Rare is this wrought-work, pulled down by design;
civilities collapse: even giants must die.
The roofs unroofed, the towers are down,
their beams unburdened and frost-locked.
All that was raised has fallen,
all in time undermined. Grasped
in the ground in the harsh, gripped
ground: the makers and masons,
their centuries’ kin. Time and again,
bone grey and blooded, this wall
saw storms and stood; no more.
HERE THERE WAS A FIRE.
The mind knew what must be done –
bind the ties, secure the rings,
a foundation of chains – it knew wonders:
such space to move in, such waters to draw,
such far-sight and vantage that voices would sing,
having seen their own tale to sing about.
And then came the change.
And the wrecking was absolute. The end of days.
An end takes even the brave.
Defence gave way to wasteland,
strongholds knelt in the rubble. Those who might have repaired
were nowhere to be found. And now these halls lie empty,
no shade afforded by the
bare roofs, where company once had cause,
something in which to believe:
plans of purpose, the splendour of tomorrow,
vine-ripe, and war-shined;
so much of value to look upon, so precious,
the sheer stones of the earth
and all that came from them:
an unshakable house, a hot spring,
a garden walled on three sides,
some place to bathe,
to heat the heart. That was a moment.
AND HERE ALSO THERE WAS A FIRE.
Notes on this poem
It seems instinctive to put a protective wall around those things that we most cherish, and to hold on to them for as long as we can. But the Anglo Saxons were more fatalistic than we are, as the wyrde gebræcon (fates broken) that opens this eighth-century poem reminds us. They would have marvelled at the scale of construction described, but would see auguries in its demise (brosnað enta geweorc: decay of giants’ work). They believed brave deeds could elevate us to achieve the greatness of heroes, to be immortalised in verse; but they understood, too, that forever is not forever, and that all may be undone in time.
To some readers, the poem laments lost civilisation; to others it flies a revolutionary banner, that tyranny can be overthrown. Scholars have striven to decode an actual place (the city of Bath is commonly identified) and allow us to glimpse the Fall of Rome through the contemporary eyes of our islanders. We might recognise a seam in the poem that runs still deeper and more timelessly: a wisdom tale about the decay of all our lives and relationships.
The poem was untitled when it was copied into the Exeter Book some time in the tenth century. When Conybeare gave us his translation in 1826 he also gave us a title, ‘The Ruined Wall-Stone’; since then it’s been known almost exclusively as ‘The Ruin’. Among the fascinations of the manuscript are the burn marks that render sections of it unknowable. As many as thirteen of its forty-nine lines suffer destruction, unable to escape the demise that they describe.