Main PageProsody Guide

This chapter deals with poetic forms used in ancient poems written in Icelandic and other Scandinavian languages. Although these forms are often a more refined version of those used in alliterative verse, this guide by Karkur is probably the only explanation of their techniques you'll ever find in English, and certainly the only one on the Web. The conventions adopted here are a bit different from those of the former chapters, and a bold letter, or group of letters, will indicate alliterating consonantal sounds rather than a stressed vowel.

Fornyrðislag
This metre, along with málaháttr is the most common in ancient German, Anglo-Saxon and Norse-Icelandic poetry. Fornyrðislag verses have four syllables. The original Germanic metre was not strictly syllable-counting, but followed rules that were distinct from those of verse in the classic and modern languages of the rest of Europe. These metres have lived to the present day in Iceland, but have been affected in various ways by developments in pronunciation.
The metre fornyrðislag is known from 700 A.D. in England: Beowulf is an example; it's also found in German poetry from the 8th century and in Swedish runes from the 9th century. At first it was rather unclear, but in later poems the form is more strict, each stanza having eight lines (in German and English poetry it has four lines).
An example of Völuspá:

Hljóðs bið ek allar Silence I ask from all,
helgar kindir the holy offspring,
meiri ok minni greater and lesser
mögu Heimdallar sons of Heimdallr.
Vildu at ek Valföðr Do you wish, Valföðr (Odin)
vel fyr telja that I clearly rehearse
forn spjöll fira of living beings those ancient tales
þau fremst um man? which I remember from farthest back?

Two lines are connected by alliteration to form pairs:
Vildu at ek Valföðr
Vel fyr telja

That creates the base unit of the metrical structure. In the a-line two syllables may alliterate with one syllable in the b-line.
It can also be just one syllable in the a-line:
Hljóðs bið ek allar
helgar kindir

But in the b-line readers always find a second non-alliterating syllable to put stress on, matching the second stressed syllable (often alliterating) of the a-line.
 

Málaháttr
An example of málaháttr taken from Snorri's Edda, poem nr. 95:

Munda ek mildingi
þá er Mæra hilmi
flutta-k fjögur kvæði
fimtán stórgjafar
Hvar víti áðr orta
með æðra hætti
mærð of menglötuð
maðr und himins skautum?

(When I composed four poems for the king of Norway he gave me fifteen enormous presents. Where in the world has a poet composed such a lofty poem for a king?)
Málaháttr is almost the same as fornyrðislag but here the verse has five syllables instead of four. Alliteration connects two lines to form a pair as well:

Hvar viti áðr orta
með æðra hætti

But the form is not necessarily so strict, and it can also have six syllables as here:

Munda ek mildingi
þá er mæra hilmi

Or in this example from Atlakviða:

Atli sendi
ár til Gunnars
kunnan segg at ríða
Knéfröðr var sá heitinn

(Atli sent a wise man riding to Gunnar: his name was Knéfröðr)

It looks like a mixture of fornyrðislag and málaháttr, but in fact this poem is quite old, from year 800 or earlier: in that time fornyrðislag wasn't that strict. The poet uses shorter line for fast reports, and long lines for explanations.
Fornyrðislag was mostly used for epic poems, but it has something to do with mystery as well; it is mystical and epic.
Fornyrðislag has been used in Iceland since the settlers came to Iceland in 870. Examples of fornyrðislag are found in each century. In the 18th century poets used it in translating poems by Alexander Pope, F. Klopstock's 'Messiah', J. Milton's 'Paradise lost' and so forth. In the beginning of the romantic period, poets used it for their best poems, and even in modern times they freely use it.

Kviðuháttr
The kviðuháttr verse form comes from fornyrðislag but its structure is more strict: it has 8 lines, like málaháttr and fornyrðislag, but lines number 1, 3, 5 and 7 have only three syllables.An example of it is 'Kviðuháttr Sonatorrek' (Sons'hard revenge) by Egill Skallagrímsson.

Mjök hefr Rán The sea took
Ryskt um mik a treasure from me
Emk ofsnauðr at I'm poor of
Ástvinum people I love
Sleit mar bönd Ocean broke
Minnar ættar  my ancestry's ties
Snar þátt af a big part 
Sjálfum mér  of my own being.

There are little examples of this form in English; one is this translation of a romantic poem by Bjarni Thorarensen, 'Veturinn' (Winter) made by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the Icelandic/American pathfinder:


Who rides with such fury
A fiery charger
Through the high heavens
A horse snow-colored?
The mighty steed
From his mane tosses
Frozen flakes
That flutter earthward.
Glowing glitters

His gray armor
On his shoulder there hangs
A shield ice-covered
On his head he wears
The helm of terror
The fearful Aegis
Frosty helmet

He comes from the hoary
Haunts of midnight
Where the world force flows
From the well eternal
Where restless seas
Roar in breakers
On shores without spring
And summerless rocks.
He knows not of age

Though the oldest gods
Where his playmates ere
The earth was fashioned
The last world will die
And desolation
Veil the suns
Ere his way is ended.

The strong are strengthened
When his step approaches
The soft Earth grows firm
In his fierce embraces
The tears she wept
Are turned to diamonds
And her mourning garb
To a mantle of ermine.
 
'tis not truly said

That when Summer approaches
Winter flees
To the frozen Northland
He broods in the heavens
While humble spring
Leads summer in
Through sunlit meadows

'tis in his hands
The earth turns daily
In his powerful grasp
The poles are twirling
And he leaves
E'en a little moment
Naught of earth
That's near to heaven.

'tis therefore we see
While summer lingers
The mountains still wear
The Winter's livery
'tis therefore we see
That summer melts not
Heaven's hoar-frost
From the head of age.

Ljóðaháttr
The ljóðaháttr stanza typically contains six lines or two units of three lines each. The first two lines in each unit are connected by alliteration, and the third is also decorated with alliteration. The first two lines have at least two beats and the third three beats.
Examples of this metre are only found in Icelandic; most likely what happened was that in an original quatrain, composed of a-line b-line a-line b-line, the second pair was compressed to provide the third, or 'full', line of the ljóðaháttr unit. It is an extraordinarily supple metre and conveys an archaic impression.
Here is an example from Hávamál (The wisdom of Odin), translated by Björn Jónasson.
 

Sá einn veit He is truly wise
er víða ratar who's travelled far
ok hefir fjöld um farið and knows the ways of the World.
hverju geði He who has travelled
stýrir gumna hver can tell what spirit
sá er vitandi er vits. governs the men he meets.
Deyr fé Cattle die
Deyja frændr kinsmen die
Deyr sjálfr ið sama all men are mortal
En orðstír words of praise
Deyr aldregi will never perish
Hveim er sér góðan getr  nor a noble name.

The verse doesn't necessarily have four syllables:
Deyr fé
Deyja frændr

('Deyr' carries a independent beat, ad does 'fé')
Charles W. Dunn, Harvard University professor said about ljóðaháttr:
'The ear is constantly affected by the unpredictable alternations of similarities and dissimilarities; and, because of the freedom of the syllabic count, the placement of the beat in each half-line is also unpredictably varied. One can train oneself to hear such music; and music it is.'

Runhenda
Runhenda (runhent metre) is the only ancient metre with an end-rhyme; it is not a defined form in itself, as poets used end-rhyme with other ancient metres, the most common use of runhenda being with fornyrðislag , following an abababab rhyme scheme on the eight-lines metre. This example is by Egill Skallagrímsson who, because of his dwelling in England, brought end-rhyming into Nordic poetry; this is a verse from the poem Höfuðlausn (head-ransom) he composed for Eiríkr Bloodaxe in year 950, in York, when Eiríkr was going to chop his head off:
 

Rauð hilmir hjör The king's sword is red.
Þar vas hrafna gjör There was a raven flock,
Fleinn hitti fjör a spear meats life,
Flugu dreyrug spjör bloody pikes fly
Ól flagðs gota to feed wolves;
Fárbjóðr Skota the Scots tell of misfortune
Trað nipt nara and men gone to hell,
Náttverð ara become night-meal for an eagle.

Further Reading
The complete original texts of several Icelandic sagas, complete with a number of metrical analyses (some poems contain structures that are far more complicated than those described here) can be found on this excellent site.


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