A Christological Reading of the Ruin

By Murgia, Raimondo | Trames, June 2010 | Go to article overview

A Christological Reading of the Ruin


Murgia, Raimondo, Trames


1. Overview

By a twist of fate, The Ruin (1) has come down to us in such a damaged state that I would take the liberty of describing this poem by the polyptoton 'ruined'. Albeit hyperbolic, this adjective perfectly suits the parchment where the text appears, because it has been affected by serious burn damages. As a result, large parts of the poem are beyond recovery. However, we can recover those features from the text that permit to count it among the Old English Elegies.

Since it is beyond the scope of this work to carry out a palaeographical or codicological analysis of the manuscript and to conjecture about what is lost, the poem will be considered from a semantic point of view. We should be aware that the semantic scope of each word may vary drastically and that the reader is influenced by many variables in attaching the meaning to a given word. The question becomes trickier if we take the allegorical viewpoint, because polysemy is concerned with the entire text, not with just a word. Thus, we should not consider the surface meaning of the words, but look more carefully for the covert meanings. Afterwards, we have to single out the most relevant meaning for interpretation. Since I would like to propose a Christological reading of the poem, I will have to narrow down the possible meanings of the words, thus setting a religious layer almost on every sentence.

We do not have any indication about the author of the poem, nor have we any certainty about its date because it was probably composed before Exeter Book, the codex in which the poem appears on folio [124.sup.r]-[124.sup.v]. The Ruin unfolds over 49 lines, many of which are marred by lacunae, namely: 12; 13; 14; 15; 16; 17; 42; 44; 45; 46; 47; 48; 49. Notice that different emendations of damaged words involve different meanings, for instance in the first hemistich of line 12 we come across the word w---ad. Klinck (1986) emends wu[n]ad 'remains', while Leslie (1961) reads worad 'moulders'. In the second hemistich, Leslie emends geheawen 'cut down', but Klinck chooses geheapen 'piled up'.

As I have said, lingering over the comparison of different emendations and over the hypothesis for filling the gaps in the text would be misleading here. Moreover, if I were to compare the emendations for every word, I would run the risk of overlooking the message of the text, because my attention would be stuck at the morphological level, thus disregarding the level of semantics. In the course of my discussion, attention will be paid to the semantic scope of words, with special emphasis on those terms liable to Christological reading.

The Ruin has been referred to with a large number of interpretations ranging from the most literal to the most allegorical ones. On the one hand, literal interpretations set forth the description of the city on archaeological grounds, thus striving to identify which place is being described, whether it is the city of Bath, Chester, Durham or the Hadrian's Wall. On the other hand, figurative interpretations, e.g. Keenan (1966), deem the city as Babylon. Lee (1973) has placed the poem among those concerning the encomio urbis, Johnson (1980) has recommended that it is a body-city riddle, and Dunleavy (1959) has detected a de excidio traditio therein. The most allegorical interpretation was put forward by Cammarota (1997). She pointed out that there is a metaphor for Christ at the very outset of the poem, which is transmitted by the word weallstan, i.e. 'cornerstone'. I hope to show that the symbolism of Christ as a Cornerstone is one of the most exploited metaphors in the biblical tradition. In fact, we can find numerous metaphors for Christ, e.g. as the Roof of the hall, as the Head of the body whose limbs are the Christians, as the Shepherd, or in the guise of the Bridegroom (the Church being his Bride), and most commonly as our Lord, the King of Heaven.

Although the word 'elegy' has not been applied to define a genre in Old English, with the exception of Klinck (1984), scholars have the same opinion that The Ruin stands out from the other elegies, for those elements that compose what Timmer (1942) has called 'the elegiac mood in old English poetry' are not present in it.

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