Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Lines 12 - 17
[…] This the man does not know
for whom on land it turns out most favourably,
how I, wretched and sorrowful, on the ice-cold sea
dwelt for a winter in the paths of exile,
bereft of friendly kinsmen, hung about with icicles;
hail flew in showers. […]
- Now the speaker compares the knowledge of a lucky person with his own. He's basically saying that most people could never possibly understand what he's been through, because they stay on safe, cozy land.
- Although we still don't know the specifics of what happened to the speaker to send him on this miserable journey, by comparing himself negatively to the lucky person, he implies that his travels are tied to some kind of misfortune.
- These lines also describe even more winter weather: the sea is "ice-cold," hail falls, and icicles hang from the speaker. You read that right – from the speaker, himself. In a weird way, he's metaphorically comparing himself to a building.
- The speaker says he "dwells" in the paths of exile. It's not just that he walks this path: he actually lives there for a while. But what exactly does that mean? Well exile is a form of banishment, in which you're not allowed to return to your home. So for some reason or another, this guy is living far away, unable to return home.
- The word translated here as "paths," lást, literally means footsteps in Anglo-Saxon. So the speaker is walking in the footsteps of those who have gone before him. This metaphor shows us that the life of exile is one that many others before the speaker have had to live, and it most definitely doesn't sound fun.
- Plus, to make matters worse, he has no "friendly kinsman." There's no one around to chat with or chill with. Only the sea.
Lines 17 - 22
[…] There I heard nothing
but the roaring sea, the ice-cold wave.
At times the swan's song I took to myself as pleasure,
the gannet's noise and the voice of the curlew
instead of the laughter of men, the singing gull
instead of the drinking of mead. […]
- The speaker has already told us a lot about how he felt when he was on the sea, both physically and emotionally. Now he describes what he heard. And it ain't much – just the roar of the ocean and the cries of seabirds. There's not a human sound around.
- He did take pleasure in the "swan's song," so at least there was something sort of pleasant about this whole experience. But still, those bird-cries are nosubstitute for the pleasures he could enjoy in the mead hall (a place to eat and drink) among friends.
Lines 22 - 26
[…] Storms there beat the stony cliffs,
Where the tern spoke, icy-feathered;
always the eagle cried at it, dewy-feathered;
no cheerful kinsmen can comfort
the poor soul. […]
- The speaker personifies the winter weather again by saying the storms "beat" the stony cliffs, and the violence of this image reminds us of violent sea motion in lines 4 - 8. It's starting to seem like the whole world is out to get him.
- Plus, just as the speaker is "hung with icicles," a tern that flies overhead is "icy-feathered." Turns out, this tern is having just about as bad of a time as our speaker. The eagle "always" cries at it, and our best guess is that this means the eagle is probably trying to make a meal of the poor little tern.
- When the speaker says that, "no cheerful kinsmen can comfort the poor soul," it's not clear whether he's referring to the soul of a weary seafarer or the tern. But either way, it's clear that the speaker identifies with the tern in some way. They're both stuck out there, all alone on the frozen sea.
Lines 26 - 30
[…] Indeed he credits it little
the one who has the joys of life, dwells in the city,
far from terrible journey, proud and wanton with wine,
how I, weary, often have had to endure
in the sea-paths. […]
- Continuing a comparison he began in line 12, the speaker imagines the life of the lucky man who possesses the "joys of life," because he lives in the city. In the city, it seems, you're free to drink wine and forget your troubles.
- Despite acknowledging that the city-dweller possesses the "joys of life," the speaker doesn't exactly seem to think much of him. In fact, he calls him "proud," which would be seen as a negative attribute in the poem's Christian context. He also calls him "wanton with wine." "Wanton" means excessive or unrestrained, so this suggests that the city-dweller gets drunk a lot, which is hardly admirable.
- The speaker contrasts the city-dweller's life of pleasure with his own lifestyle of endurance on the "sea-paths." Suddenly the verb "endure," which the speaker linked to suffering in line 2, has become a positive thing. Endurance of hardship distinguishes the speaker from the proud and wanton city-dweller who has an easy life. He's a true believer in the phrase, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.
- He also tells us that the city-dweller does not "credit" the speaker's life of hardship. That's kind of an odd word to use, right? What do you think he means by "credit"? The Anglo-Saxon version of the word is gelýfan, which means to believe, confide, trust, or hope. So the speaker might be saying that the city-dweller puts no faith in a life of hardship. Or perhaps the city-dweller does not believe that this lifestyle is a worthwhile one; he simply doesn't see the value in it. Either way, it's clear our speaker thinks the city-dweller is a bit of a wimp. He's just too comfortable to truly understand struggle.