The narrator of the poem begins by describing a damaged stone wall "wrecked by fate". The old houses around it are falling apart, their roofs are caving in, their towers are crumbling, their gates are broken, and frost clings to the mortar.
The unnamed craftsmen who built these structures over a hundred generations ago are now buried in the ground. The surviving walls have outlived the inhabitants of many kingdoms. The structures have withstood violent storms even when the main gate gave way to nature's fury.
A craftsman used his determination and intellect to build this city. He used metal rods to create a strong foundation. The narrator describes the man's technique as a "marvel". When it was complete, the city boasted majestic halls and numerous bathhouses. The mead hall was always filled with the loud and boisterous clamor of the military men. Soon, though, fate altered the course of this thriving metropolis.
The plague ravaged the population, and even the strongest men could not withstand the pestilence. The city builders and warriors perished alike, leaving empty ramparts throughout the city. Without the human resources necessary to maintain it, the city fell into decay.
Now, the poem continues, the courts are crumbling and tiles are falling off the arches. The proud city where men dressed in gold, their cheeks red with wine, would lavishly celebrate their wealth has since been reduced to piles of stone.
The courts were made of stone and heated baths surrounded by walls. The poem's last few discernable fragments could indicate that the baths somehow connect to the city's noble inhabitants, but it is unclear.
This short poem is incomplete in its present form because the manuscript was partially destroyed by a fire (legend has it that that a branding iron fell upon the codex when it was facedown). However, it is still a clear testament to the lyrical beauty of Old English poetry. Author and literary critic Kevin Crossley-Holland describes "The Ruin" as "an antiquarian's delight", conveying the message that "everything man-made will perish, and that there is no withstanding the passing years." He does not find the poem depressing, but rather, he believes that it inspires "admiration and celebration." Indeed, while it has some similarities with other Anglo-Saxon pieces, "The Ruin" contains no evocation of suffering, anguish, or exile.
In "The Ruin", the narrator describes what he sees before him: a ruined, empty city which is just a shell of its former glory. It is clear that time has ravaged this place, but that the true catalyst to its destruction was the plague that killed nearly all of its inhabitants, including the strongest men. The narrator conjures up vivid images of the loud revelry that used to emanate from the mead hall, where gold-clad soldiers would toast their wealth. Unfortunately, as the narrator notes, their hardiness was no match for the power of nature. Even after the plague, nature's forces continued to bear down upon the city with furious storms. However, some of the walls have lasted for several generations. It was common for Anglo-Saxon writers to focus their work the ravages of nature like disease, intemperate weather, and the destruction of crops. Sometimes, they would invent a character that embodied nature's threat, like Grendel in Beowulf. The "Ruin" also expresses the belief, similar to that in "Deor", that all things pass in time. People will always die and buildings will decay because time will keep marching forward.
Most scholars believe that the titular ruins are in the present-day city of Bath. During the time of the poem's composition, however, Bath was the Roman city of Aquae Sulis. Like the poem describes, Aquae Sulis was surrounded by outer walls and had bathhouses, grand temples, and halls. If the poet was indeed describing Aquae Sulis/Bath, then the poem may date from the Mid-Seventh century, when King Oswic of Hwicce controlled the area.
Scholar Stephen J. Herben believes that the poet was writing about The Roman Wall. Many critics claim that Bath is the only location in England that possesses the characteristics described in the poem, but Herben suggests that Hadrian's Wall and the "associated complex of Roman settlements, Corstopitum, Chesters, Housesteads, and the like" also fit the description. The first twenty-five lines of the poem allude to towers, battlements, bathing houses, and banqueting halls, all of which are present at Hadrian's Wall. Additionally, Herben notes that treasure mentioned in the poem dovetails nicely with the real treasure that was distributed around Hadrian's Wall and the surrounding areas.
As for the hot water, Herben believes that it represents the aqueducts at Halton Chesters. The lines of the poem do not specifically say that the water was issued from the earth; "they may more justly be taken to mean that the heated water was run copiously into the baths." Herben's short article promoting "The Ruin" as Hadrian's Wall is merely one theory, but it helps reinforce the fact that many of the Anglo-Saxon poems are complex, inscrutable, and ambiguous in their meaning and that modern readers may never truly understand their intended meaning.