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The discussion and analysis presented after these translated stanzas is our opinion.  Read the translations for yourself and our analysis, but also seek out varied sources and come to your own conclusions.


Auden & Taylor:

The coward believes he will live forever
If he holds back in the battle,
But in old age he shall have no peace
Though spears have spared his limbs


16. The sluggard believes | he shall live forever,
If the fight he faces not;
But age shall not grant him | the gift of peace,
Though spears may spare his life.


A coward believes he will ever live
if he keep him safe from strife:
but old age leaves him not long in peace
though spears may spare his life.


The unwise man thinks he will live forever
by avoiding battle
But old age will give him no rest
though he be spared from spears.


The unwise man thinks that he ay will live
if from fighting he flees;
but the ails and aches of old age dog him
though spears have spared him.


The foolish man thinks he'll live forever
if he stays away from war,
but old age shows him no mercy
though the spears spare him.


A cowardly man
thinks he will ever live,
if warfare he avoids;
but old age will
give him no peace,
though spears may spare him.


Stanza 16 seems to be loosely connected with Stanza 15, in that their lessons work well together.  Stanza 15 suggested that the son of an important man was silent, attentive, prudent, and brave in battle.  And it seems to suggest that if we emulate this good behavior, then we can all be glad and generous all the days of our life.

Stanza 16 describes the opposite...it describes the cowardly man and his life. 

Lines 1 and 2 describes the coward (or the fool) believing he can live forever if he stays out of battle (or if he runs from every fight).

Lines 3 and 4 make it very clear that such a coward may escape spears and the damage they deal, but that he won't escape old age and all the hardships that come with old age.

I've put a lot of thought into lines 3 and 4, and they are worth thinking about.  They seem to reference an idea among ancestors that one did not want to die a straw death...A death from old age or disease that occurred while lying in bed (which were stuffed with straw).  That a coward dooms himself to old age and its hardships by not facing battle and not dying in battle.  A loss of strength.  The pain and weakness of old age.  Not being able to help your family, and even becoming a burden on your family.  This is how most people interpret the meaning of lines 3 and 4.

But, there is another way to read lines 3 and 4 as well.  "Old Age will give him no peace."  "But in Old Age he will have no peace."  "But old age will give him no rest." You could read these translations to refer to a deep unrest that exists in the coward in his old age.  Because he ran from every battle, he did manage to live a long time.  But, he lived the life of a coward...with all of the regrets...the loss of honor...and the poor reputation that comes from that.  The coward avoids death, but lives a life of weakness and regret that is worse than death.

Obviously, the coward in this stanza does not get to be "glad and generous all the days of his life" as is mentioned in Stanza 15.

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