A. D. Hope's "Beware of Ruins" (1981) is a poem about memory and imagination motivated to engage by viewing ruins from a Renaissance past. Seeking the world's past arouses the poet to find and reconstruct his own past of things read and experiences lived—the ruins being, themselves, a kind of materialized memory which inspires flights into memories of one's own cultural and personal experiences. The poem is also about aging, about how one would romantically and ideally reconstruct, through ruins, another's past, but with much more difficulty, reconstruct oneself in one's own past. In this latter sense, "Beware of Ruins" gestures toward an expression of how one is dead to the past and moving toward the death in the future.
"Beware of Ruins" has been chosen for inclusion in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1988), and in A. D. Hope: Selected Poems (1986). The poem appears, in terms of commentary, ignored. Perhaps the poem is thought to stand on its own without need of praise or blame, or, on the other hand, stand on its own in terms of self-sufficiency, needing neither notes nor interpretation. While the poem most assuredly stands alone in each of these senses, "Beware of Ruins" has been underappreciated and underanalyzed, at least in the United States.
The poet as narrator cautions his reader about ruins, at this point, any ruins. Their "treacherous charm" might, at this point, remind one of a kind of cliche about women since Eve. The ruins' "insidious echoes" make them ghostly as a graveyard, and the "scummy pool" adds a tad of horror to the scene, especially with its echoes of a temporally distant fountain. This may evoke feelings of discomfort, but intrigues one to plunge farther into them, to reconstruct a past that beckons, allures one away from the present.
Near the pool is a seated figure of white marble or plaster, white like bones are, white: the color of survival, the color of ghosts. The seated figure, like the ruins, beckons one as love once dead but come back, white like death in life, like a consumptive paleness sometimes considered beautiful. Perhaps the figure is a woman?
Moonlight on the figure (now revealed as a woman) further associates her with love, but something lurks behind her appearance like a memory. Melusine is a mermaid creature from a story by Jean d'Arras written in 1387. Melusine looks human but every Sabbath turns into a kind of mermaid, more accurately, a snake from the waist down, a creature who cannot be seen by her husband lest it destroy their relationship. When he sees her in the bath one Sabbath, she runs off never to be seen again in human form. Thus Melusine is a creature of treacherous appearance, a bit evil, not to be trusted, at least from the waist down. Folded into this image is the masterful ninth line, which indicates that while moonlight might be the light of love, it lacks the warmth of the sunlight which lies "behind" it like a memory. In this way, moonlight is the ruins of sunlight, and therefore, a treacherous light.
The moat is misleading. It is choked with irritating nettles and fungi growing in the rot-filled water. The "phallic" nature of the fungi makes the moat obscene, as if the moat were pornography filled up with images of the penis.
In the scene of stones, pool, statue, and moat, appears a Tudor tower. Perhaps a reasonable interpretation of this stanza is that one is apt, through time, to feel that one's past—or oneself in the past—was better than it really was, good thoughts soothing the mind. Such thoughts are "monstrous assumptions," spins or interpretations of the "unburied past" made (dug up) in the present. Through interpreting the past in a good light, memory puts a kind of fagade on the past (the Tudor tower). This fagade is, perhaps, the last good instance one remembers, an instance the rememberer uses to cover what is and what was the crumbling tower (the past). In this stanza the past is represented by both a decaying tower and a corpse, a tower that will decay despite its facade and a corpse that decomposes despite its death mask.
The last stanza marks a reversal of images while still adhering to the subject of memory. Where the first three stanzas involved a present narrator walking into a ruined present with a statue, pool, moat, and tower, and from it reconstructing a favorable, standing past, here the narrator walks into a past scene—perhaps a sensual one—fully intact and as beckoning as the seated figure in the first stanza. But here the man is not who he once was, is older (this poem was written when the poet was 74). This time, it is not the past scene that is in ruins, but the narrator's present self, a man who has aged and is becoming himself a ruins. The narrator is unable to reconstruct himself as a young man in the way he might attempt to reconstruct the past of a ruined scene.