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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

5. Metres and poetic diction

5.1. Metres
5.2. Poetic diction

(Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035 > 8. Volume Introduction > 5. Metres and poetic diction > 5.2. Poetic diction)

5.2. Poetic diction

Poetic terms or heiti and the poetic periphrases known as kennings (which are often formed out of heiti) are crucial to the appreciation and understanding of skaldic poetry, and they are discussed in Section 5 of the General Introduction. Kennings are the single most distinctive stylistic feature of the poetry; they lend themselves to very variable use, and therefore contribute a great deal to the individual character of poetry composed by different skalds and within different periods, genres or metres. Some of the principal trends observable in the kennings in SkP I are outlined here.

Statistics for the volume as a whole show that, on average, the dróttkvætt poetry of the ninth to tenth centuries uses more than four kennings per stanza (counting each kenning within complex kennings separately, the complex kennings being tvíkent ‘doubly-modified’ and rekit ‘driven, extended’ kennings in which the determinants are themselves kennings). Guthormr sindri (Gsind Hákdr, mid tenth century), with almost twice that rate, is the most prolific creator of kennings, and the works of Eyjólfr dáðaskáld (Edáð Banddr, early eleventh century) and Tindr Hallkelsson (Tindr Hákdr, late tenth century) are also strikingly rich in kennings. In each case, a large overall number includes a high proportion of complex kennings and inverted kennings. Relatively straightforward examples from Edáð Banddr are the rekit kenning reiðir riðloga randvallar ‘brandisher of the swinging flame of the rim-plain [shield > sword > warrior]’ (st. 1/5-6) and the inverted tvíkent kenning handa logreifir ‘presenter of the flame of hands [(lit. ‘flame-presenter of hands’) gold > generous man]’ (st. 2/3, 4). Fewer and simpler kennings are then characteristic of the eleventh century. There is no sudden shift, but the poems in this volume would suggest a change of practice c. 1015 between the reigns, in Norway, of Eiríkr jarl Hákonarson and Óláfr Haraldsson. Sigvatr Þórðarson’s large oeuvre, all or mostly composed after this date, contains several scores of kennings, yet much of his inventiveness lies in other directions, and his kennings tend to be of a straightforward kind, with complex and inverted kennings a rarity (two inverted kennings in Sigv Lv 14, for instance, stand out). This might be attributed to personal preference on the part of the skald or of his main patron Óláfr Haraldsson (perhaps averse to kennings because of their frequent pagan allusions), and because such a large proportion of the earlier eleventh-century poetry that survives is by Sigvatr, it is difficult to distinguish individual preference from general trend. Nonetheless, the kenning style of Sigvatr’s nephew Óttarr is similar, and there is only a modest kenning ‘recovery’ among poets of the mid eleventh century such as Þjóðólfr Arnórsson and Arnórr jarlaskáld, whose work is edited in SkP II. By contrast the historical or non-contemporary poems Óláfsdrápa Tryggvasonar (Anon Óldr) and Hallar-Steinn’s Rekstefja (HSt Rst) show a fuller use of the kenning, including several complex and inverted examples. Whether early or late, poetry in eddic metres tends to use few and simple kennings. At the extreme, the anonymous Eiríksmál (Anon Eirm) has just one, and the anonymous stanzas from Vǫlsa þáttr (Anon Vǫlsa) only two.

The concepts referred to using kennings (their referents) remain largely stable across the poetry in SkP I. Kennings for concepts such as ‘warrior’, ‘battle’, ‘sword’, ‘ship’, ‘sea’ and ‘gold’ abound at all periods, as do individual patterns such as ‘tree of the sword’ for ‘warrior’ or ‘fire of water’ for ‘gold’. Indeed the very nature and interpretability of the kenning depends on the recognition of stereotypical patterns. At the same time, the skalds, and the kenning system, are adaptable, as when Þjóðólfr, poet of Yt, reflects the often macabre subject-matter of his poem by producing three kennings for Hel, the goddess or realm of the dead, in a single stanza (Þjóð Yt 7), as well as others for ‘gallows’ (sts 9/11-12, 12/5-6), ‘sorceress’ (st. 3/3), ‘pitchfork’ (st. 8/15-16) and so on. Sigvatr coins kennings for ‘sea-weed’ and ‘fisherman’ (Sigv Lv 1) as well as the jocular gætir grefs ‘minder of the hoe [farmer]’ – a satirical device of a kind more common in the poetry of the Íslendinga sögur edited in SkP V. Kennings are perhaps at their most effective when used cumulatively and with contextual aptness. Þorbjǫrn hornklofi uses kennings for ‘battle’ based on weather terms to build an ostinato of battle-noise in Glymdrápa ‘Clangour-drápa’ (Þhorn Gldr), and Einarr skálaglamm opens his poem Vellekla (Eskál Vell) with a magnificent series of poetry-kennings which refer to the myth of the mead of poetry using base-words referring to sea or wave, thus creating a double layer of imagery.

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