The first speaker in the poem introduces us to a "lone-dweller," whom he says is hoping for God's mercy and favor despite being condemned to travel alone over an ice-cold sea. He says the lines that follow as the speech of an "earth-stepper," who is probably this same "lone-dweller" we've just met.
The earth-stepper now steps in. He remembers the hardships he has faced, including the slaughter of his relatives. He says that no one remains alive to whom he dares speak his mind. This reflection that prompts him to share with us a "truth" – that it's good for a person to lock his thoughts within himself. A sad and weary mind never does anyone any good, so he counsels "glory-seekers" to bind their thoughts within, just as he has had to do ever since his lord was killed. Now, says the earth-stepper, he's looking for a new lord (as in, a big-time landowner who rules an area), someone to hang out with him and give him treasure.
The earth-stepper says that everyone who has been a friendless exile knows how miserable it is when sorrow is your only friend. Instead of receiving gold or fame, this person experiences only the path of exile and a frozen body. The friendless exile remembers better times – partying in the mead-hall, feasting among friends and with his lord. But now the good times are over.
When the friendless exile sleeps, says the earth-stepper, he dreams about being back in the hall, embracing and kissing his lord just as he did in the times when he received treasure from his old boss. When he awakes, though, all he sees are waves and sea-birds bathing. When he remembers the good old days, his exile on the sea only seems sadder. Therefore, says the earth-stepper, he isn't sure why he doesn't despair when he thinks deeply about the life of men – how warriors abandoned their hall very suddenly, how this earth continues to decline.
A man cannot be wise until he is very old, says the earth-stepper. A wise man must be patient, emotionally stable, and careful about what he says. A warrior must not be weak, foolish, or cowardly. He must think carefully before boasting or making a promise. A wise man knows how awful it will be when the earth is abandoned, that it will be just like an abandoned building beaten down by wintry weather. In front of this abandoned building lie the bodies of warriors, picked at by birds and wolves or hidden in caves by friends. In this way God destroyed the world, until the work of giants, empty of the sounds of men, were worthless.
When the wise man contemplates this building and thinks carefully about life, he speaks as follows: He laments the passing of life's pleasures and the people who once enjoyed them. He remarks how the time passes away into nothingness, as though it had never been.
Behind the high wall, adorned with serpent-carvings, lie the bodies of men, killed by ash-spears. Storms wrack the stone structure as snow covers the ground, sent by shadowy forces in the north in anger towards men. The earth is filled with hardship, and fate governs events within it. Gold, friends, kinsmen, and mankind are all fleeting. It's good for a person to keep his promises, and to keep his grief to himself until he knows how to make his situation better. Things will be well for the person who seeks favor and comfort from God, in whom all stability rests.