Sacred-Texts Legends & Sagas Iceland Index Previous Next
THE GROUP of poems here offered comprises practically all the more considerable (non-Skaldic) verse material not in the Edda. It shows, even better than that remarkable collection, of which it is intended to be the supplement, the wealth of independent poetic inventions and forms that flourished in the Scandinavian North before and immediately after the introduction of Christianity, especially when we bear in mind that much is irretrievably lost.
As to contents these poems, with respect to the first group of nine, range from the genuinely “heroic,” realistic, dialogic-dramatic, earlier lays (such as the Biarkamól) to the more “romantic,” legendary, monologic-elegiac, retrospective, later lays (like Hiálmar’s Death Song); though the lines of demarcation are by no means sharp and, in fact, nearly every poem represents an individual combination of these traits. A very different type of lay is seen in the three contemporary encomiastic poems which celebrate the life and deeds of (historic) rulers of Norway—the only non-Skaldic efforts of this genre so exceedingly numerous in Old Norse literature. There is no common denominator for the four poems at the end of the volume, except possibly their arch-heathen character. As a finale the Song of the Sun marks the transition to Christian spheres of thought.
Common to all of this material, however, is its unliterary, that is, unbookish, character which is in marked contrast to virtually all of Anglo-Saxon epic literature, influenced as it is, to a greater or lesser degree, by Christian or classical models. That is to say, we deal here with the genuinely native expression of the North.
In particular, the “heroic” lays—figuring prominently also in the Edda, but occurring only sparsely in Anglo-Saxon and Old High German literature—are the concentrated expression of the ethos of Germanic antiquity, its poetry. The spirit which animates and dominates it is that of warfare under the leadership of men of heroic stature, in an age when the warlike nature p. xii of the Germanic race received an additional impulsion, viz., in that vast spectacle which we call the migration of nations; when through causes unknown to us and on a scale nowhere else recorded in history, many great and numerous peoples of Europe and Asia were set in motion and for the space of centuries wandered about in search of new homes; when the fortunes of war made swift kaleidoscopic changes in the map, and nations rose and fell overnight.
In such an age the purpose of song is not to beguile the time but to give to listeners a heightened sense of reality, of the verities of life lived nobly; to rouse emulation through a recital of the great deeds, the tragic fate, of the ancestors. Small wonder that the watchwords of life lived dangerously—of the maintenance of honor, even in defeat and death, through courage, energetic activity, generosity, loyalty to king, clan, friend—are dwelt upon to the exclusion of the gentler virtues of a settled life; and natural, that in this song there are recurrent patterns of action, such as the motives of revenge or lust for gold and power; that there are types, such as the guileless hero-king, the old wily despot, the stern grizzled warrior, rather than individuals; that the scenes are largely restricted to banquet hall and battle field. As a result, inevitably, a feeling of harsh and insistent monotony will be the first impression on readers of this literature, until greater familiarity with it will allow us, here too, to distinguish the individual in the type.
Turning to the technique employed in this literature, it will be noted that practically all is direct speech, monologue or dialogue, with hardly any narrative of action or description of scene or explanation of motive. As in the ballad of later times, all this is implied and suggested, frequently in a masterly fashion. To be sure, the whole art practice is addressed to an audience perfectly acquainted with the “story” (much as in our times a bygone generation was with biblical scenes) and to whom, therefore, the expression of the feelings alone was important. Often there is but one scene, dramatically tense, in which the quintessence of a life discharges itself in a sudden flash.
The vehicle for Old Germanic poetry is the alliterative verse, which in Old Norse poetic monuments is gathered into various stanzaic aggregates. Basic for it is the “short-line” of two stresses and an indeterminate number of unstressed syllables. Two such “short-lines,” linked by alliteration—initial consonant riming with identical initial consonant, initial vowel with any initial vowel (note well, of stressed syllables only)—form a “long-line.” Four of these, again, make up a stanza, which is called fornyrthislag, “old-lore meter” (as in Hiálmar’s Death Song), if the number of unstressed syllables in each “short-line” is restricted, and málaháttr, “speech meter” (as in stanzas 3-8 of Hákonarmól), if the number of unstressed syllables is expanded.1 The measure called lióthaháttr, “chant meter” (as in Sólarlióth) is peculiar in that each distich is formed by a “long-line” followed by a “full-line” with (generally) three stresses2 and alliterating in itself. It is the (not invariable) rule that the alliteration in the second (even) “short-line” falls on the first stress only, whereas the first (odd) “short-line” may have two alliterative syllables.
With respect to the stress it is important to remember that there is no modern regularity, whether of its position in the line or of its alternating with unstressed syllable(s). Of the six mutations possible with a minimum of two accented and two unaccented syllables within a “short-line,” only one is not permitted, viz., x x x´ x´. All others occur, viz., x´ x x´ x—x´ x´ x x—x x´ x´ x—x´ x x x´—x x´ x x´—3 and will be found in this version.4
With slight exceptions, the poems here dealt with belong to Eddic art practice, which differs from Skaldic poetry in several p. xiv respects. Formally, Eddic verse occurs in the relatively simple meters outlined above; stylistically, it is for the most part in direct speech and uses few and relatively simple kennings. (A kenning is a figure of speech in which a person or thing is described or named by somebody or something else; in other words, it is a condensed simile. Thus, we may call a football player a “knight of the grid,” and a Norwegian, a “son of the Vikings.” In similar fashion, in the old poems, e.g., “battle” is called “Hild’s (a valkyrie’s) play” or “the meeting of swords,” etc., and Óthin, “Sleipnir’s rider” or “Frigg’s husband,” etc.). Skaldic poetry, on the other hand, is characterized, chiefly, by an exorbitant use of frequent and complicated kennings (cf. the purely Skaldic stanzas 6-8 of Hákonarmól). Also, the meters are generally more intricate, and there is scarcely ever direct speech.
The principal thing to keep in mind when reading Old Germanic verse is that, in consonance with the dramatic-passionate contents, the stress is dynamic, emphasizes content. Or, as it is better stated negatively: no stress, and therefore no alliteration, may fall on elements without an important increment of meaning. Obviously then, as we should not be misled, either, by our modern insistence on regularity of stress and equal length of lines, this verse is utterly alien to our ears. Then why translate into it, rather than into some more familiar form, or else why not resign oneself to prose? Because, I contend, no other verse form will approximate the feel of Old Germanic poetry: translation into any other form, however palatable in itself, radically fails in that respect. Hence, if it is worth while to become acquainted with Old Germanic poetry, it would seem worth while also to undergo the effort of reading the verse form in which it was given expression.
Similarly with the language. For heightened impressiveness and elevation, poets have always drawn on the hoarded treasure of their speech, paying with doubloons and ducats and pieces of eight, rather than with the current and trivial coin of the realm. So did the men who indited these lays. Hence I make p. xv no apology for occasional archaisms in my endeavor to recreate them on the speech level of the original. In this as in following the old metrical scheme I have preferred a true, rather than a smooth, rendering.
As readers I have had in mind, while preparing the introducions and the notes, especially the fairly numerous class of those interested in Anglo-Saxon literature, and the specialists in Old Norse not at all, and have therefore avoided dwelling on moot points. While of course leaning on the explorations of predecessors, I have generally sailed my own course—between reefs innumerable—with only occasional reference to the tracks of others.5 Nevertheless I am afraid that in the notes I have erred both in giving too little and too much. On the one hand the whole world and Weltanschauung of the ancient North clamored for elucidation; on the other, as I well know, a plethora of notes is a weariness unto the flesh, besides interfering with the pleasure of reading.
THE MOST IMPORTANT NON-SKALDIC
VERSE NOT INCLUDED IN
THE POETIC EDDA
Pronunciation.—The acute accent over vowels signifies length. They are to be voiced in the Continental fashion, as in German or Italian. G is always hard, s, always surd. Word accent is invariably on the first syllable. The diphthongs ia, io, ill are rising.
Eddic Poems.—References to the Eddic poems are to the author’s translation, The Poetic Edda (University of Texas Press, 1928).
1 A few examples of kvithuháttr, in which the odd lines have three, the even four, syllables, are found in the Lay of Víkar.
2 The efforts, notably of Heusler, to show that this line is but an expanded two-stress line, fail to convince me and, in fact, seem contradicted by the evidence. Cf. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 1931, pp. 475 f.
3 Adherence to these “Sievers Types” is not a matter of credulity on my part, as some of the critics of my Edda translation seem to imply, but of simple observation of the rhythmic facts.
4 The question of long or short syllable need not concern the reader of the translation.
5 The originals (nearly all) are most easily accessible in Heusler-Ranisch, Eddica Minora, and (all) in F. Jónsson’s Den Norsk-Islandske Skjaldedigtning.