Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Lines 66 - 71
[…] I do not believe
that the riches of the world will stand forever.
Always and invariably, one of three things
will turn to uncertainty before his fated hour:
disease, or old age, or the sword's hatred
will tear out the life for those doomed to die.
- Benjamin Franklin once said, "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." We can't help thinking our speaker just might agree, because that's basically what he's saying here: eventually we all lose our earthly prosperity and die. At least, that's what he believes.
- And he's pretty convincing, right? His use of the verb "stand" conveys stability and certainty, which is soon overpowered by the "turning," which suggests motion and powerful instability.
- In fact, the only certain thing here is that we'll all die one way or the other at the appointed time – either by disease, old age, or in battle. What an uplifting guy, our speaker.
- "His fated hour" could be God's, in which case it refers to the end of the world or Judgment Day. But it could also be the death hour of the individual person "doomed to die," in which case it applies to everyone.
- The poem personifies disease, old age, and the sword's hatred by saying that they "tear out" the life from a person. This reminds us of the hunger that "tears from within / the sea-weary soul" (11-12). That's certainly a violent way to go, isn't it?
- Plus, the phrase "sword's hatred," adds yet another layer of personification. A sword can't feel hatred, of course, but he attributes human emotion to it nevertheless, which makes that sword all the more sinister.
Lines 72 - 75
And so it is for each man the praise of the living,
of those who speak afterwards, that is the best epitaph,
that he should work before he must be gone
bravery in the world
- The phrase "so it is for each man" refers both to what came before it (the inevitability of death) and what comes after it: for each man, the praise of the living is the best epitaph. When you break it down, he's saying that every man must face death, but that the praise of others will be the best epitaph after that death. So at least there's some consolation, right guys?
- In these lines, our speaker is demonstrating the typical Anglo-Saxon warrior ethic. Anglo Saxons believed that in a world filled with death, the only way to live forever is to perform deeds that win you the praise of those who come after you, who will then commemorate you in story and song.
- We think of an epitaph as something written on a gravestone, but the Anglo-Saxon word used here is lastworda: "last-words." These words may be written or spoken, and they might refer to the words the survivors use to remember a great warrior who has recently died. Of course they could also refer to the last words of the warrior himself.
- In line 75, the speaker emphasizes bravery, which is certainly something you're going to need if you're to be a kick-butt Anglo-Saxon warrior. But the added bonus is, that bravery will make you be remembered after you're gone, too.
Lines 75 - 80
[…] against the enmity of devils,
daring deeds against the fiend,
so that the sons of men will praise him afterwards
and his fame afterwards will live with the angels
for ever and ever, the glory of eternal life,
joy with the Hosts. […]
- Now the poem puts a Christian spin on the typical idea of an Anglo-Saxon warrior that we've just seen described in the previous lines. Instead of earning renown in battle against other warriors, a person must win fame by doing brave deeds against the devil. That's not just any enemy.
- Of course fighting the devil still sounds pretty warrior-like to us, especially when we continue reading and see that the reward for fighting the devil is that the "sons of men" will give you praise and fame.
- But still, the poem also points out that these brave, devil-fighting deeds just might be rewarded with eternal life and joy with the Hosts. We're taking a definite turn toward the religious here.
- It's worth noting, though, that the word used here for "Hosts" is duguþ. Anglo-Saxon texts usually use this word in a military context to talk about an army. So once again, the poem is mixing Christian theology with Anglo-Saxon warrior language. The lines are a bit blurry between the two, which leaves lots of room for your own interpretation. Does a warrior win himself eternal life in the memory of his comrades and fellow fighters? Or does he win himself eternal life in heaven, with the angels? Or can it be both?