Hello old English poetry enthusiasts. It’s been a minute since I’ve updated anything here. But I would like to humbly offer my latest re-translation & critical deformation of a classic Old English poem (what Old English poem is not tho, right? hehe). It’s my pleasure to present here a re-vision of the “Dream of the Rood,” a poem much beloved by users of the site. My previous translation has been re-evaluated, re-voiced, & reformatted according to some of the radical translation principles I’ve been studying and working through.
The “Dream of the Rood” is a dream vision in the mystical vein — it is a mystical experience. That means it does not operate according to the strictures of reality or logic or even doctrine. One does not enter a mystical state expecting to find exactly what one intends. Nor should an encounter with the divine be comfortable, familiar, or complacent. If God is what many think they are then the experience should be shattering, mind-blowing, absolutely disassembling.
My recent critical endeavors with the translations on this website have involved rethinking & challenging how modern audiences and critics enforce meanings and interpretations on these poems that are not necessarily part of the package. That force these ancient poems to speak in one voice, in one music, in one kind of language, with one purpose in mind. These purposes (usually of religious solemnity & rigidity), while they may find congruence with the ideas of very select members of early English culture, are largely derived from modern critics needs to create a religiously & racially pure version of early English society to hold against the secularity & multiculturalism of the modern world. Often this version adheres to an oversimplified idea of religious piety in this society, which is then used as “evidence” to argue for conservative moral values and the role of the church (in its many forms) to oversee or dominate contemporary society.
And so I am aware that my new voicing will dismay some of the users of this website. That is to be expected and not my problem. My revisioning of this translation is designed to shatter the kind of moral or doctrinal complacency that many bring into the story of the crucifixion. Nothing has been added (major) and almost everything that sounds odd or off-putting is merely a highly-slanted or oblique way (imaginative; poetic; challenging) to render the word as it appears in the poem as we have it. A mystic vision is designed to be challenging — and St. Augustine would agree with me. The reader should take pleasure in the effort of understanding, the more effort the more pleasure — the more powerful the insight (De doctrina christiana II.6).
In re-thinking how certain words have been rendered in previous translations, I discovered that many important terms, often repeated, are translated in ways not found in authoritative dictionaries. I have therefore rethought what those sentences may be saying in light of the language on the page by this work’s poet or poets. I suspect, though I cannot know for sure, that these discrepancies have arisen because scholars and translators have translated this poem according to the version of this mythology that has evolved over the past 1,000 years through endless varieties and variations of churches, both Catholic and then Protestant, so that story no longer matches those known in early England. In other words, these versions have felt more comfortable to those scholars’ own ideas of their own faith or needs — and found reception & welcome because they don’t challenge the beliefs of others around them. The “Dream of the Rood” has been translated according to doctrine rather than text. We could of course get into interpretive commonplaces deriving from Paul about how “the letter kills & the spirit quickens” or Lutheran ideas of sole fidei. However those are all those are pretty much ideological theories about how to interpret text, which don’t really play any privileged part in how this poem was possibly constructed or used.
I have refused to adhere to any (honestly) retrojecting idea of how old English poetry must have sounded in terms of meter or rhythm. Scholars have pointed out that those are constructs, theories and do not necessarily accord to the ways that Old English poetry appears in its manuscript versions. Performance style is up for grabs and far too many scholars are content to hear this poetry in ways that are pretty much uninteresting in any sort of oral performance. Previous recorded versions of Old English poetry such as the Beowulf performed by Kemp Malone or the tracks by Michael Drout are not audially compelling or energetic at all. Dig if you will a picture: a shadowy mead-hall full of mead-swilled warriors regaled by a scop.They’ve spent a long day raping thralls & speaking highly of themselves. The ring-giver has already given rings. If a scop had stood up & droned on like a tipsy Gregorian chanteur, these guys would have fallen asleep before the speaker said “hwæt.” Therefore I have allowed a rhythm to develop from the words as they tumbled onto the page and let them ride. My own interests these days run to slam poetry and hip-hop cadences, as well as dense alliteration and other sound effects. These have oral energy that is easily communicated between speaker and audience and therefore I have thrown myself into them. I think it’s high time that we stop allowing people who actually hate poetry to tell us what this poetry must have sounded like.
I have felt free to indulge my taste for effulgence & extravagance in the verse what appears in the original as frequent structural alliteration is preserved however not in the same patterns. Also (as I am exploring in partnership with another scholar), most Old English poetry is rich in other sound devices such as assonance and near rhyme. Readers will hardly fail to notice that rhyme is frequent in my version of this poem. Rhyme is not that common in Old English poetry (but not unknown, see the epilogue of Cynewulf’s Elene here on this website [ll. 1236-51a], but in other places as well), however rhyme is aurally compelling to modern audiences and can, when used with a sense of fun and imagination, be highly effective in recontextualizing or organizing a poetic idea to reveal alternate possibilities within that verse. Again, these are issues of diction, how I translate the word, not changing the word per se.
Finally, readers may be confused or dismayed by a lightness in my tone throughout the translation. I am not a huge fan of assuming all Old English poetic production was miserably serious about everything including doctrine. Again, these are posterior reconstructions about religious seriousness & cultural seriousness that only serve conservative needs to colonize the Middle Ages for purposes of moral scolding and enforcing reactionary values. The Pseudo-Dionysis writes convincingly on the power of language that seems unfitting to perfectly contain divinity — that that gap of decorum is replete with truth. If you want to get medieval on all this shit, this is a way to think like a set of the locals.
In support of this idea of an innate whimsy or wit possible in this poetry, I cite old Norse verse (which was highly evolved & very very witty and ironic) played a huge role in the development of Old English poetry (probably more important than Anglo-Latin) & this cheeky, complex tone is likely to have pervaded any poetic expression in Old English, doctrinal or not. Consider the remnants of the Ruthwell Cross found in southern Scotland (in what would’ve been Northumbria in the 8th century) that contain fragments that are also found in the “Dream of the Rood” (specifically, ll. 56-58 & 62-63). This region was soon swarming with Scandinavian people, and their influences on the language (as an HEL course will tell you) were pronounced & pervasive. It stands to reason their poetry was similarly influenced by this culture as well. I don’t necessarily believe that the “Dream of the Rood” poem as we have it (which doesn’t even have to be the only one) needs to be as early as the Ruthwell Cross verse fragments, however the situation artistically is a lot more complex than traditional scholarship has allowed it.
So there it is. I hope you enjoy it & experience it in the spirit in which it is offered. I don’t believe my interpretation to be the ONLY interpretation of any actual artifact old or new. Just one idea in a bucket that may dialectically bring us closer to the full range of possibilities in this culture and its poetic expressions. Those who have ears, let them hear. And not all things are meant for all readers. Take it as you will.