Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Lines 103 - 105
Great is the fear of the Lord, before which the world stands still;
He established the firm foundations,
the corners of the world and the high heavens.
- We've taken some sharp turns in this poem so far, and these lines are yet another example. Where just a moment ago, we were talking about death, suddenly the speaker exalts God as the creator of the world, that before which "the world stands still."
- Check out how the "firm foundations" and the fact that the world "stands still" contrast with the verbs of motion in previous passages. Our speaker seems very interested in comparing things in motion with things that are stable. God definitely falls in the latter group. The idea here is that the "rolling" of the waves, the "twisting" of the soul, and even the speaker's restless journeying are all stilled by the fear of the Lord.
- "Foundations" is the translation of an Anglo-Saxon word, grundas, which also means "ground" or "bottom." This word, grundas, combines with "high heavens" to paint a picture of a top-to-bottom creation, while the "corners of the world" encompass the side-to-side nature of it.
- The whole effect emphasizes the completeness of God's creation, and the fact that there's no part of the world that doesn't owe its existence to him. According to our speaker, God has totally got this covered.
Lines 106 - 108
A fool is the one who does not fear his Lord – death comes to him unprepared.
Blessed is he who lives humbly – to him comes forgiveness from heaven.
God set that spirit within him, because he believed in His might.
- This passage says that the fool who doesn't fear God is not prepared for death when it finally does come. We might take this lack of fear to mean something like arrogance or pride, which popped up in lines 26-30 with the poem's description of the "proud city-dweller."
- Of course, the opposite of such pride would be to live with humility, or humbly. Our speaker likes that idea; it guarantees forgiveness from heaven, and probably a ticket to the afterlife.
- But like old age and life in the previous lines, the spirit of humility comes to a person not by his choice. Instead, a belief in God's might – the "fear of the Lord" – causes God to give a person this spirit of humility, which then earns him "forgiveness from heaven." So humility is a blessing from God and not a quality a person possesses from birth.
- It seems like for our speaker, it's pretty much all up to God.
Lines 109 - 113
Man must control his passions and keep everything in balance,
keep faith with men and be pure in wisdom.
Each of men must be even-handed
With their friends and their foes.
- Not so fast. It turns out man still has some control over his destiny.
- In a group of something we call maxims, proverbs, or aphorisms – rules of behavior that represent the value system of a specific culture – the speaker tells us how a man should live his life, presumably in order to reach heaven after death.
- Controlling the passions was important to Anglo-Saxons, so it makes sense that this idea is included here.
- This "balance" he refers to is fitting as well, because it reminds us of the creation of God in lines 103-106, in which the high heavens are balanced by the firm foundations. The word in the text that the translator translates as "balance" is staþel, which actually means "foundation," or "a fixed position, state, or site." The speaker is saying that a man must keep everything stable, or fixed, just as God's creation is fixed. These lines provide yet another contrast to the motion from the earlier part of the poem.
- To "keep faith with men" means to keep one's word, which was another important value in the Anglo-Saxon culture.
- And finally, the speaker recommends even-handedness, which can also be translated as "measure" – with both friends and foes. Typically, an Anglo-Saxon warrior might rather ruthlessly think that he owes nothing to an enemy, so this maxim just might be the poem's Christian influence revealing itself. In any case, it means man should be fair, and treat everyone just the same.
Lines 113 - 116
[damaged / missing from manuscript]
though he does not wish him in the foulness of flames
or on a pyre to be burned
his contrived friend, Fate is greater
and God is mightier than any man's thought.
- This passage throws a bit of a wrench into our summary because part of the text is damaged or missing from the manuscript. It seems to start in the middle of a sentence that counsels us readers to accept fate, even though that fate may be to watch your friend's body burn on a funeral pyre.
- "His contrived friend" might be better translated as "the one who was made his friend": what's translated here is a form of the Anglo-Saxon verb gewyrcan, which means to make.
- That this person is called not just a friend, but also "the one who was made his friend," emphasizes the way in which friendship is a process that occurs over a lifetime, something that must be created and worked on. Of course this makes the loss of a friend all the more tragic.
- Fate and God are presented as two separate but related things in this passage, both of which are more powerful than an individual's wishes or "any man's thought." This phrase probably refers here to a person's wish to have his life go a particular way – for example, not to have to watch your friend's body be burned on a pyre.
Lines 117 - 121
Let us ponder where we have our homes
and then think how we should get thither –
and then we should all strive that we might go there
to the eternal blessedness that is a belonging life
in the love of the Lord joy in the heavens.
- Instead of wishing our lives were different, this passage tells us we should think about where our true home is, and focus on getting there. The poet cleverly uses same root word for "ponder" that he did for "thought" in line 102, hycg. This highlights the contrast, or the way in which this thought is a better alternative to the one in line 102.
- What's so neat about these lines is that they bring the poem all the way back around to its beginnings. By telling us to focus on how to get home, the speaker reminds us of the poem's earlier discussion of travel and journeys. And with "strive," the poem returns to the idea of the struggle against the sea that was so central at the beginning.
- This passage just might confirm our suspicions that the sea-journey from the opening of the poem is metaphorical as well as literal. The struggles on the ocean represent a journey through life or, in this case, through the spiritual life of the soul.
- So if we stick with that interpretation, then the "true home" is a "belonging life in the love of the Lord." In other words, our true home is with the Lord, and we should live in a way that helps us get there. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker spoke of "dwelling" in exile. Here he is talking about feeling at home – belonging – in a completely different place.
Lines 122 - 124
Let there be thanks to God that he adored us,
the Father of Glory, the Eternal Lord,
for all time. Amen.
- Although this passage is a simple prayer of thanks, we might also read it as an explanation for the existence of the "true home" of the previous lines: God adored mankind, so he made a home for them.
- God is the "Father of Glory" and the "Eternal Lord" in ealle tid – "for all time." He's a stable guy, this God, and this stability is the ultimate contrast with all the relentless motion of the seas that we've seen throughout the first half of the poem.
- And of course, how could we forget the "Amen"? The inclusion of this word tells us that we might read this poem, or at least its last few lines, as a kind of prayer, which leaves no doubt about the undercurrent of religious meaning that's been flowing throughout the lines. Turns out our seafarer is a pretty pious guy.