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 ...
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
"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.
The author is an unknown Anglo-Saxon scop (poet).
"The Ruin" may be classified as an elegy, eulogy, dirge and/or lament,
depending on how one interprets it.
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.
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."
"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
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.
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.
Other Anglo-Saxon/Old English poems:
Wulf and Eadwacer,
The Wife's Lament,
Bede's Death Song,
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Original Old English/Anglo-Saxon Text
WrŠtlic is ■es wealstan,
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,
...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
...■■Št hringmere hate
■Šr ■a ba■u wŠron.
...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:
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
This World's Joy
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You"
Whoso List to Hunt
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Rainer Maria Rilke
Ono no Komachi
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
Burch Expanded Bio.