Connecting with the Past

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Sara Butterfass
Howard Lake, MN '12

"Wondrous is this stone wall, wrecked by fate; / the city-buildings crumble, the works of the giants decay. / Roofs have caved in, towers collapsed, / barred gates are broken, hoar frost clings to mortar, / houses are gaping, tottering and fallen, / undermined by age. The earth's embrace, / its fierce grip, holds the mighty craftsmen; / they are perished and gone."

These are the opening lines of the Anglo-Saxon poem titled by modern scholars "The Ruin." This version is a translation of the Old English in which it would have originally been composed. In York today I can see many of the same things that this 8th century poet saw in the city about which he was writing. He was writing about the Roman city of Bath in southwest England and felt dwarfed by the grandeur even of the ruins of their stone structures. As a wood-working culture, the Anglo-Saxons had no reference for stone works such as to be seen in Bath.
Today in York I can see the stone remains of the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, and the successive generations residing in York. There are the city walls that served as a defense against invaders, now outdated and crumbling in places, the York Minster continually under repair yet still an astounding stone structure despite its weathered and cracked facade, and other stone ruins like St. Mary's Abbey. And just like this Anglo-Saxon poet felt, it seems that these works were constructed by giants. I know that this is not true - it was skilled architects who built these structures, yet when you stand inside or outside of any of these buildings a feeling of being small and unimposing washes over you. The amount of time devoted to the craftsmanship still visible even in the decaying and crumbling remains is impressive.
Many of the buildings in York show some sign of their age, and this poet's sentiment that earthly things fall into decay and return to the earth where they are built can be felt over 1000 years later. Walking through a city where so many feet have trod and so much history has been made, whether or not it has been recorded, puts into perspective that as an individual, whatever mark I may make on this world may be insignificant in the course of time. However, this does not mean that I should not strive to make a mark. The men who built the stone structures in York and Bath were not giants, and did not intend to be remembered as such; yet, their work impacted a viewer even after it had become outdated enough for him to compose a poem about its beauty. And I think in the grand scheme of things, to impact the next generation in a positive manner is not such a bad way to be remembered.

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