The Ruin In A Modern English Translation Poem by Michael Burch

The Ruin In A Modern English Translation

THE RUIN in a Modern English Translation

'The Ruin' is one of the great poems of English antiquity. This modern English translation of one of the very best Old English/Anglo-Saxon poems is followed by footnotes, a summary and analysis, a discussion of the theme, and the translator's comments.

loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

well-hewn was this wall-stone, till Wyrdes wrecked it
and the Colossus sagged inward...

broad battlements broken;
the Builders' work battered;

the high ramparts toppled;
tall towers collapsed;

the great roof-beams shattered;
gates groaning, agape...

mortar mottled and marred by scarring hoar-frosts...
the Giants' dauntless strongholds decaying with age...

shattered, the shieldwalls,
the turrets in tatters...

where now are those mighty Masons, those Wielders and Wrights,
those Samson-like Stonesmiths?

the grasp of the earth, the firm grip of the ground
holds fast those fearless Fathers
men might have forgotten
except that this slow-rotting siege-wall still stands
after countless generations!

for always this edifice, grey-lichened, blood-stained,
stands facing fierce storms with their wild-whipping winds
because those master Builders bound its wall-base together
so cunningly with iron!

it outlasted mighty kings and their claims!

how high rose those regal rooftops!
how kingly their castle-keeps!
how homely their homesteads!
how boisterous their bath-houses and their merry mead-halls!
how heavenward flew their high-flung pinnacles!
how tremendous the tumult of those famous War-Wagers...
till mighty Fate overturned it all, and with it, them.

then the wide walls fell;
then the bulwarks were broken;
then the dark days of disease descended...

as death swept the battlements of brave Brawlers;
as their palaces became waste places;
as ruin rained down on their grand Acropolis;
as their great cities and castles collapsed
while those who might have rebuilt them lay gelded in the ground:
those marvelous Men, those mighty master Builders!

therefore these once-decorous courts court decay;
therefore these once-lofty gates gape open;
therefore these roofs' curved arches lie stripped of their shingles;
therefore these streets have sunk into ruin and corroded rubble...

when in times past light-hearted Titans flushed with wine
strode strutting in gleaming armor, adorned with splendid ladies' favors,
through this brilliant city of the audacious famous Builders
to compete for bright treasure: gold, silver, amber, gemstones.

here the cobblestoned courts clattered;
here the streams gushed forth their abundant waters;
here the baths steamed, hot at their fiery hearts;
here this wondrous wall embraced it all, with its broad bosom.

... that was spacious...

Footnotes and Translator's Comments
by Michael R. Burch


'The Ruin' is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem. It appears in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to around 960-990 AD. However, the poem may be older than the manuscript, since many ancient poems were passed down orally for generations before being written down. The poem is an elegy or lament for the works of 'mighty men' of the past that have fallen into disrepair and ruins. Ironically, the poem itself was found in a state of ruin. There are holes in the vellum upon which it was written. It appears that a brand or poker was laid to rest on the venerable book. It is believed the Exeter Book was also used as a cutting board and beer mat. Indeed, we are lucky to have as much of the poem as we do.


The author is an unknown Anglo-Saxon scop (poet) .


'The Ruin' may be classified as an elegy, eulogy, dirge and/or lament, depending on how one interprets it.


The poem's theme is one common to Anglo-Saxon poetry and literature: that man and his works cannot escape the hands of wyrde (fate) , time and death. Thus men can only face the inevitable with courage, resolve, fortitude and resignation. Having visited Bath myself, I can easily understand how the scop who wrote the poem felt, and why, if I am interpreting the poem correctly.


The plot of 'The Ruin' seems rather simple and straightforward: Things fall apart. The author of the poem blames Fate for the destruction he sees. The builders are described as 'giants.'


'The Ruin' is an alliterative poem; it uses alliteration rather than meter and rhyme to 'create a flow' of words. This was typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry.


When the Romans pulled their legions out of Britain around 400 BC, primarily because they faced increasing threats at home, they left behind a number of immense stone works, including Hadrian's Wall, various roads and bridges, and cities like Bath. Bath, known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis, is the only English city fed by hot springs, so it seems likely that the city in question is Bath. Another theory is that the poem refers to Hadrian's Wall and the baths mentioned were heated artificially. The Saxons, who replaced the Romans as rulers of most of Britain, used stone only for churches and their churches were small. So it seems safe to say that the ruins in question were created by Roman builders.


My personal interpretation of the poem is that the poet is simultaneously impressed by the magnificence of the works he is viewing, and discouraged that even the works of the mighty men of the past have fallen to ruin.

Analysis of Characters and References

There are no characters, per se, only an anonymous speaker describing the ruins and the men he imagines to have built things that have survived so long despite battles and the elements.

Related Poems

Other Anglo-Saxon/Old English poems: The Ruin, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife's Lament, Deor's Lament, Caedmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song, The Seafarer, Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings

Keywords/Tags: Anglo-Saxon, Old English, England, translation, elegy, lament, lamentation, Bath, Roman, giant, giants, medieval, builders, ruin, ruins, wall, walls, fate

Bede's Death Song
ancient Old English/Anglo-Saxon lyric poem, circa 735 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Facing Death, that inescapable journey,
who can be wiser than he
who reflects, while breath yet remains,
on whether his life brought others happiness, or pains,
since his soul may yet win delight's or night's way
after his death-day.

Bede's 'Death Song' is one of the best poems of the fledgling English language now known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon English. Written circa 735 AD, the poem may have been composed by Bede on his death-bed. It is the most-copied Old English poem, with 45 extant versions. The poem is also known as 'Bede's Lament.' It was glossed by a 13th century scribe known as the Tremulous Hand of Worchester because of the 'shaky' nature of his handwriting.

Was the celebrated scholar known and revered as the Venerable Bede also one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon poets? The answer appears to be 'yes, ' since Bede was 'doctus in nostris carminibus' ('learned in our song') according to his most famous disciple, Saint Cuthbert.

Cuthbert's letter on Bede's death, the 'Epistola Cuthberti de obitu Bedae, ' is commonly taken by modern scholars to indicate that Bede composed the five-line vernacular Anglo-Saxon poem known as 'Bede's Death Song.' However, there is no way to be certain that Bede was the poem's original author.

Bede (673-735) is known today as Saint Bede, Good Bede and Venerable Bede (Latin: Beda Venerabilis) . One may thus conclude that he was held in extremely high regard by his peers. The name Bede may be related to the Anglo-Saxon word for prayer, 'bed.'

Bede was a English Benedictine monk of the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and of its companion monastery Saint Paul's in Wearmouth-Jarrow. Both monasteries were at the time part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. Bede, a distinguished scholar, had access to a library which included works by Eusebius and Orosius, among others. His most famous work, 'Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum' ('The Ecclesiastical History of the English People') , has resulted in Bede being called 'the Father of English History.' Bede has also been called the 'Father of the footnote' because he was 'the first author in any language to rigorously trace his sources, and as a result he set a precedent of scholarly accuracy for writers across the range of disciplines.' He was also a skilled linguist and translator whose Latin and Greek writings contributed significantly to early English Christianity.

Friday, May 14, 2021
Topic(s) of this poem: old,england,translation,elegy,lament,lamentation,giant,medieval,ruins,fate
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