The Ruin is an elegy in Old English, written by an unknown author and published in the 8th century in the Exeter Book, a large collection of poems and riddles. The poem evokes the former glory of a ruined city by jumping from present to past.
Part of the poem has been lost due to the pages being damaged by fire. "The Ruin" is somewhat ambiguously positioned in the Exeter Book between "Husband's Message" and 34 preceding riddles. The poem itself is written near the end of the manuscript, on both sides of a leaf, with the end of the poem continuing on to the next page. The section has a large diagonal burn from a kind of branding in the center of the page. The burn has rendered many parts of the script illegible.
Modern literary criticism
One of the main arguments that surround the poem is what is the city which is depicted in the poem. Heinrich Leo first suggested in 1865 that the city depicted was the city of Bath. This has been the general consensus among analysts that this was the city the author was describing throughout the poem. There are three features that when used conjunctively distinctly referred to in the poem that could only be the city of Bath: the hot spring mentioned at the end of the poem, the mention that there were many bathing halls, and the mention of a circular pool also at the end of the poem. Another point that it could be Bath is that the poem is thought to be written in the eighth century and at this point in history the city of Bath is said to have been very decayed.
Although the poem appears a straightforward description of the visual appearance of the site, the author's non-Roman assumptions about the kind of activities that the building would have sheltered, and his emotional state concerning the decay of the ruins, allow different interpretations to be brought forth. William Johnson sees the poem not as a reflection of the physical appearance of the site but rather an evocative effort to bring "stone ruins and human beings into polar relationship as symbolic reflections of each other." Johnson further sees the poem as a metaphor for human existence, a demonstration that all beauty must come to an end. Looked at this way, the author of "The Ruin" could be describing the downfall of the Roman Empire by showing its once great and beautiful structure reduced to rubble just as the empire was. Where "The Ruin" can be seen from a sentimental perspective, it may also be viewed from an imagistic perspective. Arnold Talentino sees the poem as not a sorrowful lamentation, but as an angry or realistic condemnation of the actual people who wrought the destruction. This interpretation would be more historically realistic in that it would reflect a very Christian view of the destruction, a common theme in Old English poems. Talentino states, "His [the author's] view of what once was and his thoughts about it indicate that the city's former inhabitants caused its fall, that crumbling walls are, in part at least, the effect of a crumbling social structure."
Another critic points out the irony of a poem about ruins being found on a burned manuscript page, saying that the burn is "an eloquent image of the theme of mutability with which the poem is concerned" as both evoke destruction.
Modern musical settings
An alternative rendition of the poem in Modern English, was set by Peter Hammill to music as the song "Imperial Walls", on his 1979 album pH7. Another version, by Michael Alexander, was set by Nicholas Maw as his piece 'The Ruin' for double eight-part chorus and solo horn. Michael Alexander's translation was also used in both Paul Keenan's The Ruin and A Field of Scarecrows.
- Johnson, William C., Jr. "The Ruin" as Body-City Riddle. PQ 59 (1980): 397-411
- Talentino, Arnold V. Moral Irony in The Ruin. Papers on Language and Literature 14 (1978): 171-80
- Anglo-Saxon poetry: an anthology of Old English poems tr. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Dent, 1982 (translation into English prose).
- The Earliest English Poems tr. Michael Alexander. Penguin Classics. (Translation into English verse).
Doubleday, James . "The Ruin: Structure and Theme." Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 71.3 (1972): 369-381. Print.
Leslie, R.F. Three Old English Elegies. Manchester: The University Press, 1961.
- The Ruin in an Anglo-Saxon anthology edited by N. Chadwick and hosted at the Internet Archive
- Old English Text