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NaPoTraMo 5: The Ruin

April 5, 2010

Today’s poem is part of a text from the Old English Exeter Book, subject of a question on last week’s University Challenge (which I got, and neither of the teams did), and describes a city abandoned and falling apart: The Ruin.

The Ruin is a strange one. Nobody is quite sure what city it describes – if it describes a real city and not a composite or fantasy – and the detail seemingly referring to hot springs has confused many. There is the added problem that, curiously appositely, the poem itself is half destroyed: a burn mark disfigures the single manuscript, rendering a large chunk of the middle of the text illegible.

Some attempts have been made to fill in the gap coherently, but many more editions have preferred simply to translate such bits as can be made out, and leave the middle of the text, like the city it describes, a half-comprehensible, tantalising wreck. (I have simply left a gap, and picked up again at the next translatable sentence.)

This one sort of began as iambic pentameter, but didn’t sit quite right in that metre. It is now something still recognisably not-prose, but looser and less structured, which I think is appropriate given the subject matter.

Fate broke these wall-stones that were once a wonder:
the walls are burst that seemed the work of giants;
the roofs are fallen, towers stand in ruins,
the barred gate hangs open; frost split the mortar
of the shelters – split and gapped, fallen away,
the old eaten away below. Earth holds fast
the mighty who built here, decayed, gone down
to the hard grip of the ground; since then,
a hundred generations of men are gone.
This wall, lichened and reddened, withstood the storms
as kingdoms rose and fell. The great gate is fallen . . .

Bright were those dwellings: many bathing-places,
high horned gables, noise and bustle,
many a mead-hall full of men’s gladness –
until it came that changing Fate destroyed it.
The walls are fallen; come are the days of woe;
death took away all the hosts of men . . .

Translates ll. 1-12 and 22-27 of The Ruin; original Old English text can be found here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    April 5, 2010 11:31 pm

    The Ruin! Wonderful poem, and an admirable translation. As for form: did you consider something akin to the form of the original? Some of the lines in your translation have an alliterative knit to them (“Fate broke these wall-stones that were once a wonder”), and it might work to extend that throughout.

    Today: Jacques Prévert. Having established a trend when I turned a 57-line Arnaut Daniel poem into 37 lines in English, I now play fast and loose with my source again by turning Prévert’s six lines into seven. My excuse for the extra line is that I had to put something new in to compensate for the diminution of the excellent pun “Doux présent du présent”.


    an orange on the table
    your dress on the carpet
    and you in my bed
    you present me with this present
    if only for the present:
    the coolness of the night
    the heat of life

    Original French text here, along with a bunch of other poems:

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