This poem is fascinating in that it seems to anticipate Shelley and Ozymandias by almost a thousand years. It describes in some depth the ruins of a Roman city, which has fallen into decay and disrepair, and juxtaposing that imagery with the thoughts of life that must have once flourished there. By the time this poem was written in the 8th or 9th century, the ruins being described (it’s not entirely clear which ones specifically are in the poet’s heart, or if they’re even meant to) had probably been abandoned for centuries already. It’s often worth remembering just how much time really passed during the Middle Ages, and how distant a memory the glory of Rome truly was.
The Ruin comes to us from a manuscript called the Book of Exeter, and unfortunately the poem as we have it is incomplete because of fire damage to the book itself. This translation comes from one of my favorite poetry collections. The poem itself is anonymous.
Well-wrought this wall-stone which fate has broken:
The city bursts, the works of giants crumbles.
Roofs are fallen, towers in ruins,
The gate is gone, frost on the mortar,
The shelters in shards, open to showers,
Eaten by age. Earth has in its grasp
Ruler and workman, removed now, perished,
Held fast in the ground while a hundred generations
Went from the land. This wall remained,
Stood under storms, will all around perished.
Bright were the buildings, many bath-houses,
High-gabled homes, and the sound of soldiers,
Many a mead-hall where men enjoyed themselves
Until mighty fate overturned all.
Many men fell in the days of wrath;
Death took all the valor of earth.
Bulwarks became wrecked foundations,
A fortress in fragments. The builders perished.
Defenders gone unver. The courtyard is dreary;
The arch of red stone, the roof with its rafters,
Shed their tiles, and they slip to the earth,
A broken mound. Once many men
Glad and gold-bright, in gleaming array,
Proud and wine-flushed, shone in war-apparel;
Saw the treasure, the silver, the well-set jewels,
RIches, possessions, precious stones,
In the bright fortress of a broad kingdom.
Stone courts stood, the hot stream came
In its broad whelm; a wall enclosed all
Within its bosom. There the baths were,
Hot in the midst. It was a haven.
Translated by Michael O’Brien,
Printed in World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse From Antiquity To Our Time