By Danièle Cybulskie
Because of the distance between ourselves and the Middle Ages, it’s easy to see that time as firmly in the past, an artifact for us to look at. What may not immediately be obvious to us, though, is that medieval people stood in our place and imagined back towards ancient times that were beyond their own memories, too, reflecting on what kind of people might have come before them. The early medieval English were particularly great at this.
The Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501), famous for its riddles, there are a couple of elegiac poems, the most famous of which is probably The Wanderer – the inspiration for Tolkien’s Lament for the Rohirrim. But there is another, more cryptic elegy called The Ruin, which I find extremely compelling (I’m partial to a translation I found by Roy Liuzza, which I’m using here). In this poem, the speaker is gazing over a ruined landscape, possibly Bath, or (as Graeme Davis has proposed) Stonehenge. He describes the architecture, so carefully created by unknown builders, gradually left to tumble into decay:
Wondrous is this foundation – the fates have broken
and shattered this city; the work of giants crumbles.
The roofs are ruined, the towers toppled,
frost in the mortar has broken the gate,
torn and worn and shorn by the storm,
eaten through with age.
This type of reflection on the mightiest of human endeavours coming to dust is a common one in the literature and art of the Middle Ages, a time in which people had a near constant focus on the afterlife, thanks to the teachings of the church. There are other medieval works that fall under the category of “Ubi Sunt” (“Where Are”) poems that reflect on the transient nature of human beings in the face of the eternal. But unlike Ubi sunt qui ante noe fuerunt?, The Ruin is missing some of its words, stealing the focus away from the Christian moral which may have accompanied it at one time, and leaving the focus on the speaker’s vivid portrait of what the ruin might have been like in its glory days:
The ruins toppled to the ground,
broken into rubble, where once many a man
glad-minded, gold-bright, bedecked in splendor,
proud, full of wine, shone in his war-gear,
gazed on treasure, on silver, on sparkling gems,
on wealth, on possessions, on the precious stone,
on this bright capital of a broad kingdom.
Besides being chillingly beautiful, this is one of those fantastic moments for literature scholars in which, by describing what life might have been like in a former time, the poet reveals something of his own age: what people of his time thought glory days should be like. Although he is looking back at a time so far removed from his own that the buildings have crumbled, the poet can share with us his thoughts on what he believes was valued: good wine, weapons and armour, and vast material wealth. For him to imagine it, he had to have had a concept of what a great celebration and glorious capital city might entail, which reveals as much about him as it does about the ruin. The poem is rich with possibility, while its missing lines keep it extremely mysterious. As Liuzza remarks in his footnote, “The poem, appropriately, trails off into incoherent decay.”
I love The Ruin, because it collapses my vision of the past and the poet’s vision of the past into one. Poet and reader are both imagining mead halls and warm baths, mountains of treasure and victorious warriors in a place where only traces remain. The poem provides one of those wonderful moments to reflect on a reflection; it shows us the way dreamers of the past imagined the past, and reminds me of the way in which we stand on medieval ruins and do the very same thing – sometimes imagining the very same thing.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading Anglo-Saxon poetry, this little pdf of Roy Liuzza’s is a great place to start, as it contains both The Wanderer and The Ruin. For alternative translations (just for fun!) read a modern translation by Siân Echard side-by-side with the original Old English, or try the Graeme Davis translation which he believes points to Stonehenge. Whichever translation you choose, I hope you enjoy this beautiful little dream of the past from the past.
Follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter: @5MinMedievalist