“The Stupendous Past”: Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins

A version of this text was presented at The Writing of Rose Macaulay, in Her Historical and Cultural Context, held at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 23 September, 2011. Special thanks to Dr. Kate Macdonald for organising this event.

Rose Macaulay’s late, great work, Pleasure of Ruins is one of the first books to give an expanded history of architectural decay. It represents an inquisition into the images, philosophy, theology, archaeology and literature of ruin. And, moreover, it is a book that allows its subject matter to infect its logic and form: it is a sprawling and enigmatic work; an excessive and truly stupendous book. I’d like to suggest to you that Rose Macaulay explores what it means to write about ruins, the first of its kind to analyse in any extensive manner the relationship between the disappearance of buildings and the disappearance of words used to describe them.

I. Beginnings 

But, before I get carried off into the labyrinthine quality of this work, a word of caution; a warning that seeks to qualify what Rose Macaulay says about ruins and what I, in turn, have to say about her:

Ruin is always over-stated; it is part of the ruin-drama staged perpetually in the human imagination, half of whose desire is to build up, while the other half smashes and levels to the earth.[1]

Pleasure of Ruins is neither a work of fiction nor a scholarly journey into the purely nonfictional, but a book that follows the affective qualities of its subject to make extravagant movements between the actual and the invented. Emphasising her emphatic belief in the ruin-mindedness of human beings, Rose Macaulay’s nonfiction is thick with fictional drama, breaking down its subject only to rebuild it through a dialectical, allegorical potential through which pasts blend into the present. This provocative nature of ruin is summarised by Byron in Canto X of Don Juan, “A grey wall, a green ruin, rusty pike, / Make my soul pass the equinoctial line / Between the present and past worlds, and hover / Upon their airy confine, half-seas-over.”[2] And, I think, in form and content, Pleasure of Ruins leaves us with a tipsy sense of overstated disquiet.

Simply opening the pages of Pleasure of Ruins soon reveals its airy and enormous referential range. It has a variety of genre – poetic, epistolic, biblical, mythological, scientific and archaeological – and an equally impressive variety of historical sources. Macaulay takes extensive quotations from Egyptian, Classical, Mediaeval, Renaissance and Early Modern, 18th, 19th and 20th century texts. I’ll have more to say about this referential depth later but until then I think it is worth noting at the outset that Macualay’s relentless engagement with the writing of others is one of the overriding features of the book, it is her chosen mode of overstatement. So, Rose is clearly not the first to write with or about ruin; indeed, she was not even the first Macaulay to write with or about ruin.

Gustave Doré, “The New Zealander,” in London: A Pilgrimage, ed. Blanchard Jerrold (London: Grant, 1872).


Concluding an article for the Edinburgh Review in 1840, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Rose’s first cousin twice removed, introduced an image of ‘the New Zealander’ to the British public. He used a projective image of London’s ruin to argue that Catholicism “may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”[3] So prevalent did this idea of the inquisitive and judgmental New Zealander become that by 1865 Punch placed it on their list of ruined rhetoric, literary devices judged to be “used up, exhausted, threadbare, stale and hackneyed.”[4] As a side note, many of you may be familiar with Gustave Doré’s rendering of this exhausted image; it shows that racial and political outsider, wandering from the periphery of things to visit the fallen core of an empire now past. It is of course the inverse image of the grand tour we receive in Pleasure of Ruins. The sentiment shared between Thomas Macaulay’s invocation of the New Zealander and Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins concern the travels and transportations afforded by ruin, the temporal and spatial mediation that makes ruin a thing in and of history; a thing through which we engage and refashion the past and a powerful object with which we might fashion the future.

II. Writing, Imagination, Democracy

Since writing is Rose Macualay’s chosen mode of temporal and poetic transportation, I think it worth calling into question how writing informs what she calls her “random excursion into a fantastic world” (PR, xvii). She goes on to claim that it is impossible to capture the “true” ruin (ibid) – they are constantly changing, evolving and dissolving. And, compounding this material mutability, ruins share many attributes with writing; their dubious truth is always in danger of being subsumed within the contingent terms of human representation. “ruins are always on the wing” writes Macaulay, “piece by piece they crumble away, or are transformed into something else, we stalk them down the centuries, surprising them at intervals, pinning them down, and in each stage they are less” (PR, 234). In one respect, writing about ruin serves to arrest the mutability of decay but in another respect writing suffers a comparable capacity for fragmentary obsolescence – recall the scattered prayer books which litter The World My Wilderness, the “drift of grey ashes” that signal the destruction of Miss Anstruther’s letters, or, as Macaulay wrote to Sylvia Lynd, “the charred pages of my books” that were behind after the bombing raid in 1941.[5] What emerges in these images of written decay is a familiar sentiment regarding the futility and contingency of graphic description, equally at home in the Romanticism of, say, Shelley’s fading coals as it is in the textual supplementarity of poststructural linguistics: we might try to pin ruins down but can do so only partially; they will always be less and less and less, and even that which we do manage to pin down cannot compensate for the loss of the rest. Little wonder, then, that Macaulay compares ruins to “the extant fragments of some lost and noble poem” (PR, xvii).

In her hands, ruins are a series of lost words among a world of disappearing inscriptions, fragments shored with and against words. That writing might be compared to the extant fragments of some lost and noble ruin might help to explain the extraordinary number of quotations she uses to weave her history of ruin pleasure. Perhaps her architectural subjects can only speak through these textual fragments, not so much as a tissue of quotations but more like a ruinous, polyvocal mass of extant linguistic fragments, none of which may adequately stand for a lost whole or guarantee an origin to the ruinous tradition from which Pleasure of Ruins so energetically issues. A tumbling series of quotations, expressed in a grammatical form that Sarah LeFanu has described as “a tottering pile of clauses and phrases.”[6] In both senses of the word, Macaulay’s is a work of fractured stanza. This is what makes her excursion into a world of fantasy such a modern one; it is a journey into the doubtful powers of form and transcription.

Driven by the complex uncertainties of ruins and their powers to unbalance the factual accuracies of writing, Macaulay argues that ruins make “poets and artists of nearly all tourists” (PR, 73) – ruins give a licence to roam; her book is largely dedicated to recording the records of the more rapturous and fantastical responses to Classical ruin, to which she is both an aloof and enthusiastic contributor. Ruins, for Macaulay, are “the ghosts of dead ages sleeping together” (PR, 127). In these rhapsodic fantasies, often motivated by the whispered hearsay of history, we find almost a truism of contemporary ruin theory that has been neatly summarised by Christopher Woodward, in his book called In Ruins. Precisely because ruins are materially incomplete, writes Woodward, “each spectator is forced to supply the missing pieces from his or her own imagination.”[7] Hardly a revelation, one might reasonably think, but it is an intuition important to the poetic qualities Macaulay and many others attribute to ruins. Their supplementary quality operates on textual, visual as well as epistemological levels; we do not necessarily ‘experience’ ruins directly or by miraculous isolation, but do so by mediating their liminal effects that transport our attention beyond and across the material we encounter. Our experience and consequent interpretation of ruined places become dominated by structures of metonymic correspondence and spectral supplementarity, an experience of architecture metered by a rich interplay between absent and present entities. Ruins, by definition, are engines of speculation. “Such guesses”, writes Macaulay, “are among the ruin-taster’s imaginative enjoyment” (PR, 42). Here we reach a certain kind of democratic universalism – whether you be an experienced archaeologist returning to a familiar site or a young child visiting a ruin for the first time – the pleasure of ruins is open to all. “there is room” writes Macaulay, for “all approaches in that ruin-wilderness” (PR, 213).

As I have already noted, Pleasure of Ruins argues that ruin is a cognitive quality common to all humanity, “The human race is, and always has been, ruin-minded. The literature of all ages has found beauty in the dark and violent forces, physical and spiritual, of which ruin is one symbol” (PR, 20); she goes on to speak, in overstated terms, of “that eternal ruin-appetite which consumes the febrile and fantastic human mind” (PR, 39). And yet, Macaulay is keen to explore the rather prosaic and historically divisive specificity of architectural ruin – so that they mean certain things about certain people at certain times. The “ghosts of dead ages” might be sleeping together but they are not allowed to sleep in equal comfort – Macaulay, like so many other ruin writers, hosts some ghosts and banishes others. Now I must tread carefully, there’s a finger-wagging dead end to be avoided; I will not dwell on Macaulay’s frequent allusions to those “greedy and ignorant Arabs” (PR, 135) and their disproportionate abuse of the ruins she so dearly loves. Instead, I prefer to focus on how she celebrates both the plurality of ruin response and their powers to generate a history of a highly specific nature.

III. ‘Our’ Stupendous Past

The history of ruin, as it is presented to us by Macaulay, is the qualified history of western civilisation. This is a civilisation that issues out of Greece and Rome.

in the ruin-loving dreams of western man, Persia cannot compete. It is Greece and Italy which have always mainly enshrined those wistful, backward-gazing dreams. Perhaps because it was there that our civilization was cradled and grew; we yearn back to these vestiges of our past. Perhaps because we have been bred in a classical culture, given from our youth up to understand there was the glory of the world: hypnotized, our eyes dazzle with it. Here were Socrates, Plato, Pericles, Praxiteles; here was Troy, here was Athens, the Islands, there Magna Graecia, and the tremendousness of Rome. Nothing can compete (PR, 151–152, my emphasis).

Athens becomes “the very centre of ruin-pleasure” (PR, 164). And the fortune of Roman architecture becomes synonymous with ‘history’. “Age by age, piece by piece, history falls with Rome; age by age, piece by piece, history rises as Rome rises; it is the tale of western man” (PR, 165). What can we take from statements like this? I’d like to suggest that it earmarks the duplicity of ruin as an object of historical thought: ruins are open to wild flights of fancy, dramatic moments of overstated superstition, but they can also be stages for calculated and codified acts of historical regulation, the reconstruction of an us and a them, a history of our and theirs, a history populated by victors and losers.

But, as Macaulay frequently points out, ruins are always on the move, always undergoing change, forever torn between survival and dissolution. What, then, becomes of the history that we make by these mutating entities? Although the ‘tale of western man’ might be told through ruin, the architectural basis for this history is under threat. Again, Macaulay equivocates about the paradoxical “ruin of ruins” (PR, 67). Macaulay cannot decide between the fantastic romanticism of decay or the redemptive security of the past, her past, her sense of western civilisation, that might be recovered through these extant fragments.

This conflict is born out in the rough ride that archaeologists receive in Pleasure of Ruins. By being stripped of their picturesque disorder ruins lose their poetic force, their powers of provocation. She speaks of the “familiar tragedy of archaeology—the sacrifice of beauty to knowledge” (PR, 147) and, in a marvellous moment, she claims that “Shelley would have been disgusted” if he could only see the scandal of modern Rome (PR, 202). History, Macaulay’s history, fails not in picturesque ruin but in the ruin of the picturesque – there can be no more screech-owls, toads, bats or creeping ivy once the archaeologists have rolled into town. Archaeologists corrupt the poetic history of decay. Nevertheless, Macaulay also speaks of a Dionysian battle between archaeologists, the “ruin-preservers”, and the “ruin destroyers”, those that have quarried or simply demolished ruins in order to build anew (PR, 177). Archaeology maintains ruins as well as destroys their pleasures. Excavation can make them sites of scientific enquiry that save them from redevelopment, only to lose the overwhelming and overstated effects that are the object of Macaulay’s fascination.

IV. Legacies

In 1953 Pleasure of Ruins was warmly reviewed in the British press. One reviewer, writing for The Times was quick to seal its monumental stature,

There are certain dissertations so balanced, wise, and comprehensive that they go down to future generations as So-and-So on Such-and-Such. Here is one of those rarities: “Macaulay on Ruins.” The theme has been tracked once for all, extensively, exhaustively, with wit and eloquence.[8]

And despite being out of print for decades, Pleasure of Ruins is still revered. Indeed, there has been in recent years something of a ruin fever sweeping through the social sciences and humanities. I think we can reasonably place Macaulay’s book as a precursor to this more recent fad. As a brief indication of the contemporary interest in ruin among academics, here’s a selection of books dedicated to the subject:

Michael S. Roth, Claire Lyons and Charles Merewether, ed., Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 1997).

Robert Ginsberg, The Aesthetics of Ruins (New York: Rodopi, 2004).

Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality (Oxford: Berg, 2005).

Dylan Trigg, The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason (New York: Peter Lang, 2007).

Nicholas Yablon, Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of Urban Modernity, 1819-1919 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009).

Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle, ed., Ruins of Modernity (Durham: Duke U P, 2010).

Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (London: Verso, 2010).

Brian Dillon, ed., Ruins (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT, 2011).

Almost all of these reference Macualay’s book, many make a point of acknowledging its formative importance. Robert Ginsberg calls it the “pre-eminent masterpiece of ruin-writing”.[9] And, in his introduction to an anthology published earlier this year, Brian Dillon describes Pleasure of Ruins as “one of the classic studies of the subject”[10].

I’ll end with this: just as responses to ruin are always overstated, it would be wrong of me to overstate Macaulay’s role in the history of ruin writing. Ruins are both a very old and a very contemporary concern. But hers is a distinctive contribution: collating sources from an extraordinary range of generic and historical locations, equivocating the precise relationship between architecture and its description, emphasising the semantic democracy of ruin whilst advancing an exclusionary history of it, and, finally, chiding the work of archaeologists with one hand and praising them with another. If I can conclude that Pleasure of Ruins has entered some kind of ruin writing canon, attaining that monumental status of ‘Macaulay on Ruins’, then I do so and it does so through a host of speculations, contradictions and idiosyncrasies, all of which remain a pleasure of remains.

[1] Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1953), 100. My emphasis. Hereafter PR in the text.

[2] Lord Byron, Don Juan, ed. Truman Guy Steffan, E. Steffan and W.W. Pratt (London: Penguin, 2004), X 61.

[3] Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Review of Leopold von Ranke’s The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. Sarah Austin”, Edinburgh Review, 72, October 1840, 227-58.

[4] “A Proclamation,” Punch 48, 7 January 1865, 9.

[5] Quoted in Sarah LeFanu, Rose Macaulay, 233.

[6] Sarah LeFanu, 177.

[7] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), 15.

[8] “Ancient Splendours: The Lure of Ruins”, The Times, 9th December 1953, 10.

[9] Robert Ginsberg, Aesthetics of Ruin (New York: Rodopi, 2004), 463.

[10] Brian Dillon, “Introduction: A Short History of Decay” in Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT, 2011), 11.