Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
A wise man perceives how ghastly it will be
when all the world's weal desolate stands,
as now here and there across this Middle-Earth
blown on by wind walls stand
covered with rime, the buildings storm-shaken.
- Now, the earth-stepper returns to the idea of the impermanence of existence.
- A wise man, he says, recognizes how horrible it will be when all the world's "weal" (prosperity or wealth) is deserted (presumably because the owners have died or been forced into exile).
- The word translated here as "ghastly" is the Old English word gastlice, which can also mean "ghostly." Both meanings are appropriate here, since after all people have died, the world will have a haunted feeling.
- He compares this desertedness to that of abandoned buildings he sees "here and there" throughout his world.
- Just like the exile, these buildings are wracked by the wintry weather: they are "storm-shaken," and covered with "rime" (frost).
The wine-halls molder, the wielder lies down
deprived of rejoicing, the warband all fallen,
proud by the wall.
- Still talking about abandoned buildings, the earth-stepper now imagines next to them the lifeless bodies of the people who once occupied them: the "wielder" (ruler) and the "warband" that served him.
- Calling the hall a "wine-hall" makes us think of all the big parties that happened inside, during which wine might have freely flowed. This phrase, along with the mention of "rejoicing" in line 80, paints a picture of a celebration inside the hall – one that has now ended.
- The word that's translated here as "molder" (decay), is the Old English verb worian. This word can mean "move, totter, crumble to pieces," but its primary meaning is "to wander about, be a vagabond."
- Who else "wanders about"? That's right, the speaker of our poem and the exile he describes. So, this word makes a connection between the decaying building and the exile.
Some war took utterly,
carried on forth-way; one a bird bore off
over the high holm; one the hoar wolf
dealt over to death, one a warrior,
drear-faced, hid in an earth-cave.
- Now, the speaker imagines the fates of the bodies that lie fallen by the wall.
- A recurring image in Old English poetry makes an appearance: the "beasts of battle," or animals who feed on fallen bodies on the battlefield.
- The beasts of battle – the bird and the wolf – are aligned in this passage with war and the "drear-faced" warrior, because all four of these somehow carry men away from where they were before.
- The equation of these four acts of body-taking also compares marching away to war with physical dismemberment and burial. It implies that the warrior has no more choice about going to war than he does about what happens to his body after death. In all cases, he is "carried away."
- The "hoar wolf" is the grey wolf. But "hoar" can also mean old.
- The "drear-faced" warrior who buries his friends reminds us of the earth-stepper himself, since we know that he, too, has had to bury his kinsmen.
- The poem says that the "drear-faced" man "hides" the warrior, as though he is afraid of some threat to this body. Given what we've just learned about the fate of a body left to the beasts of battle, we don't blame him for hiding his friend's body well.
Thus the shaper of men destroyed this earth-yard,
until, lacking the cries, the revels of men,
old giants' work stood worthless.
- God has destroyed the "earth-yard," or city, until it is completely silent. Without men to occupy them, the poem implies, the old buildings are worthless.
- At the beginning of the poem, God was called the "Measurer." Now he is the "shaper of men." Both ways of describing God emphasize his work as a creator. Like a craftsman, he measures and shapes his creation – men.
- The primary mark of desertedness here is the absence of noise – of the voices of men that once filled the hall. This lack of noisy revelry reminds us of the silence the exile hears in lines 56-59 when the apparitions of his kinsmen fail to bring the "known speech and song" he longs for.
- The buildings the speaker refers to are called the "old giants' work." This description of them conveys the idea of huge, even monumental buildings, making their desertedness seem even more profound.
- Calling the buildings the work of giants implies that the people who built them were truly great. Yet, even the monumental work of great ones eventually decays, like everything else in the world.