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THE RUIN in a Modern English Translation
with an Analysis of Theme, Genre, Plot, etc.

"The Ruin" is one of the great poems of English antiquity. This modern English translation of one of the very best Old English/Anglo-Saxon poems is followed by footnotes and the translator's comments. Included in the notes are a summary and analysis of the poem's plot, theme, genre, history, context, references and techniques. The original Anglo-Saxon text appears after the notes. This elegy/lament may have been written by an Anglo-Saxon scop (poet) who admired the long-lasting construction-work of the ancient Romans. The references to bath-houses and a stream gushing forth hot water suggest that the ruins in question are those of Bath, England. "The Ruin" appeared in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to around 960 to 990 AD. Of course the poems in the book could have been written at some earlier date—perhaps considerably earlier.

Note: In Anglo-Saxon poetry the Wyrdes were like the Fates of Greek mythology, and the Fates controlled human destinies. I have interpreted the poem to be a war of sorts between human Giants and the Wyrdes, so I have chosen to capitalize only the two warring parties. While it may seem that the Wyrdes won, the work of the Giants still stands ...



THE RUIN
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

well-hewn was this wall-stone, till Wyrdes wrecked it
and the Colossus sagged inward ...

broad battlements broken;
the Builders' work battered;

the high ramparts toppled;
tall towers collapsed;

the great roof-beams shattered;
gates groaning, agape ...

mortar mottled and marred by scarring hoar-frosts ...

the Giants’ dauntless strongholds decaying with age ...

shattered, the shieldwalls,
the turrets in tatters ...

where now are those mighty Masons, those Wielders and Wrights,
those Samson-like Stonesmiths?

the grasp of the earth, the firm grip of the ground
holds fast those fearless Fathers
                                                men might have forgotten
except that this slow-rotting siege-wall still stands
after countless generations!

for always this edifice, grey-lichened, blood-stained,
stands facing fierce storms with their wild-whipping winds
because those master Builders bound its wall-base together
so cunningly with iron!
                                 it outlasted mighty kings and their claims!

how high rose those regal rooftops!
how kingly their castle-keeps!
how homely their homesteads!
how boisterous their bath-houses and their merry mead-halls!
how heavenward flew their high-flung pinnacles!
how tremendous the tumult of those famous War-Wagers ...
till mighty Fate overturned it all, and with it, them.

then the wide walls fell;
then the bulwarks were broken;
then the dark days of disease descended ...

as death swept the battlements of brave Brawlers;
as their palaces became waste places;
as ruin rained down on their grand Acropolis;
as their great cities and castles collapsed
while those who might have rebuilt them lay gelded in the ground—
those marvelous Men, those mighty master Builders!

therefore these once-decorous courts court decay;
therefore these once-lofty gates gape open;
therefore these roofs' curved arches lie stripped of their shingles;
therefore these streets have sunk into ruin and corroded rubble ...

when in times past light-hearted Titans flushed with wine
strode strutting in gleaming armor, adorned with splendid ladies’ favors,
through this brilliant city of the audacious famous Builders
to compete for bright treasure: gold, silver, amber, gemstones.

here the cobblestoned courts clattered;
here the streams gushed forth their abundant waters;
here the baths steamed, hot at their fiery hearts;
here this wondrous wall embraced it all, with its broad bosom.

... that was spacious ...



Footnotes and Translator's Comments

by Michael R. Burch

Summary

"The Ruin" is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem. It appears in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to around 960-990 AD. However, the poem may be older than the manuscript, since many ancient poems were passed down orally for generations before being written down. The poem is an elegy or lament for the works of "mighty men" of the past that have fallen into disrepair and ruins. Ironically, the poem itself was found in a state of ruin. There are holes in the vellum upon which it was written. It appears that a brand or poker was laid to rest on the venerable book. It is believed the Exeter Book was also used as a cutting board and beer mat. Indeed, we are lucky to have as much of the poem as we do.

Author

The author is an unknown Anglo-Saxon scop (poet).

Genre

"The Ruin" may be classified as an elegy, eulogy, dirge and/or lament, depending on how one interprets it.

Theme

The poem's theme is one common to Anglo-Saxon poetry and literature: that man and his works cannot escape the hands of wyrde (fate), time and death. Thus men can only face the inevitable with courage, resolve, fortitude and resignation. Having visited Bath myself, I can easily understand how the scop who wrote the poem felt, and why, if I am interpreting the poem correctly.

Plot

The plot of "The Ruin" seems rather simple and straighforward: Things fall apart. The author of the poem blames Fate for the destruction he sees. The builders are described as "giants."

Techniques

"The Ruin" is an alliterative poem; it uses alliteration rather than meter and rhyme to "create a flow" of words. This was typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

History

When the Romans pulled their legions out of Britain around 400 BC, primarily because they faced increasing threats at home, they left behind a number of immense stone works, including Hadrian's Wall, various roads and bridges, and cities like Bath. Bath, known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis, is the only English city fed by hot springs, so it seems likely that the city in question is Bath. Another theory is that the poem refers to Hadrian's Wall and the baths mentioned were heated artificially. The Saxons, who replaced the Romans as rulers of most of Britain, used stone only for churches and their churches were small. So it seems safe to say that the ruins in question were created by Roman builders.

Interpretation

My personal interpretation of the poem is that the poet is simultaneously impressed by the magnificence of the works he is viewing, and discouraged that even the works of the mighty men of the past have fallen to ruin.

Analysis of Characters and References

There are no characters, per se, only an anonymous speaker describing the ruins and the men he imagines to have built things that have survived so long despite battles and the elements.

Related Poems

Other Anglo-Saxon/Old English poems: The Ruin, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife's Lament, Deor's Lament, Caedmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song, The Seafarer, Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings

Original Old English/Anglo-Saxon Text

WrŠtlic is ■es wealstan, wyrde gebrŠcon;
burgstede burston, brosna­ enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,
scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene,
Šldo undereotone. Eor­grap hafa­
waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, o■ hund cnea
wer■eoda gewitan. Oft ■Šs wag gebad
rŠghar ond readfah rice Šfter o■rum,
ofstonden under stormum; steap geap gedreas.
Wuna­ giet se ...num geheapen,
fel on
grimme gegrunden
scan heo...
...g or■onc Šrsceaft
...g lamrindum beag
mod mo... ...yne swiftne gebrŠgd
hwŠtred in hringas, hygerof gebond
weallwalan wirum wundrum togŠdre.
Beorht wŠron burgrŠced, burnsele monige,
heah horngestreon, heresweg micel,
meodoheall monig mondreama full,
o■■Št ■Št onwende wyrd seo swi■e.
Crungon walo wide, cwoman woldagas,
swylt eall fornom secgrofra wera;
wurdon hyra wigsteal westen sta■olas,
brosnade burgsteall. Betend crungon
hergas to hrusan. For■on ■as hofu dreorgia­,
ond ■Šs teaforgeapa tigelum sceade­
hrostbeages hrof. Hryre wong gecrong
gebrocen to beorgum, ■Šr iu beorn monig
glŠdmod ond goldbeorht gleoma gefrŠtwed,
wlonc ond wingal wighyrstum scan;
seah on sinc, on sylfor, on searogimmas,
on ead, on Šht, on eorcanstan,
on ■as beorhtan burg bradan rices.
Stanhofu stodan, stream hate wearp
widan wylme; weal eall befeng
beorhtan bosme, ■Šr ■a ba■u wŠron,
hat on hre■re. ■Št wŠs hy­elic.
Leton ■onne geotan
ofer harne stan hate streamas
un...
...■■Št hringmere hate
■Šr ■a ba■u wŠron.
■onne is
...re; ■Št is cynelic ■ing,
huse ...... burg....







If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
This World's Joy
Tegner's Drapa
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You"
Whoso List to Hunt
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Meleager
Sappho
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklˇs Radnˇti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
RenÚe Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Vera Pavlova
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the translator, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.

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