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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035

4. The metres of skaldic poetry

4.1. Constitutive features of Old Norse and Germanic alliterative poetry (KEG)
4.2. Eddic metres (KEG)
4.3. Skaldic metres (KEG)
4.4. The metrical development of skaldic metres (KEG)
4.5. Formal structures in Old Norse poetry: stanzas and poems (KEG)

(Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035 > 2. General Introduction > 4. The metres of skaldic poetry > 4.2. Eddic metres)

4.2. Eddic metres (KEG)

The formal aspects of fornyrðislag, the Old Norse metre which corresponds most closely to West Germanic alliterative poetry, are discussed in §4.1 above. As shown in the sample stanza above (Ív Sig 1/1-4II), each long-line falls into two half-lines divided by a metrical caesura, and the half-lines (which are numbered consecutively, as is the practice in editions of Old Norse poetry) are connected by alliteration. Most of the poetry preserved in fornyrðislag and edited in SkP, especially the poetry from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, belongs to the category of lausavísur that are interspersed with the prose in sagas of Icelanders and kings’ sagas. Some of these stanzas are metrically irregular and quite a few are anonymous. There is no evidence that praise poetry was composed in fornyrðislag during the ninth and tenth centuries, and the first remnant of a possible panegyric is a fragment by Sneglu-Halli (SnH FragIII) cited in the Third Grammatical Treatise (TGT), and from the eleventh century we also find the narrative fornyrðislag poem Darraðarljóð (Anon DarrV), which is preserved in Njáls saga (Nj). It appears that, at least during the eleventh century, poetry composed in fornyrðislag metre was considered inferior to poetry composed in dróttkvætt and other skaldic metres. For example, right before the battle of Stamford Bridge (1066), King Haraldr harðráði Sigurðarson of Norway composed a stanza in fornyrðislag (Hharð Lv 13II), but he immediately expressed his dissatisfaction with that metre (ÍF 28, 188): Þetta er illa kveðit, ok mun verða at gera aðra vísu betra ‘This is composed badly, and I shall have to make another, better stanza’. The other and ‘better’ stanza he composed is in dróttkvætt (Hharð Lv 14II), so Haraldr clearly did not consider fornyrðislag a suitable metre for poetic composition on such an important occasion. It is not until the following century that fornyrðislag emerges as a metre that was deemed worthy of royal panegyrics. Shortly after 1103, Gísl Illugason composed a fornyrðislag poem in memory of King Magnús berfœttr Óláfsson (Gísl MagnkvII), c. 1120 Halldórr skvaldri eulogised King Sigurðr Jórsalafari Magnússon (Hskv ÚtkvII) and twenty years later Ívarr Ingimundarson commemorated the life and death of King Sigurðr slembidjákn Magnússon in a forty-stanza poem in fornyrðislag (Ív SigII). Formally, these panegyrics are very regular, and they show none of the metrical inconsistencies that otherwise characterise lausavísur in fornyrðislag. Despite the metrical regularity of these encomia, however, compilers of the kings’ sagas such as Snorri Sturluson consciously avoided citing them as sources of historical verification of events related in prose narratives, most likely because poems in fornyrðislag were more readily subject to verbal distortion than poems composed in the skaldic metres (see Andersson and Gade 2000, 25-57).

By the mid-twelfth century, the heyday of panegyrics composed in fornyrðislag was over and, aside from lausavísur and several longer fornyrðislag poems preserved in the fornaldarsögur and occasional poetry inSturlunga saga and other contemporary sagas, the only extensive poetic compositions in that metre are Gunnlaugr Leifsson’s Merlínusspá I and II (sts 1-61) (GunnLeif Merl I-IIVIII) from the beginning of the thirteenth century. Most of the þulur appended to Snorra Edda are also in fornyrðislag, but metrically these are often highly irregular, probably because they contain lists of names and terms that were difficult to accommodate in Old Norse poetry (for a discussion of the þulur, see §5.2 below and the Introduction to the þulur in SkP III). In addition, a number of stanzas in fornyrðislag have also been transmitted in the runic corpus edited in SkP VI.

Málaháttr is another eddic metre that was used in the composition of encomia included in SkP. Like fornyrðislag, that metre is based on the formal principles that govern Germanic alliterative poetry, but, in contrast with fornyrðislag, most málaháttr half-lines contain five rather than four metrical positions (that is, an expanded variant of fornyrðislag; for a discussion of this metre see Sievers 1893, 70-9; Kuhn 1939, 220-36; von See 1967, 57-9). The fifth metrical position can be a dip added before a Type A-line (aA, Type A with anacrusis) or after the first stressed syllable in a Type D-line (Type D*, extended Type D). It could also consist of a syllable with secondary stress added to a dip (Types A* and D*, extended Types A and D). Examples from Snorri’s Háttatal (SnSt Ht 85III) illustrate this:

Type aA:     
SnSt Ht 95/2III þás Mœra hilmi ‘when to the Mœrir’s lord’
Type C*:     
SnSt Ht 95/5III hvar viti áðr orta ‘where knows previously composed’
Type D*:     
SnSt Ht 95/1III Mundak mildingi ‘I remembered the generous one’

Málaháttr in its purest form is poorly attested in the corpus of Old Norse poetry. The only eddic poem composed consistently in that metre is Atlamál (Am), although málaháttr lines are often interspersed with lines composed in fornyrðislag or ljóðaháttr in other eddic poems. In the corpus edited in SkPmálaháttr is the metre used in some lausavísur in the contemporary sagas, the kings’ sagas, the fornaldarsögur and stanzas cited in TGT. It is also found in some of the þulur and in some of the runic inscriptions edited in SkP VI. In many cases it is difficult to tell whether a stanza is composed in málaháttr or in fornyrðislag with occasional hypermetrical lines. Most conspicuously, however, málaháttr is the preferred metre of the very early praise poems with mythical or legendary content, namely, Þorbjǫrn hornklofi’s Haraldskvæði or Hrafnsmál (ÞhornHarkvI), Eyvindr skáldaspillir Finnsson’s Hákonarmál (Eyv HákI) and the anonymous Eiríksmál (Anon EirmI), all from the ninth and tenth centuries (see also ljóðaháttr below; for these panegyrics, see Genzmer 1920; von See 1961b and 1963; Marold 1972). It is also used in the tenth-century anonymous Bjarkamál in fornu (Anon BjarkIII). In some of these poems (Þhorn HarkvI, Eyv HákI, Anon EirmI), stanzas composed in málaháttrinterchange with stanzas composed in ljóðaháttr. With the exception of Anon BjarkIII, all of these poems, which commemorate King Haraldr hárfagri Hálfdanarson (Þhorn HarkvI), King Eiríkr blóðøx Haraldsson (AnonEirmI) and Hákon inn góði Haraldsson (Eyv HákI), are transmitted in the kings’ sagas. Kuhn (1939, 233, 236) believed that málaháttr originated in Norway in the second half of the ninth century and that the metre was modelled on that of heroic epics transmitted from Germany. In his view, Þorbjǫrn hornklofi was the first to adopt this metrical form in his royal panegyric, where he mixed it with the native ljóðaháttr. No encomium was composed in málaháttr after the tenth century.

The last eddic metre included in SkP is ljóðaháttr, a metre not attested in Germanic territory outside Scandinavia (see Sievers 1893, 79-90; von See 1967, 52-6). There can be no doubt that this metre, too, evolved within the Germanic alliterative poetic tradition, but it is problematic in several respects. A ljóðaháttr long-line can be divided into two half-lines separated by a metrical caesura and connected by alliteration (likefornyrðislag and málaháttr long-lines), but the odd lines are often hypometrical, and the even lines can be hypermetrical. The two half-lines are followed by a full line, which contains two (or, in some cases three) alliterative staves that alliterate with each other independently of the alliteration in the two preceding half-lines. The metrical restrictions observed in fornyrðislag are relaxed in ljóðaháttr (for example, this metre does not adhere to the strict rules of resolution observed in fornyrðislag), but except in very late poetry the third, full line usually ends in a monosyllabic word or a disyllabic, short-stemmed word, such as talit ‘counted’ andort, literally ‘composed’ in the sample stanza below from Snorri’s Háttatal (SnSt Ht 100III):

Gløggva grein         hefk gǫrt til bragar,
svát es tírætt hundrað talit;
hróðrs ørverðr         skala maðr heitinn vesa,
ef sá fær alla háttu ort.

Hefk gǫrt gløggva grein til bragar, svát tírætt hundrað es talit. Maðr skala vesa heitinn ørverðr hróðrs, ef sá fær ort alla háttu.

I have made a clear account of poetic form, so that one hundred [stanzas] counted in tens are enumerated. A man must not be called unworthy of praise if he can compose in all verse-forms.

The poems in the Poetic Edda composed in ljóðaháttr are mostly mythic or gnomic in nature, and poetry in that metre incorporated into SkP is also frequently devoted to such lore. As stated above, stanzas inljóðaháttr are found interspersed with stanzas in málaháttr in the three ‘eddic’ praise poems from the ninth and tenth centuries (Þhorn HarkvI, Eyv HákI, Anon EirmI). In Eyvindr’s Hákonarmál all the mythic material (the valkyries descending on the battlefield, sts 1-2; Hákon’s journey to Valhǫll and his reception there, sts 9-21) is in ljóðaháttr (st. 21/1-2 even echoes Hávm 76/1-2), while the actual description of the battle is inmálaháttr. That is also the case in Anon Eirm, in which Eiríkr’s reception in Valhǫll is detailed in ljóðaháttr (sts 3-9). Except for some lausavísur in the fornaldarsögur, the riddles of Heiðrekr (Heiðreks gátur, Gestumbl HeiðrVIII) and an occasional runic inscription, the bulk of the poetry in ljóðaháttr consists of the two long gnomic poems Sólarljóð (Anon SólVII) and Hugsvinnsmál (Anon HsvVII), dated in SkP VII to the end of the thirteenth century, but the dating of these two poems is uncertain.

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