An Approach to The Ruin

The Ruin is an Old English poem that has consistently remained a mystery to scholars. According to William Johnson, the he manuscript is badly damaged, and its language is “largely unique” among other works in OE and it seems randomly (or at least inexplicably) placed in the Exeter Book between “The Husband’s Message” and riddles (397). It has been interpreted in various ways: literally, it can be read as an observance of a historical city’s ruin such as Rome’s.  Ann L Klinck identifies the site as “a particular, Roman, scene” (62), and John C. Pope asserts that the location is Bath (356).  One can read the poem as an allegory, which yields a Christian perspective where the destruction of the city results from sin, and the city is labeled as Babylon (Keenan 110). Johnson presents it as a “Body-City Riddle” in which the city is suggestive of a body that protects its inhabitants (heart and soul), whose “modig architect is God himself” (402). So the poem presents a wide variety of potential themes and modes of understanding.

        Other scholarship discusses the poem’s genre a little bit.  Regardless of the label they come up with, most scholars agree with Alain Renoir that The Ruin “ is a series of tableaux rather than a narrative or a philosophical monologue” (149). Anne Lee would support this argument in her presentation of elegy vs. observation (443).  The poem is usually uncategorized, though sometimes labeled as elegiac, but she notes that the speaker’s detached point of view makes the tone less the tone of a "lament" and more that of simply a "desription" (Lee 443,453). I very much agree and find that the narrator retains a somewhat detached meditative view in observing the ruins, which is simultaneously rich and vacant.  So, I would find that the poem’s modern appeal lies in its persistent mystery, intriguingly detached speaker, poetic techniques, many interpretive possibilities, and strong imagery.

Following this discussion into the topic of poem’s artistic value, it is worth noting that more than one critic has drawn connections between The Ruin and modernist techniques.  Arnold V. Talentino characterizes the “speaker’s interest in the past,” as “imagistic, but not emotional” (3), and as Renoir records, “Alvin A. Lee has accordingly noted that it comes ‘very close to what we in the twentieth century know as an ‘imagist’ poem’” (149-150).  Indeed, Renoir also notes that The Ruin does not make any stated connection between “a mood and geographic proximity or location,” As do most Anglo-Saxon elegies (153).  The poem’s artistry stands out more as Renoir continues his assessment, pointing out that “the focus [of the poem] is on either the decay or the splendor [of the city] rather than on the contrast between them,” leaving the reader to make much of the connection and draw conclusions (155).  These imagistic elements are joined by another element I find quite modern and intriguing to the modern reader:   Pope notes the poem’s fascination with the master builders of the city, the creators and this fascination is similar to the modern fascination with the act of creativity and the artist by themselves.  I found these devices of the poem not only worth noting because of their resemblance to modern poetic themes and methods, but also because they have shaped my own specific interest in and subsequent translation of the poem. 

            Translating The Ruin seems to be a task that few (relative to other OE texts) have tackled. In translating the poem myself, I had to first evaluate my personal reasons for doing so. First and foremost, any translator willing to tackle a piece of art must be aware and accepting of the fact that he or she is essentially recreating the work. The art becomes its own reason – for poet, for translator, for audience – whether thousands of years ago or today.

In recreating the art, I believe that the story – the basic “gist” of the piece – must be retained (why bother with a translation if the translated product does not resemble the original?) while the translator does his or her best to bring new life and illumination to themes, events, thoughts, philosophies, emotions, realizations, and so on previously present in the work.

One’s technique should strive to retain the feel, or the flow, of poetry, but strict meter may be sacrificed in lieu of a stronger focus on images, sounds, tonal variety, and depth of language.

The translations I evaluated concentrated on illuminating a few different and deserving aspects of the poem. M. Alexander’s 1966 translation often seems unclear because the flow for which I was looking was broken more so than that of other translations and even of the original.  For instance, Alexander says early in his translation “the work of Giants, the stonesmiths,/mouldereth” (30), which alliterates, as he seeks to do, but in doing so makes the reading and sound quite awkward with the repeated “th” sounds. I am also disappointed with this translation because Alexander assumes the liberty of making changes (in order, in literalism, in fragmentation) that do not seem to improve the understanding, flow, or poetics of the work for the modern reader.  Where the Old English text reads “hrim on lime,/scearde scurbeorge   scorene, gedrorene,/aeldo undereotone,” he has failed to translate hrim, using “Rime scoureth gatetowers/rime on mortar” (30).  This use of “rime” to perhaps achieve a certain sound clearly misleads any modern reader who might assume some kind of connection to the concept of rime as a literary device, as the words do not evoke any particular image.

R. Hamer’s translation keeps a flow with a successfully alliterative line, rendering the second and third lines as “Tumbled are the towers/Ruined the roofs, and broken the barred gate.”  Hamer also retains more literal interpretations of words, but makes small omissions that have unique but questionable implications and fails to convey part of the “gist” of the piece.  For example, Hamer does not at all deal with the very badly damaged and fragmented parts of the poem, leaving out significant portions of an already incomplete poem.  He also does not deal with the concept of “mod” at all which shows up in the original a few times and thus eliminates part of the “gist.” Also, one should note the description of the baths, which includes the phrase “wide sprays of water,” which I suppose should be taken as a description of large baths making up large bodies of water.  However, “sprays” seems to confuse this image of baths with an image of waves. So, Hamer’s translation also remains quite general; his creative approach to the piece tends to elude the reader.

One highly distinctive translation is Nancy Berberick’s. She presents a poem that I think has achieved a poetic feel, using good alliteration, but commits errors of omission similar to Hamer’s.  Berberick also eliminates the middle fragmented part of the text, and completely disregards the contemplation of the baths, which have been the subject of much scholarship (see, for example, James F. Doubleday, Hugh T. Keenan). Also, her retention of Old English words, while sounding interesting, leaves the modern reader wanting a full translation.  For instance, “Wyrd drove down the wall-maker’s dream,” confuses anyone not familiar with the Anglo-Saxon word and concept of wyrd, or “fate.”  So, despite vivid images such as “High horns filled, flowed the foam of poet’s ale,” and the flow of her translation, Berberick does not fulfill my criteria.  

The all-encompassing translations of both Kevin Crossley-Holland and Burton Raffel, while certainly well known and well done, fail (in my opinion) to fulfill expectation. Both translations do a good job of translating, and we need translations that do only that, but I feel that they fail to bring new life and illumination to the work. Raffel, for example writes, “rings in/crusts of mud” (20), which to me feels more like prose than something with a poetic flow. And, Crossley-Holland seems to do something very similar when saying “ceilings save nothing from the fury of storms, worn away, tottering” (69). While both Raffel and Crossley-Holland achieve translations that are easier to understand and somewhat representative of the original, I personally want more creativity from a translator.

S.A.J. Bradley’s translation keeps flow, and the sentences he creates are beautiful – full of sounds, images, and tonal variations that capture the reader. Interesting, too, are the original connotations he introduces to the “end” (as we know it) of the poem. For example, while the other translations translate the Old English word “cynelic” to mean “kingly,” or “noble” (if they translate it at all, as it is found in a fragmented section), Bradley translates “cynelic” more like “cynlic” and writes “fitting” (402). Thus, without being too blatant, he uses carefully chosen language to let the poem quietly imply that the baths have some significance in the fall of the city (even outside of religious judgment, the baths were notoriously conducive to licentiousness and infidelity),which makes sense – there must be a reason that they are mentioned, so why not make it relevant to the surviving text? Bradley succeeds in flow, imagery, sounds, tonal variation, and originality; my only complaint with his work is that it turns the poetic nature of The Ruin into prose.

My desperate hope is that I have created a translation all-inclusive of my above criteria.

Works Cited

Alexander, M. “The Ruin. The Earliest English Poems. Berkeley and Los Angeles:

U California P, 1966. 31-32

Berberick, Nancy Varian.  “The Home-Reft.” Winlandes Scir The United States Chapter

of Þa Engliscan Gesiðas. MarySavelli.1997. 10 July 2003.

Bradley, S.A.J.  “The Ruin.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Rutland, Vermont: Charles Tuttle,

1982. 401-402.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. “The Ruin.” The Battle of Maldon & Other Old English

Poems.  ed. Bruce Mitchell.  Lodnon: Macmillan, 1965.69-70

Doubleday, James F.. “The Ruin: Structure and Theme.” Journal of English and

Germanic Philology 71 (1973): 369-81.

Hamer, Richard Frederick Sanger. “The Ruin.”  A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse;

Selected, with and Introduction and a Parallel Verse Translation by Richard Hamer.  London: Faber, 1970. 25-27.

Johnson, William C. “The Ruin as Body-City Riddle.” Philological Quarterly 59.4

(1980): 397-411.

Keenan, Hugh T.. “The Ruin As Babylon.”  Tennesee Studies in Literature 11 (1966):


Klinck, Anne L.. The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study.

Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1992

Lee, Anne Thompson.. “The Ruin: Bath or Babylon? A Non-Archaeological

Investigation.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Societe

Neophilologique/Bulletin of the Modern Language 74 (1973): 443-55.

Pope, John C.. “The Existential Mysteries As Treated in Certain Passages of Our Older

Poets.”Acts of Interpretation: The Text In Its Contexts 700-1600 Essays On Medieval and Renaissance Literature In Honor of E. Talbot Donaldson.  ed. Mary J. Carruthers and Elizabeth D. Kirk. Norman, Okalahoma: Pilgrim, 1982. 345-364.

Raffel, Burton.  “The Ruin.”  Poems and Prose From the Old English. ed. Alexandry H.

Olsen and Burton Raffel. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.  19-21.

Renoir, Alain.  “The Old English Ruin: Contrastive Structure and Affective Impact.”  The

Old English Elegies: New Essays and Criticism and Research.  ed. Martin Green. Cranbury: Associated, 1983. 148-173.

Talentino, Arnold V. “Moral Irony in The Ruin.” Papers on Language and Literature: A

Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature 14 (1978): 3-10

Works Consulted

Batley, Janet.  “Time and The Passing of Time in The Wanderer and Related OE Texts.”

Essays and Studies 37 (1984): 1-15.

Hall, J.R. Clark.  A Concise Anglo Saxon Dictionary. Canada: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Hume, Kathryn.  “The ‘Ruin Motif’ in Old English Poetry.”  Anglia: Zeitschrift fur

Englische Philologie 94 (1976): 339-360.

Marsteller, Daniel F.. “A Old English Poem: The Ruin—A Study in Exegesis and

Reappraisal.”  The Bulletin of The West Virginia Association of College English 5.1-2 1979 33-39.

Mitchel, Bruce and Fred. C. Robinson.  A Guide to Old English Sixth Edition.  Mass:

Blackwell, 2002.