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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 > 4.3. Skaldic metres)

4.3. Skaldic metres (KEG)

The skaldic metres that developed from fornyrðislag can be roughly divided into the following three groups: 1) metres that correspond to regularised fornyrðislag (or málaháttr) with the addition of internal rhyme (tøglag ‘journey metre’, hagmælt ‘skilfully spoken’, Haðarlag ‘Hǫðr’s metre’) or end-rhyme (runhent ‘end-rhymed’); 2) a catalectic variant of fornyrðislag without internal rhyme (kviðuháttr ‘poem’s form’); 3) extended variants of fornyrðislag with internal rhyme (dróttkvætt ‘court metre’, hrynhent ‘flowing-rhymed’). In addition, there is also the metre hálfhneppt ‘half-curtailed’, which contains internal rhyme and alliteration but is extremely difficult to fit into any metrical patterns. In the following, these skaldic metres will be discussed in more detail.

The use of internal rhymes, or hendingar, is a skaldic innovation that is otherwise unattested in Germanic poetry. Such rhymes involve the vocalic onset and the postvocalic environment of a syllable (see Kuhn 1977a; Kuhn 1981; Kuhn 1983, 75-89; Gade 1995a, 5-7). In odd lines, the rhymes most often consist of skothendingar ‘inserted rhymes, half-rhymes’, in which the vocalic onsets of two syllables can differ but the postvocalic environment must be identical (e.g. ‑eil- will rhyme with ‑íl-, Steinn Óldr 7/3II þars heilagr gramr hvílir ‘where the holy ruler rests’; here and elsewhere the internal rhymes are italicised). The even lines usually have aðalhendingar ‘noble rhymes, full rhymes’, with identical vowels and identical postvocalic environment (e.g. ‑und- : ‑und-, Steinn Nizv 2/8II þrimr hundruðum sunda ‘three hundred of the sea’).

The metres tøglag and hagmælt correspond formally to fornyrðislag except that internal rhyme has been added in the even lines (tøglag) or in the odd and even lines (hagmælt; see §4.1.4 below). The names of the metres (with sample stanzas and accompanying prose descriptions) are found in Snorri’s Háttatal (SnSt Ht 68-70III; SnE 2007, 30-1). The term ‘Teg dropo hottʀ’ (tøgdrápu háttr ‘journey-poem form’) is also given in Háttalykill (Hl 1941, 35) but hagmælt is not, and it is unclear whether we are dealing with two different variants or whether hagmælt is a Snorronean innovation (for tøglag, see Sievers 1893, 112-13; von See 1967, 48-9). The first attested occurrence of irregular tøglag is found in Bragi inn gamli Boddason’s lausavísa recited to a troll-woman (Bragi TrollIII, see §1.1), but the metre itself appears to have taken its name from Þórarinn loftunga’s encomium to Knútr inn ríki Sveinsson, Tøgdrápa ‘Journey-drápa’ (Þloft TøgdrI) from c. 1028 (Þórarinn calls the poem Tøgdrápa in st. 8/4). It is not unlikely that this metre originated at Knútr Sveinsson’s court in England (so von See 1967, 49; Kuhn 1983, 300 and see Introduction to Þloft TøgdrI), which does cast some doubt on the authenticity of Bragi’s stanza. Both hagmælt and tøglag are used in encomia, such as Sigvatr’s Knútsdrápa (Sigv KnútdrI, c. 1038 or earlier), Þórarinn stuttfeldr’s Stuttfeldardrápa (Þstf StuttdrII, c. 1120) and Einarr Skúlason’s Haraldsdrápa II (Hardr IIII, after 1135). The main topic of all these poems seems to have been army campaigns. Sigvatr’s Knútsdrápa (sts 10-11) also commemorates Knútr Sveinsson’s pilgrimage to Rome, and Þórarinn’s poem recalls Sigurðr Jórsalafari’s journey to Byzantium and Palestine. Thus it is likely that the metre was, as the name suggests, associated with journeys from its inception. Aside from the poetry mentioned, the only other attestations of tøglag are two thirteenth-century stanzas in Sturlunga saga (ÁmÁrn Lv 5IV and Anon (Stu) 31IV), which have nothing to do with travels.

Like tøglag, the earliest attested runhent is a rhymed variant of fornyrðislag (see §4. 1. 4. below and Sievers 1893, 114-16; Kuhn 1983, 334-5). The term runhent ‘end-rhymed’ is transmitted in the prose of Háttalykill (Hl 1941, 27) and Snorri’s Háttatal (SnE 2007, 32-7). In the earliest runhent, the placement of alliteration and the metrical patterns correspond to those of fornyrðislag, tøglag and hagmælt, but instead of internal rhyme, this variant has end-rhyme, falling on the last stressed (or the last stressed and unstressed) word in a line. Consider the following examples (Egill Hfl 7/1-2V (Eg 40); ESk Run 4/1-2II; the end-rhymes are italicised):

Fremr munk segja,


ef firar þegja.

‘More I will say


if men keep quiet’.

Funi kyndisk fljótt,


en flýði skjótt.

‘Fire was kindled quickly,


and fled fast’.

The first poem composed in runhent was Egill Skallagrímsson’s Hǫfuðlausn (Eg HflV), which he recited in York (c. 936) to honour Eiríkr blóðøx Haraldsson and to redeem his head, and scholars believe that Egill was the poet who invented that metre (possibly influenced by end-rhymed Latin hymns that he had heard in England; see Lie 1952, 64; Heusler 1956, 291; Einar Ól. Sveinsson 1962, 136). Runhent did not gain immediate popularity, and during the subsequent centuries only sporadic attempts were made to use the metre in encomiastic poetry (GunnlI SigdrV and ÞjóðA RunII, both tenth century; ESk RunII, c. 1155). The end-rhymed variant of fornyrðislag is also found in lausavísur (such as Skall Lv 1V (Eg 2), HólmgB Lv 12/3-8V (Korm 48), GunnlI Lv 2V (Gunnl 2), ÞSær Lv 3III, Sigv Frag 2III, SnH Lv 11II, Kolb Lv 8-10IV) and poems of a more mundane nature (Bhít GrámV; Snjólfr VIV). End-rhyme could also replace internal rhyme in dróttkvætt (see, e.g. GSúrs Lv 18V (Gísl 21), Ólbjarn LvV (Háv 1), ÞorgHǫll LvV (Laxd 3), Rv Lv 31II, Hbreiðm LvII, BjKálfs LvII, GGalt Lv 2IV, SturlB Lv 2IV, GÁsb LvIV, Anon RunVI) as well as in hrynhent (e.g. Anon MhkvIII, Anon (Stu) 15IV and Anon LawVII) and Haðarlag (ÞGísl BúdrI, Anon (GnóðÁsm)III). In his Háttatal, Snorri Sturluson invented new variants of runhent by attaching end-rhyme to other metres attested only there (see SnSt Ht 80-94III).

Just as fornyrðislag could be turned into a skaldic metre by the addition of internal rhyme (tøglag, hagmælt), málaháttr also has a skaldic variant with hendingar (Haðarlag ‘Hǫðr’s metre’, see §4.4 below and Sievers 1893, 113-14; von See 1967, 49). An irregular variant of that metre first occurs in Þormóðr Trefilsson’s early eleventh-century poem Hrafnsmál (ÞTref HrafnV), where internal rhyme has been added to odd and even lines of Type D*. Þormóðr also uses other metrical types derived from málaháttr without internal rhyme, so it is clear that, at this point, we are dealing with an early hybrid form of Haðarlag. The first ‘pure’ attestations of that metre, as well as its name, are found in Háttalykill (c. 1145; RvHbreið Hl 53-4III, Hl 1941, 27-8) and in Snorri’s Háttatal (c. 1222; SnSt Ht 79III, SnE 2007, 33). In these stanzas, all odd and even lines are Type D*, and the alliterative staves and internal rhymes are as in dróttkvætt (see below). The only time Haðarlag is used in a longer poem is in Sturla Þórðarson’s Hrafnsmál (Sturl HrafnIII), an encomium to King Hákon Hákonarson composed c. 1264. The metre must have been very unwieldy because of the metrical constraints it imposed on the diction, and it never became popular. Haðarlag is otherwise found only in Sǫrlastikki (Anon SǫrlVIII) and in two anonymous stanzas in Sturlunga saga (Anon (Stu) 58-9IV).

Kviðuháttr is a metrical variant of fornyrðislag in which the odd lines are catalectic, that is, they consist of three rather than four metrical positions (fornyrðislag Types A, C and D minus the last, unstressed syllable; see §5.1.4 and Sievers 1893, 117-18; von See 1967, 47-8; Kuhn 1983, 336; Gade 2005). Because lines of the metrical types B, E and D4 ended in stressed syllables (or syllables with secondary stress), there are no catalectic kviðuháttr lines of these types. The even lines in kviðuháttr are regular fornyrðislag. Kviðuháttr is an old metre, and its earliest attestation, the stanza on the Swedish Rök stone (Ög136VI, c. 850), contains a word in which syncope has not yet taken place (garuʀ ‘ready’, later gǫrr, l. 5). The term kviðuháttr ‘poem’s metre’ is found in Háttalykill (Hl 1941, 34). Kviðuháttr is a metre associated with longer genealogical and memorial compositions, the earliest being Þjóðólfr ór Hvini’s Ynglingatal (Þjóð YtI), Egill Skallagrímsson’s Sonatorrek and Arinbjarnarkviða (Egill StV and ArkvV) and Eyvindr skáldaspillir Finnsson’s Háleygjatal (Eyv HálI), all from the ninth and the tenth century. In subsequent centuries, we find Grettir Ásmundarson’s Ævikviða (Grett Ævkv IV and Ævkv IIV) and Þórarinn loftunga’s Glælognskviða (Þloft GlækvI) (both from the eleventh century, if the attribution to Grettir is credible), the anonymous Nóregs konungatal (Anon NktII, c. 1190), Sturla Þórðarson’s Hákonarkviða (Sturl HákkvII, c. 1263), Stjǫrnu-Oddr’s Geirviðarflokkr (StjOdd GeirflV (StjǫrnODr), thirteenth century) and Hallmundarkviða (HallmGr HallkvV, fourteenth century (?)). Parts of Gunnleifr Leifsson’s Merlínusspá (GunnLeif Merl IVII 62-8, early thirteenth century) are also in kviðuháttr. Very few lausavísur are composed in kviðuháttr (e.g. Egill Lv 27V (Eg 56), GSúrs Lv 10-11V (Gísl 13-14), Vém LvIV, Oddi Lv 4-5II, HallmGr Lv 1-3V (Gr 43-5)), and the metre must have lent itself better to longer, sequential compositions rather than to single, eight-line stanzas (see Gade 2005).

The most commonly found skaldic metre is dróttkvætt ‘court metre’ (see SnE 2007, 4), and the bulk of poetry edited in SkP is composed in that metre. Dróttkvætt, in its earliest form, first occurs in Bragi inn gamli Boddason’s Ragnarsdrápa (Bragi RdrIII) and Þjóðólfr ór Hvini’s Haustlǫng (Þjóð HaustlIII), both dated to the ninth century, and the metre is well represented in both lausavísur and encomiastic poetry from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries (for this metre, see Kuhn 1983; Gade 1995a). Formally, dróttkvætt is an extended variant of fornyrðislag with internal rhyme (the odd lines have skothendingar and the even aðalhendingar). Each dróttkvætt line consists of six syllables and six metrical positions, and the metre is strictly syllable counting. The last two syllables, the cadence, always consist of a long-stemmed stressed syllable carrying internal rhyme plus a short, enclitic unstressed syllable ( ×). If the cadence is removed, the dróttkvætt lines conform to the metrical patterns of fornyrðislag (see §4.1). In the even lines, the first alliterative stave falls in metrical position 1, which excludes lines of Types B and C (although lines of these types are found in the earliest poetry and in dróttkvætt variants where the metrical restrictions have been relaxed). Consider the following couplet (Bkrepp Magndr 4/1II):

Víkinga lætr vengis


vallbaugs hati falla.

‘The vikings makes of the meadow
of the field-ring the hater fall’.

The tight structural frame of dróttkvætt remained intact from the ninth to the fourteenth century, when metrical restrictions were relaxed owing to phonological changes that began to affect the Icelandic language (see Liljulag below). Although many longer poems in dróttkvætt were still composed in the fourteenth century (e.g. ÞormÓl ÁrIV, Arngr GuðkvIV, EGils GuðkvIV, EGils SelvIV, Anon MdrVII, Anon VitnVII, Anon Mv IVII, Anon PétVII, Anon AndrVII, Anon AlpostVII), the increasing number of metrical violations found in these poems shows that the phonological and morphological structure of the Icelandic language could no longer sustain dróttkvætt. Dróttkvætt is not only the metre that is best represented in the corpus of skaldic poetry throughout the centuries, but it is also the metre that has been most extensively researched. Scholars have shown how and when metrical innovations took place (Kuhn 1969a), how certain metrical types came to be associated with particular groups of skalds (Kuhn 1983, 68) and how metre can help establish criteria for the dating of the poetry (Gade 2000).

Just as dróttkvætt developed as an extended, rhymed variant of fornyrðislag, hrynhent developed as an extended variant of dróttkvætt, with two additional syllables added before the cadence (see §4.4.2 below and Sievers 1893, 111-12; von See 1967, 51-2; Kuhn 1983, 337-41; Fidjestøl 1984a, 106-16; Whaley 1998, 80-94). These two syllables could consist of the sequence long + short/long or short + short/long. Because metrical positions 6 and 8 always carry full stress, resolution is suspended in position 6 if that position is filled by a short syllable (this is rare in odd lines); cf. Ólhv Hryn 7/4II þungr magnaðisk agi bragna ‘heavy increased the turmoil of the people’. Hence the rhythm at the end of each line is always trochaic (positions 5-8:  ×  × or  ×  ×). Indeed, Type A predominates in hrynhent odd and even lines and could have given the metre its name (hrynhent ‘flowing-rhymed’), transmitted in the prose of Hl (Hl 1941, 24) and Ht (SnE 2007, 27-8). Other metrical types attested in hrynhent from the very beginning are Types D and D4, but Types B and C are not represented at all. Consider the following couplet (Ólhv Hryn 10/1-2II):

Hallgeislat rauð hvatt í Ósló


hildar tungl með skata mildum.

‘The brilliant-coloured reddened bravely in Oslo


moons of battle with the generous lord’.

Aside from a fragment and one stanza of a drápa of dubious authenticity (so Fidjestøl 1984a, 115-16) composed by a man from the Hebrides (Anon HafgIV), Arnórr Þórðarson’s Hrynhenda (Arn HrynII), a panegyric honouring King Magnús inn góði Óláfsson (1046), is the first poem in hrynhent metre. Fidjestøl (1984a, 115-16) believes that Arnórr indeed created this metre (possibly influenced by the trochaic rhythm of Latin Christian poetry of the early Middle Ages), and that may well have been the case. From the very beginning, hrynhent is associated with longer encomia. Following in Arnórr’s footsteps, Markús Skeggjason (c. 1104) composed a memorial poem (Mark EirdrII) about King Eiríkr inn góði Sveinsson of Denmark, and Gamli kanóki used that metre to eulogise John the Apostle (Gamlkan JóndrVII). In the thirteenth century, the brothers Óláfr hvítaskáld and Sturla Þórðarsynir both commemorated King Hákon Hákonarson of Norway with hrynhent poems (Ólhv HrynII; Sturl HrynII), and three stanzas of a memorial poem to Hákon’s son, Magnús lagabœtir, also survive from the very end of that century (Anon MlagII). It was in the fourteenth century, however, that hrynhent became increasingly popular and ousted dróttkvætt from its place of eminence among the Old Norse metres. During that century, a large number of extended, mostly religious poems were composed in hrynhent (ÞormÓl ÁrhrynIV; Arngr GdIV; Anon LilVII; EGils GuðvIV; Árni GdIV; Anon MgrVII; Anon HeilVII; Anon KatrVII; Anon MeyVII). The most prominent of these poems, Lilja (Anon LilVII), introduced a variant of hrynhent, the so-called LiljulagLilja-metre’, in which many of the earlier metrical constraints were relaxed, allowing for resolution and neutralisation in hitherto prohibited metrical positions. Although each line still contained eight metrical positions, the metre was no longer syllable counting. Furthermore, lexical stress became subordinate to what must have been a very strong metrical stress, and, although alliteration was still present as in earlier hrynhent, the alliterative staves no longer functioned as a structuring device; rather, alliteration had become an adornment. Consider the following helmingr from Lilja (Anon Lil 7/1-4VII):

Mektarfullr, er af bar öllum


í náttúruskærleik sínum,

skapaður góðr og skein í prýði

skapara næstr í vegsemd hæstri.

‘The one full of might, who surpassed all


in the natural brightness of his,

created good and shone in glory

next to the Creator in the highest honour’.

In this helmingr all lines are Type A, but in line 2, the main stave falls on the proclitic, normally unstressed preposition í ‘in’, promoting this syllable to full stress and demoting the first, normally stressed element in the compound náttúruskærleik, literally ‘nature-brightness’, to an unstressed position. Moreover, both lines 3 and 4 allow resolution on words with three short syllables (skapaður ‘created’ and skapara ‘Creator’), which was prohibited in earlier Old Norse alliterative metres (see Kuhn 1939, 187-8, 190). Clearly, poets composing in Liljulag were able to accommodate new word forms resulting from phonological changes that took place in fourteenth-century Icelandic, such as desyllabification of r (see skapaður ‘created’ (l. 3) as opposed to earlier skapaðr) (see Gade 1995d). The metre most likely originated in response to the increasing need to accommodate new lexical forms that did not fit into the tightly structured dróttkvætt and hrynhent.

The last alliterative metre to be discussed in this section is hálfhnept ‘half-curtailed’ (the term is transmitted in the prose of Hl, Hl 1941, 27 and Ht, SnE 2007, 32; see also Sievers 1893, 113). In Snorri’s model stanza (SnSt Ht 77III), the internal rhyme scheme and the placement of alliterative staves follow that of dróttkvætt, but in later poetry composed in this metre, the main stave in the even lines is not necessarily placed in metrical position 1, although it always falls on the first stressed syllable. Characteristic of the metre is that the last syllable of all lines is hnept ‘curtailed’ and carries internal rhyme, and that it is preceded either by a monosyllable or by a disyllabic word with a short stem that resolves. The metre cannot easily be accommodated to any regular metrical patterns. Consider Snorri’s sample stanza (SnSt Ht 77III):

Snja lætr í sólr


snekkjur á Manar hlekk

(árla sér ungr jarl)

allvaldr (breka fall).

Lypta kná lýðr opt


lauki of kjalar raukn;

greiða náir glygg váð;

greipum mœta dragreip.

Allvaldr lætr snekkjur snyðja á hlekk Manar í sólroð; árla sér ungr jarl fall breka. Lýðr kná opt lypta lauki of raukn kjalar; glygg náir greiðir váð; dragreip mœta greipum.


The mighty ruler makes warships hasten on the chain-link of Man <island> [SEA] at dawn; early the young jarl sees the falling of the breakers. People often lift the mast on the draught-animals of the keel [SHIPS]; the storm unfolds the sail; halyards meet hands.

Hálfhnept is used occasionally from the ninth to the thirteenth century (e.g. Hhárf SnædrI, Bbreiðv Lv 6V (Eb 30), Ormr WomanIII, Anon (LaufE) 2III, EilSn Lv 1IV, Gunnarr LvIV, Árni Lv 2III), but the only poet to employ the metre in an encomiastic poem during those centuries is Óttarr svarti in his panegyric for King Óláfr sœnski of Sweden (c. 1018; Ótt ÓldrIII). In the fourteenth century, hálfhnept enjoyed a revival, most likely owing to its loose metrical form, and that metre was chosen for three extant longer religious poems (Anon Mv II-IIIVII; Anon BrúðvVII).

Rǫgnvaldr Kali Kolsson and Hallr Þórarinsson’s Háttalykill (RvHbreiðm HlIII) and Snorri Sturluson’s Háttatal (SnSt HtIII) both contain examples of a number of other, variant alliterative metres, and in Ht 100III (cited above), Snorri prides himself on having composed that poem using a hundred different verse-forms. Because many of these forms are either unattested outside of the two metrical treatises or represent stylised versions of features found sporadically in other skaldic compositions, they will not be included here (see the detailed discussions in the editions of Hl and Ht in SkP III). Section 4.4 below presents a brief overview of the relations between the skaldic metres discussed above (except hálfhnept) and the eddic metres fornyrðislag and málaháttr. Only odd lines are included in this overview.

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