Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
So the earth-stepper spoke, mindful of hardships,
of fierce slaughter, the fall of kin:
Oft must I, alone, the hour before dawn
lament my care.
- Here, the poet formally introduces another speaker, the "earth-stepper," or traveler. We're probably meant to think of him as the "lone-dweller" from lines 1-5, or at the very least someone in the same situation. After all, he's alone and we know that he's sad, since he says that he "lament[s]" his problems.
- We could interpret lines 1-5 as a generalization about the fate of any exile, especially because it ends with a really general statement, "fate is fully established." But here, we get to hear about a specific exile, the "earth-stepper."
- Lines 8 to 9 are the beginning of the earth-stepper's speech. The poet tells us that the earth-stepper gives this speech while thinking about hardships, specifically, the "slaughter" of his relatives.
- The mention of slaughter gives us an idea about why somebody might have to go into exile alone: all your relatives are killed in battle, and you're on the run from your enemies.
- Old English poems often refer to the time before dawn as one in which people lament horrible things that have happened to them. This lament is called a "dawn-song."
Among the living
none now remains to whom I dare
my inmost thought clearly reveal.
I know it for truth: it is in a warrior
noble strength to bind fast his spirit,
guard his wealth-chamber, think what he will.
- OK, so we know that the earth-stepper's relatives are all dead. Now, he considers one consequence of their deaths: there's nobody to talk to.
- Thinking about revealing his innermost thoughts causes the earth-stepper to reflect on something he knows "for truth": that it's good for a warrior to "bind fast his spirit." What does he mean by this? In Old English, the word translated here as "spirit" is ferðlocan, which literally means "spirit-chest" and probably refers to the mind. So, it's good for a warrior to bind fast his mind, which might mean to keep his thoughts to himself.
- After calling the mind a "spirit-chest," the earth-stepper calls it a "wealth-chamber." This image of the mind suggests that thoughts are something priceless and precious, to be guarded carefully and only revealed to those you trust.
- Old English poetry often instructs people to keep their thoughts to themselves, or, at the very least, to think very carefully before speaking. With this passage, the poem connects itself to that tradition.
Weary mind never withstands fate,
nor does troubled thought bring help.
Therefore, glory-seekers, oft bind fast
in breast-chamber a dreary mind.
- With this passage, the earth-stepper gives a justification for keeping sad thoughts to yourself: because expressing sadness doesn't do any good, can't "bring help." If that's the case, though, then what's the point of this poem, which is basically a long expression of the earth-stepper's sadness?
- The idea of fate, or wyrd, returns again, and this time the poem raises the possibility of withstanding it (although not if you have a weary mind!). As line 5 says, fate is fully established – you can't change it. But this line suggests that there may be a way to approach fate that leaves you less hurt.
- Again, the earth-stepper tells his listeners to lock up their thoughts inside themselves. The word "bind" occurs again, as does the idea of the body as a chamber in which thoughts can be locked up.