Poetry Guide: Old Norse Poetry
Old Norse poetry encompasses a range of verse forms written in a number of Nordic languages, embraced by the term Old Norse, during the period from the 8th century to as late as the far end of the 13th century. A significant amount of Old Norse literature that survives was preserved in Iceland. Poetry played an important role in the social and religious world of the Vikings. In Norse mythology the story of Odin bringing the mead of poetry to Asgard is an indicator of the significance of poetry within the contemporary Nordic cultures.
Old Norse poetry is characterised by alliteration, a poetic vocabulary expanded by heiti, and use of kennings. An important source of information about poetic forms in Old Norse is the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson.
Old Norse poetry is conventionally, and somewhat arbitrarily, split into two types; Eddaic poetry (also sometimes known as Eddic poetry) and skaldic poetry. Eddaic poetry includes the poems of the Codex Regius and a few other similar ones. Skaldic poetry is usually defined as everything else.
Old Norse poetry has many metrical forms. They range from the relatively simple fornyrðislag) to the deeply complex dróttkvætt, the "courtly metre".
In Eddic poetry, the metric structures are generally simple, and are almost invariably ljóðaháttr or fornyrðislag. Ljóðaháttr, (known also as the "metre of chants"), because of its structure, which comprises of broken stanzas, lends itself to dialogue and discourse. Fornyrðislag, "the metre of ancient words", is the more commonly used of the two, and is generally used where the poem is largely narrative. It is composed with four or more syllables per line. Other metrical forms include
- Málaháttr is similar to fornyrðislag, but with a fixed metrical length of five syllables.
- Hrynhenda, a variant of dróttkvætt, which uses all the rules of dróttkvætt, with the exception that the line is comprised of four metrical feet rather than three.
- Kviðuháttr, another variant of fornyrðislag with alternating lines of 3 and 4 syllables
- Galdralag, the "magic spell metre", which contains a fourth line which echoes and varies the third line
The Eddaic poems have the following characteristics.
- The author is always anonymous.
- The meter is simple, fornyrðislag, málaháttr or ljóðaháttr.
- The word order is usually relatively straightforward.
- Kennings are used sparingly and opaque ones are rare.
The Skaldic poems have the following characteristics.
- The author is usually known.
- The meter is ornate, usually dróttkvætt or a variation thereof.
- The syntax is ornate, with sentences commonly interwoven.
- Kennings are used frequently.
Most of the skaldic poetry we have are poems composed to individual kings by their court poets. They typically have historical content, relating battles and other deeds from the king's carrier.
- Vellekla - The deeds of Hákon Hlaðajarl.
- Bandadrápa - The deeds of Eiríkr Hlaðajarl.
A few surviving skaldic poems have mythological content.
- Þórsdrápa - A drápa to the god Thor telling the tale of one of his giant-bashing expeditions.
- Haustlöng - Relates two tales from the mythology as painted on a shield given to the poet.
- Ragnarsdrápa - Relates four tales from the mythology as painted on a shield given to the poet.
- Húsdrápa - Describes mythological scenes as carved on kitchen panels.
To this could be added two poems relating the death of a king and his reception in Valhalla.
- Hákonarmál - The death of king Hákon and his reception in Valhalla.
- Eiríksmál - The death of king Eiríkr and his reception in Valhalla.