Only Emptiness Remains

One of the first known poems in the English language is known as “The Ruin,” which was collected in a work known as the Exeter Book, from the eighth century AD. The poem appears to be speaking about the city of Bath, and a translation of this work reads, in part, as follows: “There is rime on the mortar. The walls are rent and broken away, and have fallen, undermined by age. The owners and builders are perished and gone, and have been held fast in the earth’s embrace, the ruthless clutch of the grave, while a hundred generations of mankind have passed away. Red of hue and hoary with lichen this wall has outlasted kingdom after kingdom, standing unmoved by storms. The lofty arch has fallen [1].” There is a melancholy sense in which the Saxon conquerors of England looked at the Roman ruins and knew that they were in the presence of a great ancient society whose strength and glory had departed, and they could in some way recognize the sense of loss from that time to their own, despite their own comparatively limited cultural achievements at the time.

The Anglo-Saxons were a people who were capable of deep and melancholy reflection. Witness, for example, the prose translation of the words of an exile cast into a vagabond existence after the death of his lord: “It will be realized by him who experiences it what a cruel companion anxiety is to one who has no kind protector. His thoughts are full of homeless wanderings—not of gold rings; of his shivering breast—not of the good things of the earth. He calls to mind the men of the hall and the giving of treasure, and how when he was young he was entertained to his heart’s content by his generous lord. But now all his happiness has passed away [2]!” The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were, of course, voyagers from Europe’s littoral who found a new homeland in England, who largely dispossessed the previous Celtic inhabitants of that land and forced them into a long retreat into the areas of Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland. Not too long after these invasions were successful than the Angles and Saxons were subjugated by their Norse and Norman cousins, until the resulting amalgam of Anglo-Norman culture was extended around the world by vagabondish descendants of theirs who were similarly torn between a love of adventure and a mournful longing of the loss that was at least in part brought about by their own martial abilities.

During the time of Jane Austen, the city of Bath was known as a place where husband-hunting women went to compete for the attention of vacationing elites. Two of Austen’s own novels rely on Bath as a key location in either starting (Northanger Abbey) or completing (Persuasion) the romantic drama of the plot [3]. Interestingly enough, these two novels also portray characters who may be said to be at the opposite end of efforts at husband-hunting. Catherine, whose romance with the witty and playful and somewhat older Henry Tilney is the subject of Northanger Abbey, is a teenager in her novel. On the other hand, Anne Eliot, the heroine of Persuasion, is a woman in her thirties, at an age where she is concerned that she might no longer be attractive to gentlemen of any age, much less a peer, the openhearted and passionate Captain Wentworth, who she spurned on the advice of her adopted mother years before. But whether at the younger or older age of marriageability, Bath ends up being the sort of place where one sees romantic drama happening, as single people were thrown together, and it became a matter of great importance who showed up nearby while one was chatting with friends, or how one behaved at a dance, or the way in which one showed oneself to be honorable in one’s dealings with others. What had been ruins 1000 years before was a city of great importance in the constricted social sphere of Jane Austen and her peers, but there is a sense of melancholy all the same in the way that happiness requires a favorable divine providence and a skill at navigating social minefields that not all of us possess.

How did the same place bring about such very different responses as the melancholy loss recorded by Saxon conquerors and the witty coquetry of Jane Austen? The length of time between the two does not account for the difference alone, for writers not too far removed from Jane Austen had a melancholy sense of loss when examining the industrial cities of Europe and North America, or that contemporary Americans have when looking at the travails of Detroit, to give but one example. When we look at the ruins of the past, our attention is drawn to the melancholy distance between the vibrant cities that once were, whose remnants we can witness and reflect upon, and the loss of that life in the present. When we are engaged in the affairs of life, of flirting and witty conversation, our concern is with the glories of the present, and with the hopes of a bright future. Yet whether we are engaged in love or war, or some unholy combination of the two, the places we travel through and dwell in are places that carry a much larger significance than our lives alone. Even when only emptiness remains, places are still haunted by the memory of what happened there before, and we carry the burden of what haunts us inside of ourselves, until the ruthless clutch of the grave drags us from our wandering on the face of this earth.

[1] Chadwick, Nora K, Anglo Saxon And Norse Poems (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1922). 55.

[2] ibid, 9, 11.

[3] These are novels I have written a fair amount about. See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Only Emptiness Remains

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