Poem: The Ruin

Fictitious Temple in Silchester, c.500 CE

Fictitious Temple in Silchester, c.500 CE

In previous posts, I’ve published some of my own efforts at poetry. This time, I’m publishing a poem by someone else, called “The Ruin”. However, I’m not worried about copyright infringement issues, because not only is the work very long out of copyright, but in fact nobody knows who wrote it!

My watercolor painting above, showing the ruins of a fictitious Roman temple in what’s now England, was partially inspired by the poem. However, the poem I’m discussing here is thought to refer to the city of Bath, while, for various reasons, my ruin was supposed to be in Silchester.

Before discussing the history of the poem, and some thoughts on Roman ruins in Britain, here is the poem itself in the original Old English. (In a previous post on my professional blog, I discussed some of the letters used in Old English, and which appear here.)

Of course, English has changed so much during the past thousand years that no speaker of Modern English can read this without treating it as a foreign language. Nonetheless, the original poem has a beautiful flow and structure, which can be appreciated even if you don’t understand what it actually says.

Unfortunately, the surviving manuscript of the poem is damaged, such that some of the text is either unreadable or missing. In the rendering below, the ellipses show where text is illegible. The punctuation is modern.

The Ruin (Old English)

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,

fel on …

grimme gegrunden …


scan heo…

…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.

þonne is …

…re; þæt is cynelic þing,

huse… burg…

The Waters of Sul

As I mentioned above, it is frequently suggested that the poem describes the remains of the City of Aquae Sulis (“the Waters of Sul”) — the modern City of Bathbut that’s simply an educated guess. The manuscript provides no helpful footnotes nor explanatory detail, so the actual subject of the poem will probably never be known for sure.

Aquae Sulis probably succumbed to a similar fate to that of other conurbations, falling into disrepair some time soon after the empire’s legions were withdrawn from Britannia in 410 CE. After the Roman engineers departed, their Anglo-Saxon replacements were either unable or unwilling to maintain the complex stone buildings, and so either left them to disintegrate, or else removed the materials for other uses. Very little is known regarding the process of this decay, during the period called (for that very reason) the “Dark Ages”, so the existence of this poem offers a rare insight into the conditions of that time.

The Exeter Book

The book containing the only surviving manuscript of the poem is so-called, not because it was written in or about the City of Exeter, but because it forms part of the collection of Exeter Cathedral. The book consists of a sequence of unrelated literary works, including everything from epic poetry to risqué riddles. Its contents appear to have been copied out, by a single scribe, in about 975 CE, although most, if not all, the works contained in the book seem to have been created at earlier dates.

It is known that the book was owned by Bishop Leofric of Exeter until 1070, when he donated it to the cathedral’s library. However, there’s no evidence that the book was held in particularly high regard. Indeed, there is evidence that its front cover was used, at various times, as a cutting board and a beer mat! Some folios are missing, and the fourteen surviving pages nearest to the back have been burned.

The folio containing the poem itself is damaged, which has rendered portions of the middle and end of the poem illegible. Nonetheless, the remaining text provides an extraordinary description of the awe in which the Anglo-Saxon community must have held the crumbling remains of the Roman cities around them.

The Structure of the Poem

The poem exhibits characteristics typical of Old English verse, which distinguish such works from later poetry.

Perhaps the most obvious feature is the caesura in the center of each line (marked by commas or periods above), which imposes a syntactical structure leading to the enjambment of many of the lines.

Another typical feature is the lack of the use of rhyme, which is ironic when one considers that, due to its inflected nature, it was much easier to find rhyming pairs in Old English than in its modern equivalent.

Conversely, very heavy use was made of alliteration (e.g., “weallwalan wīrum” for “iron bonds”), although it is almost impossible to retain this feature in any modern translation.

It’s a real stroke of luck that this remarkable example of historic literary description has survived for us to read, although it makes you wonder how much similarly wonderful literature must have been lost.

Modern English Translation

Although there are no copyright concerns regarding the original Old English version of the poem, most modern translations of it are, of course, subject to copyright restrictions. However, the Wikipedia article about the poem offers one translation:


Stumbling on Silchester

At the time that I first learned about this poem, I was living in Andover, UK, and commuted to my job in Wokingham, about 40 miles away. I took several circuitous rural routes between the two locations, depending on traffic and weather conditions. One such route took me past what is now a tiny hamlet called Silchester.

Unlike Bath, Silchester was never repopulated as a city after the post-Roman abandonment. At Silchester, the only remains above ground are portions of the huge city walls, which now surround an empty field. I plan to say more about Silchester in future posts.

The Salesman and the Programmer: Poem

incompatiblepcsnewMore than twenty years ago now, I had to upgrade one of my PCs from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. What I’d been promised would be a painless improvement turned out to be a very frustrating experience. However, rather than simmering about it, I was inspired to write the humorous poem below.

I must make it clear that this is intended as a satirical parody. I am not suggesting that the introduction of Windows 95 (or any other operating system) was really a deliberate plot to break anyone’s computer, and I have no evidence to support such a notion!

For product sales, the problem was
Computers were too cheap:
The software was reliable;
The learning curve not steep;
And Windows Three was so well known
Folk used it in their sleep!

The Salesman and the Programmer
Were walking hand in hand.
They were trying to make a new program
To sell throughout the land.
“If we could find a killer app,”
The Salesman said, “That would be grand.”

“We used to make a lot of cash,”
The Salesman said with glee,
“When software was such complex stuff
And our knowledge was the key.
But now it’s all such bug-free fluff,
And Tech Support is free!”

“If we could make them change their files,”
The Programmer began,
“They’d have to learn a new OS —
Oh, what a marv’lous plan!
If we could make it look the same
But so a diff’rent program ran.”

The Programmer, he saw a catch
They’d have to overcome.
“But how could we convince them all?
Who’d ever be so dumb?”
The Salesman smiled, and quietly said,
“Oh — almost everyone.”

And so they built a new OS:
Another type of GUI.
They called it “Windows 95”
And began to spout the hooey.
But who would risk this untried scheme?
Who would be so screwy?

So they showed it off as something great,
To make society better.
They claimed it was a vital tool
For every young go-getter.
They asked us “Where we’d go today”
In papers and newsletters.

For those that were more cautious,
Those that weren’t such mugs,
They told us that it worked just fine,
Between the product plugs.
One million beta testers had been set
To find those minor bugs.

They spent a mound of money
On publicity and display,
And people rushed out lemming-like
To buy it that first day.
What we really should have listened to
Was what they failed to say.

They told us that they’d tested it,
On every kind of system.
They’d questioned all the User Groups
(They’d made a vow to listen.)
Those beta testers found the bugs,
But they didn’t say they’d fixed ‘em!

I didn’t want to buy the thing —
I wasn’t taken in.
My own machine had worked just fine —
It was my main linchpin.
With Windows Three-Point-One, NT,
And lots of RAM therein.

But my client wanted me to try
To change their new software.
“It must be Windows 95!”
They called me to declare.
So I went and bought the CD-ROM,
Which was the start of my nightmare!

And so I ran the setup files,
To install Ninety-five.
My system paused, and beeped, and stopped:
It wouldn’t come alive!
I couldn’t get the thing to run,
No matter how I’d strive.

So I called —

The Salesman and the Programmer:
I asked them what was wrong.
They told me that they’d find a fix —
It wouldn’t take too long.
And until then, I’d work around:
That’s how I got along.

And so, at length, they called me back,
Which brightened my demean’.
The Programmer had checked their code:
He claimed it was pristine —
“There’s nothing wrong with our software:
It must be your machine.”

I told them it had worked for years,
And never had “gone down”,
With every other program known
And all the gear around.
“Well there’s something there that we can’t fix,”
He said, “You break it down.”

The Salesman and the Programmer,
Were happy with their game.
Saw new computers selling fast,
And that had been their aim.
“We’ve stopped your system working now,
And you can take the blame!”

My poem is, of course, a parody of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, but in fact Carroll’s poem was itself an adaptation of an earlier work; “The Dream of Eugene Aram” by Thomas Hood.

Hotel Monte Generoso

hotelmontegeneroso1998I visited Switzerland in 1998, and, while walking in the Alps, stumbled across the eerie ruins of the Hotel Monte Generoso. I later wrote a (partially fictitious) poem about it:

A piercing bitter wind is clawing, chafing at the Alpine ridge,
The knife-edge summit, roof of Europe,
The sun’s rays give no succor here,
But tear and burn and sear the skin.
Cascading slopes, drab sepia grass, dry bones that tumble from the dust,
And gaunt white skeletons of birch, that cling for life
Atop the jagged precipice, where far below
Lugano’s dappled azure, gold and carmine glows.

Amid the forest’s whispering stems, in isolated genteel pride
Looms Monte Generoso’s hostel, graceful palace, vast redoubt;
The carefree haunt of Europe’s wealthy,
Where air streams pure and rarefied,
Smooth plastered walls, sgraffito frescoes, portraits of forgotten men
Gaze down upon Chiasso, Como; from mountain rills to sapphire lakes.
Behind lace curtains, from bay windows, cultured wail of violins,
Out on the terrace, cries of children, borne upon the cleansing wind.

Behind the hotel’s sheer façade, the curtains flapping in the breeze,
The rotting carcass stands revealed. Bleached, overgrown, and roofless walls,
Rich sumptuous hangings torn and stained.
The floors collapsed, stark splintered timber,
Where then slept Europe’s proud elite, a social stratum once secure,
Where now, weeds sprout from fissured stone and crumbling bricks,
A string quartet of owlets raucous, huddling up there in the rafters,
The grating screech of rusted shutters mimics children’s merry laughter.

What is that shadow flickering there, up in that rooftop window’s gape?
Was that the barrel of a rifle, glinting in the blinding sun?
For death stalks in this mountain lair
Are partisans behind each tree?
One footstep further, snapping twigs, and then the agonizing blast,
Now life bleeds out, pours down, painting rooftops in the town:
Too late, this hillside’s danger clear. The borderline of Switzerland;
The overspill from foreign battles never planned.

And down there, in the snaking, warm riparian valley,
Along the shores of calm Lake Como, rolls the covert entourage,
Il Duce, halted by the partisans,
Scarce moments from the sanctuary,
Beneath the dominating mountain, below the foliage-decorated slopes:
Staccato rattle from the valley; woodpecker’s rat-tat on dry wood,
Or was that distant chatter gunfire; the verdict from a Schmeisser’s maw?
The piercing wind, the bleaching sun, erode the clutching ghosts of war.