• Keith Mathison

Not so Fast in Gravesgrasp


Well-wrought this wall: [Wyrds] broke it.

The stronghold burst. . . .


Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen,

the work of the Giants, the stone smiths,

mouldereth.


Rime scoureth gatetowers

rime on mortar.


Shattered the showershields, roofs ruined,

age under-ate them.


And the wielders and wrights?


Earthgrip holds them -- gone, long gone,

Fast in gravesgrasp while fifty fathers

and sons have passed.

This is the first part of the brilliant translation by Michael Alexander of the Old English poem The Ruin, which is found in The First Poems in English. It describes the thoughts of a man who has run across ancient ruins and ponders the life and death of those who built them so long ago and how time has taken these once amazing buildings and worn them down to rubble.


The only part of this translation that I find questionable is the use of the word "weird" to translate the Old English "wyrd" - thus my edit above. The modern English word "weird" carries the connotation of the strange or odd. That's not exactly what the Old English "wyrd" means. "Wyrd" is often translated as "fate" or "destiny," and it does mean something like this in pagan contexts. However, in the hands of Old English Christian authors, such as the author of Beowulf, it becomes something more along the lines of divine providence. It is something in which there is a mysterious interweaving of God's plan and man's actions.


Be that as it may, what I love about Alexander's translation is the way in which he captures in modern English the beauty of the Old English style of poetry with its consonance and assonance - the repetition of consonants and vowel sounds, as well as the use of words such as "earthgrip" and "gravesgrasp." His translation of Beowulf is also brilliant for the same reasons.


The Ruin reminds us of the fleeting nature of our lives and our accomplishments. The Psalmist makes the same point in Psalm 39, saying:


“O LORD, make me know my end

and what is the measure of my days;

let me know how fleeting I am!

Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,

and my lifetime is as nothing before you.

Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah

Surely a man goes about as a shadow!

Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;

man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather! (vv. 4–6)


Unless we are alive when Christ returns, we will all die. So, what will we leave behind? Will it be things that slowly crumble away, scoured by rime? Or will it be lives impacted and changed by our words and actions? Will we be a light in this dark world, or will we contribute to the darkness?


We do not have the entire text of The Ruin, so we don't how the poem ends. What we do have is somewhat dreary.


For those who have faith in Christ, however, the end is not dreary. We no longer have to fear death. Because Jesus broke the grave's grasp, death has lost its sting. He is risen, and we too will rise. Although our bodies will all be held fast in gravesgrasp until the last day, there is coming a day when the dead in Christ will be raised imperishable, a day when death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:52–55 ).

*Image by Alice12 from Pixabay

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