One of the idols of the modern era is that of Progress: namely, the idea that our culture is inevitably becoming more enlightened, more knowledgeable, more sophisticated and advanced in every way, retaining the advances of previous generations and building upon them. It is a remarkably enduring idol, having survived, slightly battered but intact, the horrors of two World Wars and the catastrophic social changes of the late twentieth century. It is also a remarkably non-partisan idol; even when we disagree greatly on the direction of certain moral or cultural shifts, we assume that progress will continue in the realms of technology and industry – whether we like it or not.

But this confidence that we can always keep what we have gained and build on it is itself a modern view, and is by no means self-evidently true. Our ‘image’ of the way the world works is not the same thing as the reality. As C.S. Lewis observed with regard to the medieval cosmological model, “No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge.”[1]

The elegiac poetry of the early medieval period in England offers a valuable window into a very different way of viewing the life-cycle of civilization. The Anglo-Saxon poets show, as Kevin Crossley-Holland has observed, a keen awareness that “everything man-made will perish, and that there is no withstanding the passing years.”[2] In a moment, we will turn to one specific elegy, “The Ruin,” which is particularly worth our attention; but first we should pause briefly for some historical context.

The British Isles were first settled in about 5,000 BC, by people who built the early stages of Stonehenge, had simple farms, and created mound tombs; later, Celtic peoples arrived from Europe around 750 BC and established a tribal culture. In the first century AD, the Romans invaded, settled into towns and forts, and set up commerce between Britain and Rome. After the early years of conflict and violence, the next several centuries were a time of assimilation in southern Britain, with intermarriage, the development of larger towns, and the diffusion of advanced Roman technology. The Roman baths were a marvel of public architecture, and domestic villas featured central heating, indoor plumbing, and beautiful mosaics.

Roman Britain was a cosmopolitan, technologically advanced culture – and it did not last. Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD; the Roman legions in Britain were called back, and never returned. Large-scale invasions of Britain by Germanic tribes followed, and Britain eventually was divided into seven kingdoms, with Saxon kings in the south and west and Angles in the east and north. Life in “Angle-lond” was centered in small farms and villages, with markedly reduced travel and far simpler, cruder architecture and technology.

The poem “The Ruin” dates from the eighth century, in the middle of the Anglo-Saxon period in the British Isles. What is most significant for our purposes is that inhabitants of England at this time were well aware of the cultural ‘high point’ that had been Roman Britain. From Hadrian’s Wall to the Roman roads, from the ruins of aqueducts and public baths to fragments of mosaics depicting exotic foods, the relics of a more cultured and technologically adept past were literal features of the landscape.

We can imagine our poet wandering through the ruins of a Roman villa, reflecting not just on the melancholy state of the buildings, but on the more subtle and devastating loss of knowledge represented by those crumbling hypocausts and broken water-pipes. The handiwork of past generations represented technological skill beyond the capacity of anyone in the present day.

And so our poet – almost certainly a Christian, drawing upon the imagery of England’s pagan heroic past – reflects upon the scene, giving us the poem now called “The Ruin.” It exists in only one manuscript, the Exeter Book, and has been damaged by fire. Here is the poem in full; the ellipses indicate portions of the text that have been lost.

Wondrous is this masonry, broken by the Fates;

the fortifications have given way, the buildings raised by giants are crumbling.

The roofs have collapsed, the towers are in ruins,

The gates are broken, there is hoarfrost on the mortar,

The walls are rent and broken away, and have fallen,

undermined by age. The earth’s grasp holds the owners and builders,

the ruthless clutch of the grave, while a hundred generations

of mankind have passed away. Often this wall,

Red of hue and hoary with lichen, outlasted kingdom after kingdom,

remained standing under storms; the lofty arch has fallen.

. . .

Resolute in spirit he wondrously bound the walls with wire ties.

There were splendid palaces, and many halls with water flowing through them;

a wealth of gables towered aloft, loud was the clamour of the troops,

many were the mead-halls, full of the joys of life,

until all was shattered by mighty Fate.

The dead lay on all sides. Days of pestilence had come,

and all the warriors were carried off by death.

Their defences became waste places,

the city crumbled. The rebuilders fell;

the troops who should have repaired them lay dead on the earth.

And so these courts lie desolate, and the framework of the dome

with its red arches sheds its tiles. The ruin has fallen,

broken into a heap of stones, where of old many a warrior,

joyous hearted and radiant with gold,

shone resplendent in the harness of battle, proud and flushed with wine.

He gazed upon the treasure, the silver, the precious stones,

upon wealth, riches and pearls,

upon this splendid citadel of a broad domain.

There stood courts of stone, and a stream gushed forth in rippling floods of hot water.

The wall enfolded within its bright bosom the whole place

which contained the hot flood of the baths. That was convenient.

Then they let pour hot streams over gray stone. . . . [3]

The poet paints us a vivid picture of an impressive building fallen to pieces; in his phrase it is enta geweorc, giants’ handiwork.[4] We see later in the poem that he is well aware that the ruin was built by human beings, so this description of ‘giants’ is indicative of his respect for the achievements of those long-ago architects and builders. He offers praise for the skilled man who “wondrously bound the walls with wire ties,” a reference to a building technique, perhaps involving the now-lost Roman method for making a particularly enduring form of concrete. We hear of the “dome / with its red arches,” a reminder that the construction technique of the arch was lost by Anglo-Saxon times and had to be re-invented. The poet invites us to gaze on the scene that is tragic both because of its association with death, and because it represents a shattered past that cannot readily be re-built or recovered.

Without indulging in sentimental excesses of melancholy (the Old English poets were anything but sentimental), “The Ruin” invites us to look squarely at loss and decay, and to face the transience of human endeavor. He does not gloss over it or dismiss the glories of the Roman past as decadent or unimportant, in order to feel better about the state of the present culture. Indeed, perhaps the most touching line in the poem is the poet’s understated observation about indoor plumbing: “That was convenient.”

What does “The Ruin” have to say to us today, in the twenty-first century, where we are surrounded by the most dazzling height of wealth and technology that the world has ever known? That this, too, shall pass: one day all our buildings will be rubble, too. Each one of us will, in due time, feel “the ruthless clutch of the grave.” The poem is a subtle expression of a Christian form of meditation that has slipped out of fashion in the modern era: the memento mori, the reminder of our death. Our poet, who was almost certainly a monk, would have been familiar with the reminder from Genesis 3:19 that is echoed to this day in the Ash Wednesday liturgy of the Catholic Church: “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The poet of “The Ruin” admired and appreciated, as we are right to do, the good things that progress can bring – but he also knew that they are perishable, transient, subject to loss. He would not, I suspect, have had much patience with the modern assumption, all the more pervasive for being unspoken, that history is an endless road upward to bigger and better things. The people of his day lived among reminders of civilizational decline and decay. Rome, that great empire with its vast reach, its technological prowess, its cultural sophistication, its heights of literature and art, was represented in his day by crumbling, lichen-coated walls, broken arches, the memory of war.

In the twenty-first century, we know many things that the poet did not, but perhaps we do not reflect often enough upon something that he certainly knew well: that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

Citation Information

Holly Ordway, “Memento Mori: A Reflection on ‘The Ruin’,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 11-20.

Direct Link:

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.

[2] Kevin Crossley-Holland, Introduction to “The Elegies,” The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: OUP, 1984). 49.

[3] Translation adapted from Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems, edited and translated by N. Kershaw. Cambridge: CUP, 1922. 54-57.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien was fascinated by this evocative phrase, and eventually drew upon it for the name of his Ents.