have a poem about this central Christian image too?

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