The Ruin

The Ruin has often been considered rather enigmatic in origin.  Because of the ‘ruined’ state of the manuscript, controversy tends to surround the poem and its tremendous imagery, arguing primarily over the location alluded to in the work.  This debate also produces many interesting uncertainties within the poem that scholars tend to focus their creative energies upon.

            One such person is William C. Johnson.  He feels that The Ruin was intended to be a Body-City riddle in which “the [human] body is like a building because it encloses and protects its dwellers (the heart and soul), it is [also] like a city and the wall surrounding it, which enclose and protect its inhabitants” (405). Amidst his argument, Johnson also describes how words can derive from combined roots, claiming the word hofu is meant to signify a head, not necessarily only a roof (404).  He claims that the word hofu is derived from the word heafod, or head, and the word hrof, or skull (404). It is from examples like this one concerning the multiple meanings of the words in The Ruin, and thus the poet’s skill, that Johnson argues for the parallels between the structure of the city, and the human body (405), for which “the modig architect is God himself” (402).  Such scholarship calls attention to the potential purposes of the poem and thus its potential for eliciting an emotional response. 

            Others pay more attention to the poem’s underlying structure and subsequent themes.  James Doubleday, in his article, “The Ruin: Structure and Theme” suggests that the poem is complex and meditative in nature, concerned not so much with defining a specific city, but rather with drawing on the mystical notions of Augustine’s and the church fathers’ ideas of a city in opposition to the City of God (376).   On this basis he maintains that the city then must have been great, and is now lost, creating “an emotional effect of vanished glory” (370), which I noted for its potential to stimulate emotion.  Moreover, for Doubleday, the poem is clearly moralizing, as he claims the city fell because of its involvement in the “three worldly loves” (378), revealing the poem’s concern not with “how,” but “why the city fell” (381).  Doubleday’s discussion of The Ruin in relation to morality then introduces another major area of scholarship: the location of the ruined city and the subsequent moral implications.

            The speculation about the possibility of a real location for the ruined city is quite varied. John C. Pope believes firmly that the location of the city is not meant to be taken as Babylon but rather as Bath (356) and that the poem is not necessarily moralizing but remains “fascinated by what those master builders had been able to accomplish (357).  A less specific claim is that of Ann L. Klinck, who asserts that “the poet was probably inspired by a particular, Roman, scene,” and the question of moral implications “is an open question” (62).

 From those who argue against a morally charged poem, Alain Renoir describes the poem as an “[emotional] vacuum, which the reader must fill” (150).  Renoir sees this vacuum as an artistically good element; I however am bothered by the poem's abscence of distinct emotion, which arises out of what Pope calls “an almost random series of thoughts and images” (354). 

Arnold V. Talentino further describes this lack of emotional presence in the poem in his essay titled, “Moral Irony in the Ruin,” discussing the need to look beyond the standard arguments of place and time, in order to focus upon the moral implications of the poem (3), adding yet another slightly different layer to the scholarship about  the poem.  The article claims that those “words and patterns that deepen the usual sense of an elegiac poem (10) create a poem containing ironies.  One such irony, Talentino contends, involves the notion that “the buildings of the city have become repudiated by fate, a power that its builders readily accepted” (6). So, the argument does moralize, in suggesting that the builder’s pagan trust in fate was a bad thing.  Yet, of the speaker in the poem, Talentino says, “[his] interest in the past, is imagistic but not emotional; he imagines but does not lament”(3). This comment suggests of the poem’s artistry, in my mind, something very similar to Renoir’s contention that the poem presents an emotional vacuum, despite the two scholars’ very different approaches and conclusions about the poem.

And, this too is my conjecture.  I have, however, decided that this lack of expressed emotion could be approached as a problem and a challenge for a translator: to infuse emotion for the modern reader.  TalentinoTalentinoTalfgsdg gfsdfgsdf realizes the need to focus more on the causal factors of the ruin and their implications, rather than the ruin, itself.  It is within these same parameters that I framed my criteria. 

            I set my criteria forth as follows: The purpose of my translation is to bring a (hopefully) new light to the poem.  I feel that the Anglo-Saxon language is somewhat abrasive, often failing to convey the true depth of confronted emotions.  I intend to bring a higher level of emotional intensity to the poem by heightening the reader’s emotional response.  My main objective is to retain as much of the original sense of the poem as possible, while making the work more appealing to the modern audience.  I plan to do this sort of translation through close and careful examination of word choice, as well as trying to present a more humanitarian approach to the poem by taking various liberties with descriptions throughout.  I hope to make choices that will display a wider range of emotion that, I believe, was originally felt by the author yet did not fully come through in the poem’s expression because of the lack of substantial vocabulary at the poem’s inception. 

Using these criteria, I chose three translations to examine.  The first is by R. Hamer.  I personally find his translation very literal and somewhat boring.  The first passage alone is lacking in emotion, and content.  Wyrde gebræcon, literally translated, tells us that Weird, or Fate, has smashed the city.  Hamer fails to mention the Weird or Fate at all; he completely misses the emotional wallop that describing an abstract uncontrollable force could bring about. 

Admittedly, though, he does have some lines that have some saving merit.  Lines such as the translation of rice æfter oþrum,/ oftsondem under stormum were somewhat response oriented.  He writes them to mean, “Surviving storms while kingdoms rose and fell” (27).  This is about as intense as his translation gets.

Another translation comes from Kevin Crossley-Holland.  This translation is a step above the first in that it had a bit more emotional impact.  I can say with certainty that there were specific images conjured within my mind when reading his translation.  I enjoyed images such as that of the architect who “conceived a remarkable plan:/ Ingenious and resolute, he bound the foundations/ With metal rods into linking rings” (69).  Compare this to the Hamer version: “Resolute masons, skilled in rounded building...” I can’t even begin to think how one might be ‘skilled’ in ‘rounded building’ probably because I have no clue what “rounded building” is.  

Holland also meets my criteria with his marvelous passage on the structure’s decay.  He says, “The ruins have tumbled to the plain,/ Broken into craggy mounds of stone” (80).  I find this rendering at least a little more emotional than the original writing of ‘Hryre wong gecrong/ gebrocen to beorgum.”  Crossley-Holland adds some delightful adjectives and imagery, but still falls short of being fully emotionally charged.

This burden of infusing emotion into a translation is isisiswell carried by the third translation by Burton Raffel.  Raffel takes additional liberties with the poem, adding more emphasis upon the use of poetic devices such as form and sound.  He is particularly fond of alliteration, much like the Anglo-Saxon poets, as demonstrated in the following passage: “Came, the crowds of brave men were dead;/ Their forts and camps crumbled to the ground”(20).  You can definitely feel the stirring of deeper emotion when reading his translation.  Another example, best suiting, is “Golden armor gleaming, giddy/ With wine; here was wealth;...” (20). In Raffel’s translation I definitely found work similar to what I might attempt.

Raffel also manages to keep his lines to a meter that is regular, for the most part.  I feel that the use of meter makes it not only easier to read, but also easier to enjoy.  That’s why I decided, after writing three different translations, to use the one that I grounded in form.  I originally did a literal translation, but it fell short of every point in my criteria. The second was written to be a little more free and unconstrained.  It had more emotional depth, but I feel that it strayed too far from the original text.  This latest translation attempts to correct those shortcomings and meet my criteria.

This translation, I decided to write in a restricted form.  My hopes in doing this were that by restricting myself, I would make better and more careful word choices.  I didn’t want this version to stray as far as the last.  For this poem I chose to try (loosely) to employ a stress pattern contain 4 alliterative beats, similar to that of Anglo-Saxon lines.  I am rather pleased with the result, and hope you, the reader, will feel the same.

Works Cited

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

Poems.  ed. Bruce Mitchell.  London: 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 594 (1980

Fall): 397-411.

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 UP, 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.

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 T.. “The Ruin: Bath or Babylon?  A Non-archeological Investigation.”

Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Societe Neophilologique/ Bulletin of the Modern Language Society 74 (1973): 443-55.

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.  Maldon,

Mass:  Blackwell, 2002.

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 Books, 1982. 345-364.

Wentersdorf, Karl P..  “Observations on The Ruin.”  Medium Aevum 46 (1977): 171-180.