Translations from Old English

By | 1 February 2019

The poems included here date to between the 7th and 10th centuries. Their original authors remain unknown. “The Dream of the Rood” is preserved in the Vercelli Book, and narrates the events of the crucifixion from the Cross’s perspective, recasting the event in the language and form of Old English heroic verse such as Beowulf. The poem uses the narrative device of the dream vision in order to justify its final exhortation to readers to follow the Cross’s example of good service to Christ. ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ offers one of only two poems in the entire Old English corpus to have an unambiguously female voice. Difficult in the Old English, the poem presents multiple challenges for translation. The precise genre of the poem is unclear, and scholarly consensus is divided on the whether or not the words earne and dogode in the manuscript are scribal errors (this poem also provides the only attestation of the word dogode in the language, if the word is intentional). Riddle 46 is one of roughly 94 (some debate exists regarding the boundaries between riddles) riddles contained in the Exeter Book. The riddles are diverse in subject matter ranging from religion, to handicraft, to the natural world, to double entendre, and have served as inspiration for later writers like J R R Tolkien. Riddle 46 is a religious riddle, which names thirteen family members seated to dinner, though there are only five people. The solution is provided for the reader’s convenience in a footnote.

The Dream of the Rood

Lo that I wish to speak the best of dreams
That came to me in the middle of night
After the speakers dwelt in slumber!
It seemed me I saw a most splendid tree
To rise into the air, festooned with light,
The brightest of beams. That signal was all 
Covered with gold. Across the land gems stood
Fair over the earth. Five of them there were
Up on the axlespan. The Lord’s angels
Beheld all fair there across creation.

Yet this was no gallows of the wicked
But where the holy spirits saw him, 
Mankind over the world, all this gloried realm.
Splendid was triumph’s tree, and sinstained I
Was wounded with defilements. I saw God’s tree,
Honored with clothes, to shine in joyousness;
In gold the Holy tree was dressed, covered
Honorably with gems and golden cloth.

Yet through that metal I could perceive
The wretched old struggle, when it first began
To bleed from its right side. I was aggrieved
With sorrows, fearful of that fair vision.
I saw that tree change quickly its colors
And its garments. Sometimes it was dripping wet,
Covered with flowing blood, or clothed in gold.
Yet lying there for a long while I,
Sadhearted, saw the tree of the Savior,
Until that time when I heard it to speak.
The best of wood began to say its words:

“Years ago that was, yet still I recall
That I was hewn from my home’s edge
And stripped from my trunk where strong fiends seized me,
They selfwrought a frenzy and bade me their wretches to heave.
Those soldiers shouldered me until they set me upon a hill;
The fiends fastened me there tight. I saw the Freer of mankind
Zealously approach: to ascend me was his wish.
There I durst not bow nor break over the Lord’s
Word, when I saw the world’s surfaces 
To quaver. I could
Defeat all the fiends, yet fast I stood. 

The young hero ungirded himself—that was God Almighty,
Strong and stouthearted. He scaled the high gallows,
Mindful in the eyes of the many, that mankind he would liberate.
I buckled when the Son clapt to me. Yet I durst not bow to the dirt,
Nor fall to the earth’s surface, but fast I had to stand.
Rood was I created. The powerful king I heaved,
The Lord of the Heavens; I durst not lean myself.
They throughdrove me dark nails, the dints on me visible,
Open scathings of malice. I durst not scathe any of them.
They besmirched us both together. I was all with blood drenched,
Gotten from this man’s side after he had given up his spirit.

A long while have I waited on this hill
Of seething fate. I saw then the God of hosts
Direly stretched. Darkness had
Covered with clouds the corpse of the Lord,
The shining splendor, a shadow went forth,
Dark beneath the clouds. All creation wept,
Cried the King’s fall; Christ was on the Rood.

Yet from afar there fared the brave 
To the atheling. All that I beheld.
Sore I was aggrieved with sorrows, yet to the swordhands bowed down,
Gentleminded and greatly eager. God Almighty they took there,
Heaved him from that heavy torture. Hildr’s men abandoned me
To stand in the blanket of blood. I was all stricken with arrows.
They set there the limbweary one, stood by the ends of his corpse,
Regarded there Heaven’s Lord, and rested themselves there a while.
Battleweary after the great war, the warriors in the sight
Of the killing instrument undertook to crypt him.
They carved it from a bright stone, stowed therein the Lord of victories.
They began to sing to him the sorrowsong,
Wretched in the duskening. Then they desired to journey again,
Dejected for the great king; he dwelt there with the smallest army.

Yet there we stood, still for a good while,
Weeping in place after the warriors 
Cried up into the sky. That corpse, that fair
Lifedwelling cooled. Then one caused us to fall 
Down to earth. That destiny was terrible!
Someone buried us in a deep pit, yet there discovered me friends,
The Lord’s servants,
And they girded me in gold and silver.

Now you might hear, my hero, my dear one,
That I have withstood the works of the baleful,
Of terrible sorrows. The time is come now,
That far and wide they worship me,
People over the globe and all this glorious creation
Pray to this sign. God’s son—on me he
Suffered for a time. Therefore in splendor I now
Rise under the heavens. And heal them I may,
Each of them until they be in awe of me.

I was once honored of the hardest torture,
For the loathsomest people; life’s way—I
Spread it before them, before the speechbearers.
Lo, the Elder of glory exalted me
Over the wooded grove, the Guardian of the Kingdom of heaven,
Just as he did his mother too, Mary herself,
Almighty God, for all mankind 
Worthied her over all womankind. 

Now I charge you, my cherished hero,
To say of this sight to all mankind
Tell the word that it is the tree of glory
On which Almighty God was made to suffer
For mankind’s many sins
And Adam’s ancient deeds.
He savored death there, yet the Savior arose again
With his great might to be mankind’s helper.
Then he ascended to the heavens. They will hasten to that place again,
In this middle earth, mankind to seek
The Lord himself on the last day of judgment,
Almighty God and his angels with him,
That he will judge, for he wields judgment’s power,
Over everyone here (as once he himself did before)
Who in this loaned life deserves it.

May there not be any unafraid
Of the language which the Lord speaks.
He asks before the multitude where that man is
Who would savor, in the Savior’s name, 
Bitter death, as on the beam he once did.
But then they become fearful, and few think
What might they start to say to Christ.
Then there need be none afraid
Who bears the best sign in their breastchamber,
But every soul shall seek from the earth
Through the cross to the kingdom,
Those for whom to live with the Lord is their thought.”

With joyous heart then I prayed to the tree,
With great zeal. I was alone there with a
Small army. The soul was urged its way forth,
And I endured many times of longing.
For me life’s hope is now that I might seek
The tree of victories alone and more
Often than all, to honor it well.
For that is my desire great in my mind,
And to the cross is owed my patronage. 

I have few friends in earthly realms, but they
Henceforth have left worldjoy, have sought the Lord;
They now in heaven live with the high father,
In glory dwell, and hopeful I await
For when one day the Lord’s cross, which I
Have seen here on this earth before, takes me
Away from this fleeting mortality
And then am brought where much happiness is,
To joy in the heavens, to where God’s folk	
Are set to feast, where eternal bliss is,
And when I seat myself where sith I may
In glory dwell, and fully with the saints
Partake of joy. 

                                          To me God is a friend,
One who here on the earth once had suffered
For mankind’s sins upon the gallowstree.
He released us. And He forgave us life
And a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
With life and bliss, for those who ere tholed fire.
The son on that trip was victorious,
Able and strong when with a many he came,
A troop of souls, into the Lord’s kingdom,
Of the almighty one, to bliss with angels
And all the saints already in heaven
Who lived in glory, when their ruler came,
Almighty God, to where his homeland was.
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