"Ruin": An Old English Poem

"Ruin" is an Anglo-Saxon or Old English poem similar to "The Wanderer," "The Seafarer," "Resignation," and "Deor" in presenting a lament over worldly ambitions and the folly of social aspirations. The poem describes a ruined city and its collapsed state, imagining what and whom filled the city in its heyday and is now gone. Scholars point to Roman Bath as the probably site described, but clearly the poet intends to identify all earthly projects as evanescent. The ending portion of the poem is corrupted, but by then the poet has labored over his images and made his point.

This version of the poem is an amalgam of the translations by S. A. J. Bradley in his Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London, NY: Dent, 1982), R. K. Gordon's Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London, NY: Dent, 1964), and N. Kershaw's Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922).


Wondrous the stone of these ancient walls, shattered by fate.
The districts of the city have crumbled.
The work of giants of old lies decayed.
Roofs are long tumbled down,
The lofty towers are in ruins.
Frost covers the mortar,
Tiles weathered and fallen, undermined by age.

The original builders are long in the earth's cruel grip,
a hundred generations since have passed.
These broad walls, now reddened and lichen-aged, brown and gray:
once they withstood invading kingdoms.
Now, beneath countless seasons, they have fallen.
The rampart assembled by many, crumbles still,
Though hewn together with skill of sharpening and joining,
Strengthened ingeniously with chain and cabled rib-walls.

In the city, urbane buildings, bathhouses, lofty rooftops,
a glamorous multitude gathered.
Many a mead hall filled with human revelry --
until Fate inexorably changed everything.

All the inhabitants succumbed to pestilence.
Swept away are the great warriors.
Their towers and walls are deserted,
the desolate city crumbles away.
Who could repair any of it,
for they are long dead.

So the courtyards and gates have collapsed,
and the pavilion roofs of vaulted beams crumbled.
Here where once rich men in resplendent clothes, proud, wine-flushed,
gleaming in war trappings, gazed upon their gold and silver treasure,
their gems and precious stones,
upon their wealth, and property:
the bright city of a broad kingdom.

Stone courtyards ran streams of ample water, heating the great bathes,
conveniently flowing into the great stone vats ...

So is it not fitting ... [what has come to pass?].