The Theme of Mutability in Old English Poetry1

Sung-Il Lee 

There is a poetic fragment contained in the Exeter Book, that treasury of Old English poetry, which the students of Old English have been referring to as “The Ruin.” The present condition of its manuscript does not allow us even to guess how long the poem was. Arranged in verses after prosodic scheme, the text is clear up to line 12; the ensuing six lines are undecipherable. With the off-verse of line 18, the work resumes textual clarity, till it reaches the on-verse of line 42, after which the manuscript becomes illegible again. The condition in which the manuscript has been preserved is such that one cannot even presume how long the poem initially was or what the rest of the work was about. The common appellation of the work,“The Ruin,”is based on the content of the extant text of the work, of course; but this title ironically becomes applicable to the state in which the work has been preserved. 

   Although it is impossible to envision the original shape of the poem, the extant thirty-eight lines, which are decipherable, provide enough clue to the overall tenor of the work. The theme of the poem is the much too recurrent thought geared to 'Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt’and ‘Sic transit gloria mundi.’One of the most recurrent motifs in Old English poetry is dustsceawung (‘contemplation of the dust’), the core of which is the thought that all existing things, including men and women, will eventually turn into dust. This motif is an ubiquitous one in Old English poetry; but “The Ruin”is a unique case, for the whole poem seems to have been composed to emphasize this theme. The first twelve lines read: 

        Wrætlic is þes wealstan;   wyrde gebræcon 

        burgatede burston;   brosnenta geweorc. 

        Hrofas sind gehrorene,   hreorge torras, 

        hrimgeat berofen   hrim on lime 

        scearde scurbeorge   scorene, gedrorene, 

        ældo undereotone.   Eorð grap hafað 

        waldendwyrhtan,   forweorone, geleorene,

        heard gripe hrusan,   oþ hund cnea 

        werþeoda gewitan.   Oft þes wag gebad 

        ræghar ond readfah   rice æfter oþrum, 

        ofstonden under stormum;   steap geap gedreas. 

        Wunað giet se wealstan   wederum geheawen 

                                           (The Ruin, 1-12)2

        Wondrous is this stone-wall; yet Fate has demolished 

        The fortress--so the giants' work crumbles. 

        Roofs are fallen off, towers have fallen down, 

        Rusty doors broken, frost fills the gap between stones, 

        The walls that fended off the stormy wind and snow 

        Are cracked, and crumble in the flow of time. 

        The masons who died long ago 

        Are lying, confined in the cold ground, while 

        A hundred generations have flowed with time. 

        The stonewalls, gray with moss and reddened with rust, 

        Have withstood the storm and snow, 

        Witnessing the kingdoms' rise and fall; 

        Though high and wide, they have also fallen down. 

        Yet, torn and burst by rain and wind, 

        The art of masonry lives on in this work. (my translation

What is being emphasized in these opening lines is the power of fate (wyrd) that turns whatever man can attain―no matter of what grandeur it may be―into dust. The first word in the first line is ‘wraetlic’(‘wonderful’or ‘wondrous’). The wonder that the poet feels is not only that about the grandeur of the stone-wall that overwhelms an onlooker. The strong message conveyed to the listener in the first line―‘Wraetlic is thes wealstan; wyrd gebraecon’―containing a series of w-alliteration ―is the power of fate that has turned the grand stone-wall into a ruin. The crumbling stones, however, still retain the trace of the art of masonry that has survived the flow of time tyrannized over by fate; therefore, they are ‘wondrous.’ 

   What is being emphasized in the poem is not only the present state of decay that the poet is witnessing. By allowing the readers (or the listeners) to envision the prosperity and grandeur of the past that lies hidden behind the present scene of bleakness, the poem makes the transience of all worldly glory and pomp even more poignantly felt. For this reason, the work provides a kind of rhythm―the alternation of the present state of decay and the prosperity of the past that the reader can see in his mind's eye as the poem progresses. In the passage quoted above, there are lines that call the reader's attention: 

                           Eorðgrap hafað 

       waldendwyrhtan,   forweorone, geleorene, 

       heard gripe hrusan,   oþ hund cnea 

       werþeoda gewitan.  Oft þes wag gebad 

ræghar ond readfah   rice æfter oþrum, 

       ofstonden under stormum;   steap geap gedreas. 

       Wun giet se wealstan   wederum geheawen 

                                              (The Ruin, 6-12) 

Just as the manuscript of the poem is in such a poor state of preservation that one can hardly envision its original shape, so is the picture drawn by the poet bleak and dreary to the utmost degree. But the poet clearly says: Although the masons who built the tall fortress have long since turned into dust, and their work has long since turned into a pile of stones, their craftsmanship still lives on in the ruins of their artifact. We see an instance of metapoetry, though the poet may not have intended it. The work continues, after the ensuing five lines and a half, which are undecipherable: 

                              swiftne gebrægd 

        hwætred in hringas,   hygerof gebond 

        weallwalan wirum   wundrum todre. 

        Beorht ron burgced,   burnsele monige, 

        heah horngestreon,   heresweg micel, 

        meodoheall monig   mondreama full, 

        oþþætþæt onwende   wyrd seo swe. 

        Crungon walo wide,   cwoman woldagas, 

        swylt eall fornom   secgrofra wera; 

        wurdon hyra wigsteal   westen staþolas, 

        brosnade burgateall.   Betend crungon 

        hergas to hrusan.   Forþon þas hofu dreorgi

        ond þes teaforgeapa   tigelum sceadeð 

        hrostbeages hrof.   Hryre wong gecrong 

        gebrocen to beorgum, þær iu beorn monig 

        gdmod ond goldbeorht   gleoma geftwed, 

        wlonc ond wingal   wighyrstum scan; 

        seah on sinc, on sylfor,   on searogimmas, 

        on ead, on æht,   on eorcanstan, 

        on þas beorhtan burg   bradan rices. (The Ruin, 18b-37) 

                . . .the wondrous shape 

        They engraved within circles, and with firm intention 

        Bound the stones with iron chains. 

        The fortress must have been bright, with many a bath. 

        Under the gables soaring high, the noisy warriors 

        Must have filled the rooms where they drank; 

        Yet, alas, fate has changed all this― 

        As the day of disaster came, men fell dead, 

        And death took all the brave warriors. 

        The rooms for worship became empty, the towns were                                                       deserted. 

        The menders of the buildings died, 

        And the sanctuaries of the heathens were buried. 

        As only bleakness sweeps the scene, 

        The slates fall off from the red-vaulted roofs, 

        The stones pile on the earth of desolation. 

        Countless warriors must have vaunted and laughed 

        With wine-flushed faces, wearing glittering armors. 

        In the splendid fortress for the vast empire, 

        The eyes of the warriors must have rested 

        On a pile of wealth, the jewels and silver. . . . 

                                                (my translation

   In line 12, the poet wrote:‘Wunath giet se wealstan wederum geheawen’(‘Yet, torn and burst by rain and wind, the art of masonry lives on in this wreck.’) Although the ensuing five or six lines are undecipherable, the words appearing in the next three lines (from the off-verse of line 18 to the off-verse of line 20) supplement what the poet has said in line 12: 

                            swiftne gebrægd 

        hwætred in hringas,   hygerof gebond 

        weallwalan wirum   wundrum todre. 

                                    the wondrous shapes 

        They engraved within circles, and with firm intention 

        Bound the stones with iron chains. 

What the poet sees now is only a ruin. But the poet's thought hovers between the past and the present, and his lines evolve, while the prosperity of the past and the decay of the present run in parallel. When the poet witnesses the present decay, it means that his mind's eye, at the same time, can see the prosperity of the past, which must have preceded it. Now, where will this development of the poetic imagination lead the poet? While witnessing the scene of the present decay―the remnant of the past prosperity―the poet comes to realize the horrible truth―that his present self and those who share the bliss of being alive with him―like the warriors and the masons who have left only the piles of stones behind―who did pursue glory and fame in their own way―will eventually turn into dust. Not the “presentness of the present,” but the “pastness of the present,” which will come in time―this is what the poet must face as truth. And it is also the truth we must realize while reading this poem entitled “The Ruin,” the manuscript of which remains in a state of ruin. 

   The last lines of the work are almost undecipherable, like the case of lines 13-18; yet the five or six lines that follow the lines quoted above (18b-37) are clear enough for us to construe their meaning, and provoke the readers to exert their imagination: 

        Stanhofu stodan,   stream hate wearp 

        widan wylme;   weal eall befeng 

        beorhtan bosme, þæþa baþuron, 

        hat on hrre. þæs hyð elic. 

        Leton þonne geotan . . . . 

        ofer harne stan   hate streamas        (The Ruin, 38-43) 

        Here stood the buildings made of stones, 

        And the hot spring must have flowed, 

        While in the middle of the walls surrounding 

        Hot springwater must have overflowed. 

        What pleasure would it have been! 

        Hot stream must have flowed over the ashen stones. . .                                                 (my translation

   Scholars guess that the poem reveals what the poet felt while visiting a ruin in Bath, a hotspring town believed to have been built by the Romans in the remote past, long before the Anglo-Saxons came to the island to settle. But what difference does it make, whether it be true or not? What matters is the fact that the work still survives, even in fragment, and makes us indulge in this thought: “On this crumbling piece of sheep-skin must have flowed the lines of a poet. They must have been splendid lines―that ran on as if in a carefree stream . . . .” As if to justify our indulging in the thought, “The Ruin” stops in line 49, leaving five or six lines behind, which fade away in undecipherable words. Though not intended by the poet, the content of the poem and the state in which it has been preserved converge. 

   The theme of mutability dealt with in “The Ruin” recurs in several other Old English poems. I would like to examine a couple of passages taken respectively from Beowulf and “The Wanderer.” 

   The last one thousand lines of Beowulf are devoted to depicting the tragic conclusion of the epic: the hero's death, and the lamentation of the Geatish people. Beowulf is now an old man; and since he has no heir (either biological or spiritual), his family line stops with his death. The tragic sense and pathos that pervades the last third of the epic escalates with the lines that scholars often refer to as ‘The Lament of the Last Survivor.’ The speaker of the lines is not a character who can claim any importance in the development of the action of Beowulf. The poet does not specifically mention his name; what is clear is that he is the sole survivor of a tribe which existed long before the story of Beowulf began. Since there is no one else alive who can inherit the saga of the tribe, the glory and fame to be taken over by posterity becomes futile. Since there is no member of the tribe who can inherit his treasure, he buries it in the earth. And since there is no one who can hear his lamentation, he addresses the earth―the only inheritor of the treasure of his tribe. This lamentation finds reverberation at the end of Beowulf; and it is echoed in the Geatish people's burning the Dragon's treasure, which has become their legacy, with Beowulf's body and burying the ashes in the earth: 

        “Heald þu nu, hruse,   nu hæleð ne m[o]stan, 

        eorla æhte!    Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe 

        gode begeaton. Guð-deað fornam, 

        [f]eorh-bealo frecne   fyra gehwylcne 

        leoda minra, þa[r]a ðeþis [lif] ofgeaf, 

        gesawon sele-dream[as].   Nah hwa sweord wege 

        oððe fe[ormieted ge, 

        drync t deore;   dug[] ellor s[c]oc. 

        Sceal se hearda helm   [hyr]sted golde 

        fætum befeallen;   feormynd swef

        þaðe beado-griman   bywan sceoldon; 

        ge swylce seo here-pad, sio æt hilde gebad 

        ofer borda gebræc   bite irena, 

        brosn æfter beorne;   ne g byrnan hring 

        æfter wig-fruman   wide feran 

        hæleðum be healfe. s hearpan wyn, 

        gomen gleo-beames,   ne god hafoc 

        geond l winig,   ne se swifta mearh 

        burh-stede beat.   Bealo-cwealm hafað 

        fela feorh-cynna   fo onsended!” 

                                         (Beowulf, 2247-2266)3

        “Hold now, thou earth, the treasure of princes. 

        Though men took it away from you, 

        It will by no means belong to them. 

        Death in war, merciless slaughter, 

        Has taken the very last of my tribe, 

        Who once enjoyed the bliss of life-- 

        Now none is left, who can carry a sword for me 

        And polish the golden chalice to glitter-- 

        All are gone! From the hard-beaten helmets 

        The shining beavers are fallen off, and all the squires, 

        Who would polish the warriors' helms, 

        Are asleep, never to be awakened. 

        Even the metal jackets that kept off the spears and                                                         swords 

        In the fierce battles where the shields would clatter 

        Are all gone with the warriors. 

        The armors bound in rust-eaten chains 

        Cannot follow the warriors heading for a far place. 

        The joy of the lyres, the glee of the blowing horns, 

        The falcon that crossed the meeting hall, 

        The rapid hooves that beat the court-yard, 

        All are gone! Detestable death 

        Has taken all those good men.” (my translation

   Since men came from the earth, they have to return to it. Then, the treasure dug out from the earth must eventually be returned to it. If we extend this thought, what will be the ultimate significance of the treasure―the ‘maththum’ or the ‘hring’― which had so much meaning to the Anglo-Saxon warriors? Of course, I do not intend to argue the vanity of all material possession, while probing into this question. The values of the Anglo-Saxons found their ultimate meaning in fame, which will live on even after their physical demise. For that reason, what was more important than their lives was fame after death, which would compensate the loss of their lives. And, while they were still alive, while they were pursuing glory at the risk of their lives, the ultimate gift granted to them in recognition of their worthy deeds was ‘maththum’or ‘hring.’ Then, does the act of burying the treasure in the earth―whether it be the case of the Last Survivor, or the case of the Geats who bury the legacy of Beowulf―signify that desire for fame after death, the summit of all Anglo-Saxon values, is after all futile? As in “The Ruin,”‘The Last Survivor's Lament’ is about the transience of life and the futility of all the glory and pomp of the life on earth. To borrow a cliche, ‘contemptus mundi’is the keynote of these lines. The awareness of all the change and destruction that the flow of time eventually brings leads to the realization that all the glory and prosperity that men enjoy at present are futile. This very thought finds its utterance in the magnificent lines in“The Wanderer”: 

        Ongietan sceal gleaw hæle   hu gæstlic bið, 

        þonne ealre þisse worulde wela   weste stond

        swa nu missenlice   geond þisne middangeard 

        winde biwaune   weallas stond

        hrime bihrorene,   hrge þa ederas. 

        Woriþa winsalo,   waldend licgað 

        dreame bidrorene,   dug eal gecrong, 

        wlonc bi wealle.   Sume wig fornom, 

        ferede in forðwege,   sumne fugel othbaer 

        ofer heanne holm,    sumne se hara wulf 

        deathe gedaelde,     sumne dreorighleor 

        in eoscfe   eorl gehydde. 

        Yþde swa þisne eardgeard ælda scyppend 

        oþþæt burgwara   breahtma lease 

        eald enta geweorc  idlu stodon. 

          Se þonne þisne wealsteal   wise gohte 

        ond þis deorce lif   deope geonenc

        frod in fee,   feor oft gemon 

        wælsleahta worn,   ond þas word acw

                                   (“The Wanderer,” 73-91)4

        A wise man will know well enough― 

        When all the prosperity of the world is gone, 

        And the walls stand, exposed to rain and wind, 

        Covered with frost and storm-blown snow, 

        What torment it would be. 

        The rooms where they would drink are empty; 

        The thane is lying silently, deprived of joy, 

        And the haughty warriors are all fallen before the walls. 

        Some were slain by the battle swords, 

        Some snatched away by the birds over the sea, 

        Some devoured by the ash-haired wolves, 

        Some buried by their grieving lord. 

        The Maker who has created Man has finally 

        Turned the world into a wasteland, till 

        The once magnificent stone-buildings raised by the giants 

        Have left only their skeletal frames. 

        Having cast his eyes on the remaining walls 

        And pondered on the gloom of this earthly life, 

        Recalling many a man who is no more, 

        The wise man will say thus:              (my translation

   What we hear in these lines is similar to what we have heard in “The Ruin.” It may be a coincidence, but the phrase ‘enta geweorc’(‘the works of the giants’) appears both in line 87 of “The Wanderer”―‘eald enta geweorc idlu stodon’―and in the second line of “The Ruin”―‘burgstede burston; brosnath enta geweorc.’ We don't know which of the two poems was composed first; but it is too much of a coincidence that the phrase ‘enta geweorc’ appears in both poems. Anglo-Saxons may have so called the edifices built by the ancient Romans. But the resonance of sound and the similarity of meaning detectable in the two pairs of phrases corresponding to each other―‘bihrorene, hrythge’in ‘hrime bihrorene, hrythge tha ederas’ in line 77 of “The Wanderer”and 'gehrorene, hreorge' in ‘Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras’ in line 3 of “The Ruin”―make us suspect that the two poems could have been written by the same poet. The surmise does not end here. The on-verse of line 41 of “The Ruin” is ‘hat on hrethre’-- a phrase that appears in the passage describing the funeral of Beowulf: 

        Ongunnon þa on beorge   bæl-fyra mæst 

        wigend weccan;   wud[u]-rec astah 

        sweart ofer swi[o]ðole;   swogende le[c], 

        wope bewunden;   wind-blond gelæg 

        oðþæ t he ða ban-hus   gebrocen hæfde, 

        hat on hreðre

                                          (Beowulf, 3143-3148) 

        Then, on a hill, they raised a big fire. 

        Black smoke arose above the growing flame, 

        And the flame roared in the midst of the people's crying. 

        As the wind subsided, within the dying flame 

        His body turned into ashes.      (my translation

Of course, it is too bold a surmise to presume that the same poet may have written all the three poems, on the basis that a few phrases, which may have been only idiomatic, were repeatedly used in them. But one cannot deny that these instances provoke the reader's curiosity. 

   The lines from “The Wanderer” quoted above lead to the famous passage on the theme, ‘Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?’ 

“Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?

        Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas? 

        Eala beorht bunne!   Eala byrnwiga! 

        Eala þeodnes þrym!   Hu seo þrag gewat, 

        genap under nihthelm,   swa heo no wære. 

        Stond nu on laste   leofre dug

        weal wundrum heah,   wyrmlicum fah. 

        Eorlas fornoman   asca þre, 

        wæpen wælgifru,   wyrd seo mære, 

        ond þas stanhleoþu   stormas cnyss

        hrið hreosende   hrusan bind

        wintres woma, þonne won cym

        nip nihtscua,   noan onsendeð 

        hreo glfare leþum on andan.” 

        Eall is earfoðic    eorthan rice, 

        onwendeth wyrda gesceaft   weoruld under heofonum. 

        Her b feoh ne,   her b freond ne, 

        her b mon ne,   her b mæne, 

        eal þis eoan gesteal   idel weorþeð!' 

                                     ("The Wanderer," 92-110) 

        “Whither fled the horses? Whither the warriors? Whither                                                  the ring-giver? 

        What happened to the banquet-halls? Where are the                                                      laughters? 

        Alas, the bright cups! Alas, the armor-clad warriors! 

        Alas, the glory of princes! In the flow of time, 

        It all disappeared into the night-shadow, leaving no                                                          trace. 

        What is left behind, after the dear ones are all gone, 

        Are only the high walls engraved with writhing dragons. 

        The slaughter-hungry spears and the fierce fate 

        Have driven all the warriors to death. 

        Only the rain and wind batter the walls. 

        The snow-storm covers the wind-swept earth; 

        As darkness comes, the night-shadow thickens. 

        From the north, the ferocious hailstorm 

        Blows to afflict men in distress. 

        In the earth's kingdom, only pain prevails; 

        Fate's verdict upturns the whole world. 

        Here wealth is fleeting, friends are fleeting, 

        Men are fleeting, kinsmen are fleeting; 

        The whole foundation of the earth will turn out                                           futile.”(my translation

   Why did the Old English poets lean toward such a dark and pessimistic outlook on life? The turbulence of the Anglo-Saxons' battle-torn life may have had much bearing on their worldview. But the issue is not that simple. Scholars presume that a monk wrote Beowulf. If that is true, a man who lived a life of contemplation, not of action, wrote down in the form of an epic the heroic tale of Beowulf which had been transmitted orally generation after generation for centuries. “The Wanderer” can be looked on from the same angle. A man who had contemplated life and had come to realize the transience of life and the truth of mortality assumed the voice of a wanderer, who has undergone the pain of witnessing the vicissitude of life. The act of writing poetry requires imagination and immersion into contemplation. For that reason, one who writes about a man of action, such as a warrior, does not necessarily have to be one who has had the experience of being a man of action. He should rather be one capable of assimilating his consciousness with that of a wanderer, who has gone through the painful experience as a warrior, and thus he can tell his own thoughts on life in the voice of the fictive narrator. The conclusion of “The Wanderer”sounds much too religious, and is not compatible with the pagan worldview that pervades Anglo-Saxon literature: 

Swa cwæð snottor on mode,  gesæt him sundor æt rune. 

        Til biþ se þe his treowe gehealdeþ,  ne sceal næfre his 

                torn to rycene 

        beorn of his breostum acyþan,  nemþe he ær þa bote 


eorl mid elne gefremman.  Wel bið þam þe him are seceð, 

        frofre to Fæder on heofonum,  þær us eal seo fæstnung 


                                 (“The Wanderer,” 111-115) 

        Thus spoke the wise man, and sat apart in deep thought. 

        Praiseworthy is a man who locks up words, and a man 

        Must not let his grief ooze out of his heart's confine, 

        Even when he does not know how to overcome his                                                         sorrow. 

        Grace and solace are to be sought in the heavenly                                                 Father's bosom, 

        Where lies all the comfort we may hope for. 

                                                (my translation

   This conclusion, which is strongly tinged with didacticism, is not what can be uttered by a wanderer (who once was a warrior). It is rather a moral message that the poet wants to give to his audience, as he concludes a poem in which he has had a vicarious experience as a wandering warrior through poetic imagination. “The Ruin” may also have ended with a similar conclusion. But what is left of the manuscript of “The Ruin”does not allow us to prove it. 

   It is quite possible that the Anglo-Saxon poets, who wrote in the vein of ‘contemptus mundi’ and ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ while juxtaposing the glory and prosperity of the past and the decay and bleakness of the present, saw their own present act of writing from a similar point of view. Not only the pastness of the past, but “the pastness of the present” that will eventually come in the future--that is a truth in life to be recognized by one who ponders on mutability (the truth of time and change) while measuring the past and the present. A poet, especially one who writes a long poem like Beowulf, will naturally wonder how long his work will be remembered by the posterity and how long his poetic fame will last, as he has seen the transience of fame and glory. The masons who are mentioned in “The Ruin”and the poet who wrote the poem, entitled ‘The Ruin’by the posterity, were both those who had sought 'fame.' Long after “The Ruin” was composed, and long ago as we look back now, Milton wrote: 

        Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise 

        (That last infirmity of noble mind) 

        To scorn delights, and live laborious days; 

        But the fair guerdon when we hope to find, 

        And think to burst out into sudden blaze, 

        Comes the blind Fury with th' abhorrred shears, 

        And slits the thin-spurn life. “But not the praise,” 

        Phoebus replied, and touched my trembling ears; 

        "Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil, 

        Nor in the glistering foil 

        Set off to th' world, nor in broad rumor lies, 

        But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes, 

        And perfect witness of all-judging Jove; 

        As he pronounces lastly on each deed, 

        Of so much fame in heaven expect thy meed.” 

                                                (Lycidas, 70-84) 

   Milton wrote Lycidas to commemorate his former schoolmate Edward King. But while composing lines for him, the poet's thought leads him to the question: How long will his own fame as a poet last? And what solace does the poet provide for himself? It is the belief that what is important is not his present reputation as a poet--the belief that his poetic fame will find its ultimate meaning in the eternal kingdom of God, the realm where mutability can no longer prevail. The belief echoes the message the poet of “The Wanderer” has left at the end of the poem: ‘Wel bith tham the him are seceth, frofre to Faeder on heofonum, thaer us eal seo faestnung stondeth.’ 

‘Where are those who lived before us?’ This has been a haunting question throughout the ages for all mankind. It is a question that comes upon us whenever we see a remnant of the past culture or visit a historical site. I will conclude my essay by quoting a couple of Korean classical poems in Chinese in my English translation. Literature aspires after universality. To prove that what the Old English poets wrote are not so different from what the ancient Korean poets wrote will not be meaningless. Yi Saek, a poet toward the end of the Koryo dynasty left this poem: 










        Passing by Yongmyong Temple the other day, 

        I ascended to Pu-byok Pavilion. 

        The moon was floating above the castle ruin, 

        Clouds encircled the moss-grown steps. 

        The legendary stallion is gone forever. 

        Where are the successive monarchs loitering now? 

        I sigh, standing on the windswept stair-- 

        The mountains are still green, and the river continues to                                                          flow.5

This was a poem composed by a Koryo dynasty poet reminiscing the previous kingdom. As the flow of time is irreversible and cannot be resisted, Yi Kyong-min, a poet of the next dynasty Choson, wrote the following poem, reminiscing in his turn the rise and fall of the Koryo dynasty: 










        Now five hundred years of kingly glory is gone, 

        Its pomp has left no trace but exuberant pines. 

        Upon ruins where flowers have wilted, sadness reigns; 

        The nightingale's song deepens pathos over castle grounds. 

        Plowed fields encroach the palace stairs; 

        Spring grass, undeterred, grows over the railings. 

        Though it grieves my heart to watch it, 

        Kingdoms rise and fall like a flowing stream.6

Is it really necessary for us to divide literature in terms of the ages? And is there any need to segregate literature after national origins? 

(Yonsei University) 


1. This paper was presented at the Medieval English Studies Association of Korea International Symposium held at Yonsei University on November 20, 1999. 

2. Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, eds., A Guide to Old English (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 238. Subsequent quotations from this poem are from this book. 

3. Beowulf, Ed. Howell D. Chickering, Jr. (Garden City: Anchor Press, 1977), pp. 182 and 184. Although the text used for quotation is from this book, the modern English translation is mine. Subsequent quotations from this poem are from this book. 

4. Mitchell and Robinson. eds., A Guide to Old English (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), pp. 257-258. Subsequent quotations from this poem are from this book. 

5. "At Pu-byok Pavilion" by Yi Saek (1328-1396), from The Moonlit Pond: Korean Classical Poems in Chinese, Translated and Introudced by Sung-Il Lee (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1998), p. 30. 

6. "The Full-Moon Hill" by Yi Kyong-Min (1814-1883), from The Moonlit Pond: Korean Classical Poems in Chinese, Translated and Introudced by Sung-Il Lee (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1998), p. 127. 

◈ Abstract 

The Theme of Mutability in Old English Poetry 

Sung-Il Lee 

   The fragmentary Old English poem often referred to as The Ruin is typical of Anglo-Saxon elegy in that its predominant motif is dūstscēawung (‘contemplation of the dust’). That the manuscript in which the poem has been preserved is in a state of ruin turns out not only an incidental fact: ironically, the physical state of the manuscript reinforces the theme of the poem written therein. 

In The Ruin, the poet's imagination allows him to see the grandeur of the past as well as the decay in the present. As the poem progresses, the readers are to be reminded that the poet, who wrote this very poem, has also faded into the remote past, leaving only a fragment of his poem, just as the masons, the ruins of whose work had led the poet to compose the lines. The juxtaposition of the past glory and the present decay, which runs throughout the fragment, thus enables the reader to see not only the pastness of the past but the pastness of the present, which will inevitably be fulfilled in the future―a grave message the reader has to embrace while reading the poem, a remnant of the past. In an eerie way―which the poet would not have intended―The Ruin is a marvelous piece of metapoetry. 

   The theme of mutability recurs in many other Old English poems. The famous Ubi sunt passage in The Wanderer (lines 73-110) and ‘the Lament of the Last Survivor’in Beowulf (lines 2247-2266) can be cited as two notable instances, for there are striking similarities between The Ruin and the two passages both in tone and mood as well as in theme. 

◈ 국문요약 

고대 영시에서의 無常의 主題 


흔히 ‘폐허’라는 제목으로 알려진 고대영시는 그 텍스트의 일부만 남아있지만, 그 주된 모티브가 ‘모든 것은 티끌로 화하고 만다’는 상념이라는 점에서 고대영어 엘레지의 전형이라고 본다. 이 시가 적혀 있는 원고가 몹시 훼손된 상태라는 사실은 아리러니칼하게도 이 작품이 담고 있는 주제를 반영한다. 

‘폐허’에서 시인의 상상력은 현재의 쇠락과 과거의 광휘를 동시에 본다. 작품 속에서 언급된 석공들이 남긴 축조물들의 잔해가 시인으로 하여금 이 작품을 쓰도록 만들었지만, 이 시를 쓴 시인 또한 먼 과거 속으로 사라져 버렸다는 사실을 독자는 상기하게 된다. 남아있는 텍스트 전체를 관통하는 과거의 영광과 현재의 쇠락의 병치는 독자로 하여금 과거의 과거성 뿐만 아니라 시간이 흐르면 필연적으로 오고야 말 ‘현재의 과거성’을 인지케 하는데, 이는 과거의 유물인 이 작품을 읽으면서 독자가 깨달아야 할 엄숙한 메씨지이다. 이런 점에서, 비록 시인이 의도한 바는 아니지만, ‘폐허’는 metapoetry의 한 예가 된다. 

無常의 주제는 다른 많은 고대영시에서 되풀이된다. ‘방랑자’의 Ubi sunt의 시행들과 Beowulf의 ‘마지막 살아남은 자의 탄식’을 그 확연한 예로 들 수 있는데, 주제적인 면에서 뿐만 아니라 어조와 분위기 면에서도 ‘폐허’와 놀라울 만큼의 유사성을 갖는다.