. . . wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry . . .
Shakespeare, although not a Mason, well understood that the lapse of time, the ruthless hand of ignorance, and the devastations of war have laid waste and destroyed many valuable monuments of antiquity upon which the utmost exertions of human genius have been employed. Indeed, this thought permeates Masonic Degrees and oral tradition, for even the masterful building which lies at the heart of Masonic Ritual, the Temple of Solomon, so spacious and magnificent, and constructed by so many celebrated artists, escaped not the unsparing ravages of barbarous force.
Remembrance of ruins as symbols of the passage of time and the destruction wrought by war and violence, however, is somewhat offset by their inspirational quality, promoting both aesthetic and moral reflection. “Wondrous is this masonry, shattered by the Fates!” wrote the anonymous medieval Anglo-Saxon poet of yore. Here and elsewhere in the gifted modern translation of N. Kershaw, the writer of this poem now known simply as “The Ruin” speaks of a crumbling ancient bath built by the ancient Romans during their occupation of Britain. This unknown bard speaks of the shattered buildings, the collapsed roof, and the towers in ruins, but also uses these images to imagine a past he could not see visually, but is able to imagine with its “banqueting halls, full of the joy of life” and “many a warrior, joyous hearted and radiant with gold.” Ironically, portions of this poem itself from the “Exeter Book” have been destroyed by fire, so the now-disjointed words continue to compel readers of today to wonder about, and be inspired by, the ruined ephemeral triumphs of a medieval writer envisioning a more ancient past. Insightful readers of the poem in our own era may also pause to reflect on the eventual fate of the architectural, monumental, and technological achievements of our own era.
During the Romantic Age of the nineteenth-century, artists viewed ruins and literary fragments of the past as indicative of longing for the sublime, with missing portions seen as expressing the ineffable. Painters such as J.M.W. Turner and sketch artists such as Gustave Doré delighted in portraying ruins of the medieval and classical past in art works, from what remains of Tintern Abbey to the classical columns representing, in the words of the poet Poe, “the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome.” Some nobility of the 1800’s would even have new “ruins” constructed on their estates. In a sense, ruins and legends of ruins may be said to have suggested and informed important passages of Masonic Ritual itself.
Just as ruins urge us on to imagine artistic masterpieces and past civilizations, they also have the power to stir the imagination of the present. The Parthenon in Athens, the Forum Romanum of Rome, and other ruins of the classical era inspired modern architectural wonders in our capital city such as the buildings of the Supreme Court, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, Lincoln Memorial, and of course the Capitol Building itself. These efforts give concrete meaning to the words of the biblical prophet Isaiah that “they shall build the places that have been waste from of old, and shall raise up ancient ruins . . . ” (Isaiah 61: 4; Douay-Rheims American translation of 1899). At the same time, the ruins of the medieval and ancient past cause us to reflect upon the eventual fate of our own monuments, both personal and collective.