The Ruin: Mysteries Left Unsolved

The Ruin is an Old English poem whose mystery may never be solved, and which will always be difficult to translate.  Anne Klinck believes this mystery arises from the severely ruined state of the text. The Ruin is the last of the elegies in the Exeter book and therefore has suffered the most fire damage and, as Klink says, the "total effect of the poem is lost to us." (61)  According to William Johnson, some of the difficulty in translating is caused by the "largely unique" language in The Ruin. (397)

The large amount of mystery has lead to many different ideas about which city is being described.  The Roman city of Bath is the candidate that seems to get the most credit.  The phrase enta geweorc is translated as “labors of giants.” According to Michael Alexander, Anglo Saxons commonly referred to Roman ruins and architecture as the “work of giants” ( 29). He also points out that the “red stonework, circular pool, and hot springs” described in the poem are typical of Roman architecture. (29)  Hugh T. Keenan in his article, “The Ruin as Babylon,” believes that human sin was the cause of the city’s destruction and therefore, the city is Babylon. (110)  Anne Klinck makes a more general claim that the poet was merely “inspired” by a “particular, Roman scene,” not necessarily Bath (62).  When translating The Ruin I did not consider any particular city as the subject of the poem. I feel that viewing the subject as a literal city takes away something from the poem.  If this is merely one specific city, then it’s certainly a tragedy, but a tragedy for only a certain group of people.  However, if this city is seen as standing for all cities, it represents all human civilization and endeavor, and the tragedy becomes more universal.

There is an abundance of criticism surrounding the genre of The Ruin.  It is typically considered an elegy because it is found in the Exeter Book after The Husband’s Message, though William Johnson believes this placing to be random (397).  Klinck argues that The Ruin varies from the other elegies in many ways.  It lacks the monologue format present in the other elegies found in the Exeter Book (13).   My personal observation is that although it is a scene of desolation characteristic of elegies, the poet seems to be describing the city with little emotion.  The Ruin doesn’t convey the same strong emotions as other elegies such as The Wife’s Lament and The Wanderer.

Recently scholars have addressed the theme of The Ruin. James Doubleday’s article, “The Ruin: Structure and Theme,” suggests that there is a philosophy of history within The Ruin.  The poem offers an explanation for the fall and destruction of cities. (370) In The Ruin, Doubleday sees a city opposing Augustine’s City of God, which is a popular idea in Old English culture.  Following this theory, he maintains that “the prevalence of disasters in human history is the just punishment for sin” (372).  Doubleday also examines why the city was ruined rather than how or by whom it was destroyed.  He claims that the city was destroyed by the “three worldly loves”: pride of life, lust of the eyes, and lust of the flesh (378).  This theory has several moral implications which I found to be somewhat far-fetched. He argues that the inhabitants, “proud and flushed with wine,” as well as the nature of the public baths described at the end of the poem, are signs of infidelity (381).

Another scholar concerned with the moral implications in The Ruin is Arnold V. Talantino.  In his article, “Moral Irony in The Ruin,” he says the opening statement of the poem, “wondrous is this masonry, shattered by fate,” represents “the traditional association in the Anglo Saxon mind of fallen men and fallen stones” which is a “traditional theme for the Christian moralist”(5).  Although the ‘giants’ were skilled builders, the destruction of their city reflects their spiritual shortcomings (5).  I thought this was a very interesting interpretation of The Ruin.  In this view, the poet doesn’t seem to be lamenting over the fallen city but rather is just describing a scene.  Nevertheless, it seemed to me that he was imagining what the city and its inhabitants would have been like but was not making any connection between the inhabitants and the city’s demise. I don’t see the destruction in this poem as having particularly moral causes. I believe that the emphasis is more upon the destructive power of Time than upon moral causes of destruction.

The mystery created by the obscurity of The Ruin is what first interested me in the poem.  While its ruined state defies a complete translation of the original work, what remains offers an insight into the past and into Anglo Saxon culture.  When reading translations I enjoy the opportunity to uncover a past culture through reading the poem.  Through my translation I hope to clear up some of the obscurity of The Ruin while retaining its mystery.

My criteria for a good translation are as follows.  The purpose of my translation is to capture the experience of uncovering some of the past.  For content, I feel the translation should maintain some of the mystery from the original text but not to the point of obscurity.  It is also important for a translation to stay as close to the original text as possible in order to let the poetry speak for itself.  That way the reader can uncover part of the actual Anglo Saxon culture instead of forming a connection with elements that have been added and do not really pertain to Anglo Saxon culture. 

The techniques used in my translation should maintain cultural elements in imagery but still be easily accessible.  Smoothing out the syntax may be necessary for the sake of clarity.  Techniques such as alliteration and assonance should be used when they will enhance the mystery of the poem but poetic techniques should not take precedence over clarity.

I examined three translations of The Ruin and used my criteria to evaluate them.  First I chose to look S.A.J. Bradley’s translation.  While Bradley did not stray too far from the literal meaning of the poem, his translation was wordy and contained many added words and phrases.  The first line, Wrætlic is þes wealstan, is directly translated as “wondrous is this masonry.” Bradley translates it as “wondrously ornate is the stone of this wall”(402).  While the message is essentially the same, his wordy phrases turn the poem into prose. 

Writing the lines of the poem in complete sentences makes the poem’s tone less mysterious.  For example, Bradley writes “There are tumbled roofs, towers in ruins,” when the literal translation is simply “Fallen roofs, ruined towers”(402).  I feel that retaining the original, simpler wording preserves the mystery in the poem and gives the reader better insight into Anglo Saxon culture, allowing them to uncover the culture on their own through reading the poem.  I feel that this translation changed the wording and format of the poem enough to lose some of the cultural elements and therefore does not meet my criteria.

The second translation I looked at is by Lyndsey Lantz.  Although this translation was an excellent poem, it was a very loose translation.  It had effective imagery but often sacrificed the literal meaning to employ poetic techniques.  Lantz translates the first line, Wrætlic is þes wealstan; wyrde gebræcon, as “…Now wrinkled and fallen to fate,” which literally translates as “Shattered by fate.”  While Lantz uses alliteration effectively, she creates many images that aren’t present in the original text.  Lantz translates line eleven as “A hundred generations have since walked on their graves,” rather than the literal “a hundred generations have since passed away.”  Although the images are fresh and creative, I don’t feel that they accurately convey the original text, and therefore her translation fails to meet all of my criteria.

The third translation I examined comes from Richard Hamer.  His translation, while fairly literal, dulled many of the images that caused the poem to lose its mystery.  For example, he translates line two, burgstede burston, as “the city buildings fell apart.”  The literal translation is “broken is the city,” which I feel lends the poem mystery by remaining a little obscure but still understandable. Hamer’s translation of lines 18-20 as “Resolute masons, skilled in rounded building,” makes the poem less accessible to the reader.  I myself do not know what is meant by “rounded building” and undergraduates aren’t likely to form an accurate image of what is being described.  I think my own translation of that line, “Resolute builders, with ingenuity of ring mail,” creates an image that the reader is more likely to understand.  Most readers know what ring mail is and will then be able to picture how the builders made the wall.  Through word choice such as this I hope to create a translation that both offers insight into a past culture and is accessible to the reader.

Works Cited

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

U California P, 1966. 31-32

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

1982. 401-402.

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

Lantz, Lyndsey. “The Ruin.”  Uncovering Old English Texts. Ed. Dan Remein. 2003. Accessed: 2

            November 2004.

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

“The Ruin.” A Guide to Old English.  6th edition.  Ed. Bruce Mitchell and Fred. C.

Robinson.  Maldon, Mass.:  Blackwell, 2001. 253-255.

Works Consulted

Hall, J.R. Clark.  A Concise Anglo Saxon Dictionary. Canada: Cambridge UP, 2004

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

Englische Philologie 94 (1976): 339-360.

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.

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

Blackwell, 2003.

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.

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.