Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Lines 80 - 85
[…] The days are gone
of all the glory of the kingdoms of the earth;
there are not now kings, nor Caesars,
nor givers of gold, as once there were
when they, the greatest, among themselves performed valorous deeds
and with a most lordly majesty lived.
- After claiming that winning fame is the only way to live forever, the speaker implies that it has gotten a lot harder to do. Why? Because the glory days are over, folks.
- A little history lesson might be useful, here, to give us some context: The Anglo-Saxons lived among the ruins of the Roman occupation of England. Unfortunately, they no longer possessed the know-how to rebuild. So everyday they were surrounded by the physical evidence of what the speaker says here: that "there are not now kings, nor Caesars […] as once there were."
- Mentioning the loss of "givers of gold" implies that contemporary lords may not be as wealthy as lords once were. This loss confirms the speaker's belief, expressed in line 66, that the "riches of the world" do not last forever. Everything fades away.
- In contrast to the disdain with which the speaker describes the worldly, wealthy "city-dwellers," here he seems completely in awe of his ancestors, describing them as living in "lordly majesty," almost like gods. Their wealth, however, shows just how dire the current state of affairs is. With no more kingdoms of the earth, perhaps he'll have to shift his focus to the kingdom of heaven, where things just might be looking up.
Lines 86 - 90
All that old guard is gone and the revels are over—
the weaker ones now dwell and hold the world,
enjoy it through their sweat. The glory is fled,
the nobility of the world ages and grows sere,
as now does every man throughout the world.
- Basically, our guy is telling us the world has gone to pot. There are no longer noble kings or glory. We're left with only weak rulers as we waste away.
- A lot of the language in these lines reminds us of lines 75-80, in which the speaker described the achievement of eternal life among heavenly Hosts through fame and brave deeds. Repeated words include duguþ (Host, or guard), dream (joy, revel), and blaed (glory). These words are all associated with the departed kings, linking them to the eternal life with the angels.
- Though these departed kingdoms may possess eternal life because of their renown, the situation now is different: "weaker" ones walk the earth, and the people who are still left now enjoy the world only "through their sweat."
- What's that all about? For one thing, it tells us that now, humans have to work much harder than those who came before them. But this line may also be a reference to the Fall of Man. After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God punished them and all of humanity by forcing the sons of man to work for their food by the "sweat of their brow" (Genesis 3:19). Way to get Biblical, dude.
- The translator translates the Anglo-Saxon verb searian, which means to wither or dry up, to "grows sere." This verb compares the decay of these earthly kingdoms to the wilting of an unwatered plant. Here, though, it's the world's nobility that "grows sere." Can the world's nobility really wither away with time? According to this guy, absolutely.
- This passage compares the aging and withering of the world's glory to the aging of a single individual. Just as every person grows old and wastes away, so does the glory of the world. So if we're all doomed to this fate, is there anything we can do about it?
Lines 91 - 93
Age comes upon him, his face grows pale,
the graybeard laments; he knows that his old friends,
the sons of princes, have been given to the earth.
- Age "comes upon" every man, like some outside force that takes over his body. His face "grows pale," probably because he's ill, or can no longer work outside.
- Then, our speaker does something a bit strange. He calls this aging man "the graybeard." This is an example of a rhetorical device known as synecdoche; it substitutes one aspect of his physical appearance for his whole self. So the old guy, not his beard, is doing the lamenting here. What's cool about this synecdoche is that it shows us just how much the aging body comes to dominate an elderly person's existence. The man is literally nothing but his gray beard.
- The lament, or sadness, of the aged person occurs because of the deaths of his friends. By calling them the "sons of princes," the speaker reminds us that death comes to everyone, even the most powerful (just in case we hadn't gotten the gist before).
- Oh, and we should point out that describing death as a gift to the earth personifies the earth by making it into something that can receive these gifts. It also puts a positive spin on these deaths. At least someone, or rather something, is benefiting.
Lines 94 - 96
His body fails then, as life leaves him—
he cannot taste sweetness nor feel pain,
nor move his hand nor think with his head.
- Just as age is something that "comes upon" a man, so life acts like an independent force here, something that can leave a person all by itself.
- Part of that life leaving process is a failure of the senses. When we age, our speaker says, we can't taste or feel. The tragedy of being unable to taste sweetness is balanced by an inability to feel pain. Now there's a tradeoff.
- Plus there's the added problem that when you're old and on your deathbed, you can't really move. This would be totally devastating for an Anglo-Saxon warrior, whose livelihood depends upon the use of his sword and swiftness in battle.
- Finally, the culmination of the aging process is an inner loss – the loss of the power of the mind.
Though he would strew the grave with gold,
a brother for his kinsman, bury with the dead
a mass of treasure, it just won't work—
nor can the soul which is full of sin
preserve the gold before the fear of God,
though he hid it before while he was yet alive.
- So what do people do to ease the pain of death? Pile the grave with treasure, of course. That way, that "mass of treasure" will be like a brother for the dead man; it'll comfort him when his real kinsmen can't. This passage provides poetic evidence of the practice of burying powerful Anglo-Saxons with precious objects, which have been found at burial sites in England. And there you have it, folks: poetry and archaeology go hand in hand. Who knew?
- There's just one problem with this plan: it won't work. But why not?
- The second part of this passage answers that question. It tells us that the soul can't preserve the gold before the fear of God, which is basically another way of saying "you can't take it with you." In other words, you can't keep your material possessions with you after you die. God will not be impressed. You might be able to hide the gold while you're alive, the speaker says, but you definitely can't hide your greed from God.
- At the end of this passage, the gold that the soul attempts to "preserve" and "hide" becomes linked to sin because of the fact that gold is fully revealed to God after death, just like sins are.