The Ruin or The Ruined Burg is usually claimed as one of the memorable productions of the Anglo-Saxon poetic inspiration. It stands out as a most representative piece of Anglo-Saxon elegies, with a clear and pointed elegiac note. Of course, the character of the poem, as an elegy, differs from what is seen in other elegies. It mourns not the misfortune of a person, but of a place, not for the death of a person loved, but for the ruin of a place that has a nostalgic ardour.
The subject-matter of the poem is the lamentation of the unknown Anglo-Saxon poet for the vanished glory of a great city, the ruins of which stand before him. The city, referred to, is very probably the Roman built city of Bath, which is the place of action of Sheridan’s famous comedy ‘The Rivals‘. Bath was once the centre of fashion and attraction, and enjoyed an immense glory and popularity in the days of the mighty Romans. But the Anglo-Saxon aggression, conquest and settlement brought about the utter ruins of the city and left behind simply a bitter memory of a grand past. The Anglo-Saxon poet of ‘The Ruin‘ laments impulsively over the end of that glorious city of the past. First, he describes the ancient gorgeous buildings, now deserted and turned roofless and tottering. Next he goes to muse on their great past, when they were richly adorned and crowded with noble princes and proud warriors. Finally, he makes out the sad contrast from the awful decline of the ruined city. He mourns deeply for the loss of its pomp and splendour, crowd and noise, attraction and business. All these are gone forever. There is left nothing but the sad mutability of grandeur and splendour, glory and colour, so ruthlessly changed by the ravages of time.
The clasp of earth and the clutch of the grave
Grip the proud builders, long perished and gone.
The Ruin or The Ruined Burg need be ranked with the finest pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Its importance and influence can in no way be minimised or slighted. It significance is noted in several ways. In the first place, it is an impressive elegy, and echoes the modern elegiac note that muses on the way of the world and its tragedy. In this respect, it may rightly be taken as the most primitive predecessor of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard , Shelley’s Adonais and Arnold’s The Scholar Gipsy.
In the second place, The Ruin stands out prominently as a piece of personal poetry. Its intensely personal tone and warmth of appeal may well be regarded as the earliest pattern of subjective lyric. Indeed, in the intensity of the poet’s emotion, imagination and sincerity, this is a rare piece in Anglo-Saxon poetry.
In the third place, thoroughly rich in descriptive details, it institutes a graphic comparison between the past glory and the present degeneration of a renowned city. Here, again, the poem may well be taken as the earliest ancestor of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which, too, institutes a penetrating comparison between Venice’s great past and her present state of decay and degeneration.