The Ruin

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For other uses, see Ruins (disambiguation).
Roman pool at Bath, England, which may be the subject of "The Ruin".

The Ruin is an elegy in Old English, written by an unknown author probably in the 8th or 9th century, and published in the 10th century in the Exeter Book, a large collection of poems and riddles.[1] The poem evokes the former glory of a ruined city by juxtaposing the grand, lively past state with the decaying present.

The manuscript[edit]

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.


The poem consists of forty-nine lines (some of which are illegible) describing decayed, broken buildings. The speaker imagines how the towers, walls, baths, and palaces must have looked at the time of their completion and envisions them full of life and action. This imagery is contrasted with the desolate reality of the speaker's time, the buildings having been ruined by time and fate.

Modern literary criticism[edit]


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. Others have suggested Chester, Hadrian's Wall, Babylon of the Apocalypse, or that it does not describe any one city in particular.[2] However, the general consensus among analysts has been that Bath was the city the author was describing throughout the poem.[3] There are three features distinctly referred to in the poem that when used conjunctively could only be in the city of Bath: the hot spring mentioned at the end of the poem (as opposed to artificially heated water), the mention that there were many bathing halls, and the mention of a circular pool also at the end of the poem. Furthermore, the description of the decay matches Bath's probable appearance in the first half of the eighth century.[4]


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."[5] Johnson further sees the poem as a metaphor for human existence, a demonstration that all beauty must come to an end. From this perspective, 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. Similarly, Alain Renoir points to the author's use of the word "wyrde," meaning "fate," as the reason for the buildings' decay, implying the inevitable transience of man-made things: "that all human splendor, like human beings themselves, is doomed to destruction and oblivion."[6]

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."[7]

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.

"The Ruin" shares the melancholic worldview of some of its contemporary poems such as The Seafarer, The Wanderer and Deor. But unlike "The Wanderer" and other elegies, "The Ruin" does not employ the ubi sunt formula.[8] Renoir and R.F. Leslie also note that while "The Wanderer" has a moral purpose, "The Ruin" has a detached tone.[9][10]

Modern musical settings[edit]

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. An excerpt of the poem set to ambient music is featured in the 2010 BBC documentary "Requiem for Detroit."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Anne L. Klinck (2001), The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study, McGill-Queen's Press, pp. 13–16, 61–63, ISBN 0773522417 
  2. ^ Renoir, Alain (1983). "The Old English Ruin: Contrastive Structure and Affective Impact". In Green, Martin. The Old English elegies. Rutherford [N.J.]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 149. ISBN 0-8386-3141-X. 
  3. ^ Leslie, R.F. (1961). Three Old English Elegies (1 ed.). Manchester: The University Press. pp. 23–27. ISBN 9780859891844. 
  4. ^ Leslie, ed., R. F. (1988). Three old English elegies (Rev. ed.). Manchester: Univ. of Exeter. p. 28. ISBN 9780859891844. 
  5. ^ Johnson, William C., Jr. "The Ruin" as Body-City Riddle. PQ 59 (1980): 397-411
  6. ^ Renoir, Alain (1983). "The Old English Ruin: Contrastive Structure and Affective Impact". In Green, Martin. The Old English elegies. Rutherford [N.J.]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 157. ISBN 0-8386-3141-X. 
  7. ^ Talentino, Arnold V. Moral Irony in The Ruin. Papers on Language and Literature 14 (1978): 171-80
  8. ^ Kennedy, Charles W (1936). Old English Elegies. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 21. 
  9. ^ Renoir, Alain (1983). "The Old English Ruin: Contrastive Structure and Affective Impact". In Green, Martin. The Old English elegies. Rutherford [N.J.]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 150. ISBN 0-8386-3141-X. 
  10. ^ Leslie, ed. by R. F. (1988). Three old English elegies (Rev. ed.). Manchester: Univ. of Exeter. p. 30. ISBN 9780859891844. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.

External links[edit]