It was the Romantics who really showed us the strange, haunting power of a ruined castle or abbey, although images of ruin and desolation, castles and palaces laid waste, and other such symbols of decay are as old as poetry itself. Below, we introduce ten of the most evocative poems about castles, ruins, and sites of decay.
Percy Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive …
So begins this classic sonnet and one of Shelley’s most popular poems. ‘Ozymandias’ is about the remains of a statue of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh found in the desert, but the poem – written in 1818 – may also have indirectly been about the British government and the ailing, mad king, George III.
William Barnes, ‘The Castle Ruins’. Before Thomas Hardy, there was Hardy’s great mentor, the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes (1801-86). Here, Barnes brilliantly describes a day’s outing to the ruins of Sturminster Newton castle in Dorset:
A happy day at Whitsuntide,
As soon ’s the zun begun to vall,
We all strolled up the steep hill-zide
To Meldon, gret an’ small;
Out where the Castle wall stood high
A-mwoldrèn to the zunny sky …
Robert Browning, ‘Love among the Ruins’. This poem from 1855 opens Browning’s first truly successful collection as a poet, Men and Women. A deserted city is the backdrop for a romantic narrative poem spoken by a man as he waits for his beloved:
Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward thro’ the twilight, stray or stop
As they crop—
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
(So they say)
Of our country’s very capital, its prince
Held his court in, gathered councils, wielding far
Peace or war …
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Castles in Spain’. Longfellow wrote several poems on Spanish subjects, but this castle-themed poem is our favourite. It contains the lines:
How like a ruin overgrown
With flowers that hide the rents of time
Stands now the Past that I have known;
Castles in Spain, not built of stone,
But of white summer cloud, and blown
Into this little mist of rhyme …
Emily Dickinson, ‘Crumbling is Not an Instant’s Act’.
Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Are organized Decays —
‘Ruin is formal’, Dickinson declares towards the end of this poem about the decay and dilapidation of buildings over time: buildings are allowed to fall into ruin, and it is up to us to preserve them for ourselves and for those who come after us.
Christina Rossetti, ‘A Castle-Builder’s World’. This late poem from the 1880s by the prolific Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-94) is short enough to be quoted in full below – a haunting evocation of a ghost-ridden castle:
‘The line of confusion, and the stones
Unripe harvest there hath none to reap it
From the misty gusty place,
Unripe vineyard there hath none to keep it
In unprofitable space.
Living men and women are not found there,
Only masks in flocks and shoals;
Flesh-and-bloodless hazy masks surround there,
Ever wavering orbs and poles;
Flesh-and-bloodless vapid masks abound there,
Shades of bodies without souls.
Thomas Hardy, ‘At Castle Boterel’. One of a series of poems Hardy wrote in 1912-13 following the death of his estranged first wife, Emma, ‘At Castle Boterel’ recalls the visits the couple made when they first began courting:
Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is—that we two passed …
Alice Meynell, ‘Builders of Ruins’.
We build with strength, the deep tower wall
That shall be shattered thus and thus.
And fair and great are court and hall,
But how fair—this is not for us,
Who know the lack that lurks in all.
Meynell (1847-1922) is not read much now, but in her lifetime she was a popular poet and suffragist, who became a vice-president of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League. In this 1921 poem, Meynell romanticises rather than laments the beauty of ruins that were once brand-new marble buildings.
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land. A poem about the ruin of an entire civilisation, Eliot’s 1922 modernist masterpiece The Waste Land features ‘empty cisterns’, ‘falling towers’, and the famous line: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’ So this poem had to feature on this list of great poems about ruins!
Derek Walcott, ‘Ruins of a Great House’. In a poem that speaks of the ‘leprosy of empire’, we get a complex response to the British colonial mission in the West Indies from one of the greatest English-language poets to emerge from the Caribbean: Derek Walcott. Adopting the by-then-familiar trope of the Gothic house in decay, Walcott offers a new take on this old image, musing on the legacy of those ‘evil times’.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.