translated with commentary by Jesse Glass
Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,
scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene,
ældo undereotone. Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan. Oft þæs wag gebad
ræghar ond readfah rice æfter oþrum,
ofstonden under stormum; steap geap gedreas.
Wonað giet se …num geheapen,
…g orþonc ærsceaft
…g lamrindum beag
mod mo… …yne swiftne gebrægd
hwætred in hringas, hygerof gebond
weallwalan wirum wundrum togædre.
Beorht wæron burgræced, burnsele monige,
heah horngestreon, heresweg micel,
meodoheall monig mondreama full,
oþþæt þæt onwende wyrd seo swiþe.
Crungon walo wide, cwoman woldagas,
swylt eall fornom secgrofra wera;
wurdon hyra wigsteal westen staþolas,
brosnade burgsteall. Betend crungon
hergas to hrusan. Forþon þas hofu dreorgiað,
ond þæs teaforgeapa tigelum sceadeð
hrostbeages hrof. Hryre wong gecrong
gebrocen to beorgum, þær iu beorn monig
glædmod ond goldbeorht gleoma gefrætwed,
wlonc ond wingal wighyrstum scan;
seah on sinc, on sylfor, on searogimmas,
on ead, on æht, on eorcanstan,
on þas beorhtan burg bradan rices.
Stanhofu stodan, stream hate wearp
widan wylme; weal eall befeng
beorhtan bosme, þær þa baþu wæron,
hat on hreþre. þæt wæs hyðelic.
Leton þonne geotan
ofer harne stan hate streamas
…þþæt hringmere hate
þær þa baþu wæron.
…re; þæt is cynelic þing,
huse …… burg….
Wondrous this masonry, broken by fate:
Racked courtyards, giants’ work canting.
Roof tiles wrecked, stone towers leaning
Rime-scored gates agape, frost upon mortar.
These storm-protectors, caved-in, collapsed,
Undone by the ages. Grasp of the earth holds
The legendary Builders, long perished, passed away
In fierce grave-grip, 100 generations lost
To mortal life. Often these walls
Red-stained, gray with lichens, stood stalwart
Storm-stressed, for Kingdom upon Kingdom
While airy structures fell, yet still this masonry
Endures hard winds … thresholds gullied
Struck through ……………………………e
Deeply gashed ………………………
Ingenious monuments, anciently constructed
Dry mud crusts them.
A cunning mind paced out these circles
Edged rock for resolute ends, foundations
Held wonderfully together by metal means.
Here was a fine city hall, streets of bath houses,
Martial music; mead halls where men drank,
Dreamed together. Fate changed all that.
Pestilence slaughtered good and valiant men.
This place fell apart, its rebuilders
Trooped into clay. Therefore
The halls are broken, red tiles curve on nothing,
All is open: the inner roof arch visible,
Ruins canted on earth, fallen
To stone mounds. Here in former days
Warriors laughed, splendidly adorned,
Laved with gold luster. Proud and wine
Wise in glinting armor, they gazed
On silver, treasure stones, jewelry
Land-gifts, wealth, within this spacious
Kingdom of lights.
Stone building: hot gushing steam,
A broad surge walled within a painted
Enclosure; there the pools filled by themselves
From the earth aboil; that was convenient;
To allow them to pour th…
Scalding streams over gray stone
Until that circular pool. Hot
………………………………there the baths were
………………………re; that is a noble thing
How that b…………burg.
Scholars believe that “The Ruin” describes the city of Bath, England, four hundred or more years after the Roman withdrawal. As with all things having to do with Old English literature, we’re never quite sure who is speaking about what, though sometimes as in “Deor” and “Wulf and Eadwacer” — also from the Exeter Book — it appears that a single human voice commenting on loss, exile, and change is doing the talking. The learned debates are endless, however, and continue to rage on.
So a caution is in order for anyone attempting to read, and virtually everyone attempting to translate, Old English: things appear to be what they may not be. We simply do not have sufficient context to come to more than provisional conclusions concerning these texts. Were they songs? Riddles? There is a distinctly Romantic feeling about the poem, as in Shelley’s great “Ozymandias” that could easily fit the sentiment of “The Ruin,” yet this interpretation — we are cautioned by scholars — would be as mistaken as those unfamiliar with the late 18th century “Balloon Craze” misinterpreting accounts of balloonists lost among the Continental clouds as flying saucer reports. Surely “The Ruin” could be situated within a moralizing tradition that may be traced all the way back to Sumer and Ur; others would say that the idea of Fate and change is distinctly Anglo-Saxon and pre-Christian, while the same case could be made as it is with Beowulf of a late gilding of Christianity imposed when the pagan text was first written down from its oral sources — we can guess, but we don’t know for sure.
On a more particular level, the words themselves seem to resemble the small change of linguistic give and take that we use in our modern lives, yet most of the original Anglo Saxon is freighted with something distinctly Other. Begin with that first word wraetlic, in the first line of “The Ruin,” which the Anglo-Saxon dictionary tells us means “wonderful,” or “wondrous”; yet there is another feeling that apparently edges this word as a black border frames a Victorian death notice, and that is the chill of the “uncanny.” Peter Ackroyd, a writer I sincerely enjoy, in a recent collection of “true” ghost stories* tells us that wraetlic means “wraith-like” or ghostly. I have not seen this reading of the word in any dictionary that I’ve consulted, though that does not mean the reading is necessarily a false one. Though I don’t quite see how ancient stone-work could be ghost-like, I do understand that another dimension, a frisson, which the word “wondrous” does not quite catch, could exist in its Anglo-Saxon ancestor. Perhaps that tingling, hair-raising, dimension is what the original Anglo-Saxon of “The Ruin” contains in its depths — a feeling that words like wyrde “Fate” and enta “giants” does not quite communicate to us anymore in these sophisticated, post-post-modern times. Therefore, with this small observation in mind, one might see that a translation of “The Ruin” into modern English — even one attempting to give an illusion of the prosody of the original as this one does — could miss out on conveying what might be a whole different level of understanding.
I’m reminded of another experience I had of translating a famous poem by the Japanese experimental haiku master Santoka. The poem goes like this: Wake itte mo, wake itte mo, aoi yama. It’s very simple and it means quite literally: “Push apart/ Enter/ Push apart/ Enter/ Blue-green mountain.” In Japanese it is even more minimal than that, if it’s possible — yet it is very specific. It gives just enough information, and it works in an extraordinary manner. In English one has to answer some basic questions in order to do a successful translation. Who is pushing apart what and going where? So quickly you realize that to translate this — or any — poem, is a matter of choices and interpretations. When I had finally gotten to the point where I thought I could translate Santoka’s great haiku, my class of older Japanese ladies informed me that there was yet one other level to the push apart sequence, and that was the sound. Sound? I said. Indeed — the sound of a work-song, they told me. How incredible that I had missed it! If something as simple as Santoka’s handful of phonemes could hold within it this “ghost” of connotation, imagine all that could be missed in translating a text as fragmentary and multivalent — indeed as “wraith-like” — as “The Ruin.”
Yet a final note regarding this poem concerning sound. Please say this poem aloud as you read it, because that’s exactly how the original was written — as an approximation of something originally spoken, chanted, sung. Something for the ear.
*The English Ghost. London: Chatto & Windus, 2010. Pg. 2.
Jesse Glass (Wikipedia page) lives near Tokyo with his wife and family. He is the co-founder and general editor of Ahadada Books and the journal Eklesographia, and is currently translating the great O.E. poem “The Wanderer.”