In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses a minor classic of Anglo-Saxon poetry
It’s a sobering thought that all of the Anglo-Saxon poetry that has survived is found in just four manuscripts which escaped the ravages of time, the pillaging of the Vikings, and the censorship of the Church: the Cotton manuscript (which is our sole source for the long heroic narrative poem Beowulf), the Vercelli book, a collection of manuscripts of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the Exeter Book. Of these, the Anglo-Saxon poetry found in half of these, the Vercelli and Bodleian manuscripts, is exclusively religious: indeed, it’s little more than dramatic paraphrases of Old Testament stories or of Saints’ lives, as Michael Alexander notes in his informative introduction to his translation of Anglo-Saxon verse, The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics). That leaves the Cotton manuscript (whose Anglo-Saxon poetry comprises Beowulf and nothing more) and the Exeter Book. And it’s the Exeter Book that yields a whole host of smaller masterpieces of Old English verse, from ‘The Dream of the Rood’ to ‘The Battle of Maldon’ to ‘The Ruin’ to ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’ and the celebrated riddles.
Of these, ‘The Ruin’ is one of the shortest, partly because it is incomplete: the one surviving manuscript was badly burned in a fire at some point over the last millennium. ‘The Ruin’, aptly enough, survives only as literary ruins. But this also makes it an odd (if inadvertent) precursor to that great modern fragmentary poem about a ruined city, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. When Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound and other modernists (such as the imagist H. D.) were ‘making it new’ in modernist poetry in the early decades of the twentieth century, they looked back to classical fragments as a source of inspiration. Sappho’s poetry may have only survived as fragments and was once whole, but fragments, the modernists realised, could be used as a deliberate literary device to evoke the ruined mess of modern civilisation. These fragments, as Eliot later had it in his 1922 poem, could be shored against our ruins.
In summary, ‘The Ruin’ (or what remains of ‘The Ruin’, anyway) describes a deserted Roman city somewhere in England, most probably Aquae Sulis, now better known as Bath. The poet compares the ruins he sees before him with the mighty structures that once stood there. As the opening line has it, ‘Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon’; or, in Michael Alexander’s translation, ‘Well-wrought this wall: Wierds broke it.’ (‘Wierd’, etymologically related to our modern-day adjective ‘weird’, was an Anglo-Saxon catch-all term that refers to ‘fate’, ‘the way things happen’, and, ultimately, ‘death’.) The poem that follows, over the course of just under 50 lines, refers to ‘towers fallen’, ‘rime on mortar’, ‘roofs ruined’, ‘grey lichen’, the fall of kings, and many other symbols and emblems of decay. The poem is interested in linking stones to people: the ‘wielders and wrights’ who built this mighty city are now ‘long gone’. As the modernist poet T. E. Hulme put it in his own fragmentary meditation on the brevity of life and passing of all things, ‘Old houses were scaffolding once / and workmen whistling.’
As Michael Alexander – the scholar who did so much to bring Anglo-Saxon poetry to a wider audience and who translated ‘The Ruin’ while he was still an undergraduate in 1959 – notes in his prefatory material in The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics), ‘The Romans had held this province for four centuries before the Angles came; and they had been gone three centuries when this poem was written.’ This places ‘The Ruin’ at some point in the eighth century, some six centuries before Chaucer; when we reflect that Chaucer himself, in many ways so remote from us, was six centuries before the modern age, we get a sense of just how long ago ‘The Ruin’ was written.
Alexander invites us to imagine the Anglo-Saxon author of ‘The Ruin’ – whoever he may have been (and assuming it was a ‘he’) – wandering the overgrown streets of the ruined Aquae Sulis, at a time between the heyday of Roman occupation and the rebuilding in stone of much of the city, post-Norman Conquest in 1066. Again, such an idea makes ‘The Ruin’ a remarkable precursor to Symbolist and modernist poems about the city, from Charles Baudelaire’s perambulations around Paris to Hope Mirrlees’ day in the life of the French capital in her extraordinary Paris: A Poem (1919) and T. S. Eliot’s city poems, whether ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, ‘Preludes’, or The Waste Land. In this respect, the anonymous author of ‘The Ruin’ may well be literature’s first flâneur.
You can read the whole of the poem here in both the original Anglo-Saxon and a modern English translation.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.