"The Ruin": Seeing the Beginning in the End

The Anglo-Saxon poem "The Ruin" is found in the Exeter Book, which was compiled during the later tenth century as part of the English Benedictine revival under the bishopric of St. Dunstan. It is the largest extant collection of Anglo-Saxon works, and its contents can be split into three major genres: religious poetry, gnomic poetry or riddles, and elegies. "The Ruin" is considered one of these elegies, as it expresses a mournful lament over the loss and deterioration of, not just one particular ruined city, but for all life in all times and places. All things must change and know decay. The poet, as he regards the ruined stones of what was once a great city, feels this keenly and laments that it must be so.

The poet moves back and forth between lamenting the state of the ruined city as he gazes upon it, to praising the builders of it and the greatness it must have had when it was at the height of its glory. Throughout the poem, we see this dual motion, back and forth between the present decay and the past decadence. The poet allows us to experience this kind of double-vision effect in which we can see at the same time the ruins he sees with his physical eye and the bright city he sees with the eye of his mind or his imagination. We are given this kind of overlay effect in which the image of a bustling, lively city is laid over its ruined foundations. The poet uses this to marvelous effect, because what are ruins if you have no knowledge of what they once represented? Without the knowledge of the past, ruins are just a heap of rocks stacked together. But, if you are aware somehow of the original purpose of the ruin, the people who lived there, how they lived there , what their lives were like before, you are given some sort of connection with the place itself and it becomes so much more than a pile of rocks. It becomes instead a monument. Those stacked stones become a memorial of a people, a culture, a human connection that stirs our own humanity to reach out across time and greet our ancestors, the past members of our human family.

I felt this very strongly when I was in England myself; I was really able to feel the difference between those two states of mind at certain sites of ruins. I had no interest in Stonehenge. Stonehenge, to me, was nothing but stacked rocks. They may be impressive to look at, but they meant nothing to me. I couldn't tell what they were for, why anyone would have built them, or what kind of function they were supposed to have in people's lives. I couldn't find any human connection to them, so I felt no interest in seeing them. When I went to visit the ruins of Whitby Abbey, however, I was overwhelmed by the sense of connection to people from another time. I walked the main aisles of what used to be the chapel of the abbey, and I could look around it and say to myself, "This is where the high altar would have been. And this is where all the monks and nuns would have knelt for prayer. And this is where the chantry would have been. And this is where the dormitories were." In every stone I touched, I felt the very real and very human presence of my brothers and sisters in Christ from over a thousand years ago, saying the same prayers and worshiping in the same way and attending the same Mass. When I touched the stone of a ruined pillar that used to hold the roof of the abbey up, I would think to myself, "Abbess Hild may have touched this exact same stone. And Caedmon may have walked these exact same floors." There was that experience of seeing the abbey come alive before my eyes and watching the Benedictines go about their lives in the 7th or 8th century.

The poet, too, allows us to experience this sort of imaginative passage through time in which we see the city as it might have looked before it was ruined. We are given images of a bright and prosperous city. Everything is beautiful and well-built: "Bright were the city-houses, many the bathhouses, / high the horn-treasure, great the army-noise" and "many a man, / glad-hearted and gold-bright, adorned in glory, / proud and wine-flushed, his war-gear shone; / he looked on treasure, on silver, on crafted gems, / on riches, on goods, on precious stones, / on this brights city, broad of rule". This is a beautiful and thriving place. But, as the poet relates, there was a plague and all the people died. The poet uses an incredible metaphor to talk about this in which he says that the city was "broken into a barrow": the entire city had been transformed into a grave. These ruins are a monument to the dead. Perhaps a more depressing way of looking at it is that these people built their own tomb.

There is a type of elegaic writing that is characterized by the Latin phrase ubi sunt? -- where are they now? The ubi sunt elegaic poetry reflects on the splendor of the past and laments its absence in the present, asking where all of these splendid things have gone. Tolkien provides us with a beautiful version of such ubi sunt elegies in the voice of King Theoden in The Two Towers when he recites the poem that begins "Where now are the horse and rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?" In this scene, Theoden is lamenting the glorious past of the Rohirrim, the greatness of his forefathers, and how, if the battle for Helm's Deep goes ill, everything his forefathers worked so hard to create will be lost forever. We see this sentiment also in "The Ruin". The poet reflects on the accomplishments of these great men of the past, but where are they now? They are all dead and everything they built has come to ruin. There is a pragmatic realism in this, although somewhat dreary, because it is impossible to escape the mutability of time and change. It is impossible to escape death and decay. No matter what we build today, we will be gone tomorrow. All that remains are ruins and bones, and eventually even those will disappear. The poet reflects on the temporary nature of greatness, of beauty, and of life: it all must come to an end.

This poet does not give us any real hope for the future, which is typical of the pagan Anglo-Saxon mindset, in which the best thing you could do with your life is die gloriously so you will be remembered. A glorious memory is the only kind of immortality you can achieve. However, this is also the point where Christianity will step in to bridge the gap between death and triumph by revealing the triumph of Christ over death itself. The glory of the Anglo-Saxon man is no longer to be found in the memory of battle-glory, but in the reality of heavenly glory where he will feast in triumph with his Lord and his ancestors forever. This mentality emerges in many of the Anglo-Saxon elegies, such as "The Sea-Farer", "The Wanderer", and most especially in "The Dream of the Rood".

In meditating on today's ruins, we are brought back to the glory of the past, of youth, it brightness, its vibrancy, and its hope. In contemplating these memorials of the past, we see the reality of our future: this world is passing away, and so are we. To place our hope in this world is to place our hope in folly. No one can escape the reality of death and decay, no matter how great the civilization they might build for themselves. Even memory is not a good enough guarantor of immortality; after all, no one remembers who built Stonehenge or why. Although the poet of "The Ruin" offers what help he can in immortalizing the people who lived in his ruin through his poetic imagination, it is left to later Christian writers to add a new dimension of supernatural hope to the human question of ubi sunt? -- where are they now?


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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