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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Vol. VII. Poetry on Christian Subjects

8. Introduction

1. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages – a New Edition (MCR)
2. The Corpus of Medieval Icelandic Christian Skaldic Poetry (MCR)
3. Genres of Christian Skaldic Poetry (MCR)
4. Manuscripts (MCR)
5. Poets and their Audiences (MCR)
6. History of Scholarship and Reception of Christian Skaldic Poetry (MCR)
7. Verse-forms and Diction of Christian Skaldic Verse (MCR)
8. The Treatment of Foreign Learned Words and Foreign Personal Names in Skaldic Poetry (KEG)
9. Normalisation of Fourteenth-Century Poetry (KEG)
10. How to use this Edition (MCR)

(Vol. VII. Poetry on Christian Subjects > 8. Introduction > 7. Verse-forms and Diction of Christian Skaldic Verse)

7. Verse-forms and Diction of Christian Skaldic Verse (MCR)

Dróttkvætt ‘court metre’, was the prestige verse-form of skaldic poetry from its emergence in the late ninth century, although other verse-forms were specific to particular genres, like kviðuháttr ‘poem metre’ for genealogical poetry or fornyrðislag ‘old story metre’ or ljóðaháttr ‘song metre’ for gnomic or didactic verse. Faulkes (SnE 1999, 75-88) gives a statistical analysis of the various metres employed in the whole poetic corpus. It is often stated (e.g. Chase 1993, 75) that Christian poets came to prefer the 8-syllable hrynhent (‘flowing metre’) verse-form over the 6-syllable dróttkvætt, especially in the fourteenth century, yet a reasonable number of the later poems in this volume continue to use dróttkvætt (e.g. Gyð, Líkn, Mdr, Mv I , Pét and Vitn). Three poems (Brúðv, Mv II and III) use the metre hálfhneppt ‘half curtailed’. There is also at least one case where a skald has used a more specialised metre for particular effects; the poet of Pét has used skjalfhent ‘shivering rhymed’ to convey, in staccato fashion, the ‘twelve strong things’ that S. Peter possessed. Hrynhent was almost certainly a development from dróttkvætt under the influence of Latin hymn measures (Kuhn 1983, 337-41). As such, it must have appealed to Christian clerics creating their own vernacular devotional poetry. The earliest, securely datable example of the hrynhent verse-form is Arnórr Þórðarson jarlaskáld’s Hrynhenda ‘Poem in hrynhent verse-form’ (Arn HrynII) of c. 1045, and the earliest example in the Volume VII corpus is Gamlkan Jóndr, from the second half of the twelfth century. Several fourteenth-century poems, such as Heil, Kátr, Lil and Mey, are in hrynhent.

In a number of the probably fourteenth-century poems, the verse-forms are notably irregular in their metrical observance, and they do not keep either correct line length or correct distribution of internal rhymes and alliteration. These have been regularised in cases of twelfth- and early thirteenth-century poems where scribal insertion of non-cliticised pronouns and other particles has resulted in an over-long line, but in poetry from after 1250 we have left the texts largely unmodified to reflect the growing lack of metrical consistency in these poems. It is also possible to observe that some poets’ knowledge of the conventions of kenning formation (see below) was slipping. This is most obvious in Brúðv, whose dating this edition has placed in the fourteenth century, though its sole earlier editor, Jón Helgason (ÍM II, 128), thought it could be of thirteenth-century date, and in Kálf Kátr, where, as Kirsten Wolf explains in notes to stanzas 14/3-4, 15/8, 33/2 and 45/7, the skald understood the poetic noun öglir ‘hawk’, to mean ‘snake’ and consequentially produced a number of defective gold-kennings.

A majority of the Christian skaldic poems are intact drápur ‘long poems with refrains’ or fragments thereof. Even some that have traditionally been entitled –vísur ‘verses’, a term indicating a lack of refrain (stef), are almost certainly the remains of drápur. An example is Heildr, which has previously been entitled Heilags anda vísur. Conversely, some poems conventionally titled –drápa (e.g. Andr) cannot be conclusively categorised as such for lack of evidence of a refrain. The predominance of drápur in this corpus places the Christian long poems beside the most prestigious secular encomia of the West Norse tradition in status and dignity, and this is fitting, given their role as vectors of Christian doctrine and devotion. Several of the poets quite self-consciously refer to the various parts of their drápur, using the technical terms stef, stefjabálkr, slœmr and upphaf (see List of Indigenous Terms for their distribution within the corpus). It is thus not surprising, given their poems’ elevated form, that Christian skalds often used elaborate skaldic diction within their drápur.

While the kenning (see below) remains the most common form of stylistic elevation in Christian skaldic poetry, other rhetorical strategies appear, particularly in fourteenth-century verse. Where skalds strive for emotional intensity and effect, they commonly employ complex patterns of repeated but varied rhetorical formulae, which are likely to have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by the new European poetical manuals of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Foote 1982). The poet of Lil used these techniques to great effect, and they appear in other late religious poems like Mey. Stanza 5 of Mey provides a good example of the new poetics:

Sæt Máría gjörði að gráta
gráti mædd í sonarins láti;
lát Júðanna fælði að fljóði;
fljóðið horfði á krossinn rjóðan.
Rjóðandi þá flaut og flóði
flóð táranna niðr um móður;
móðurbrjóstið strengt af stríði
stríðið bar sem engi síðan.

Prose order: Sæt Máría, mædd gráti, gjörði að gráta í láti sonarins; lát Júðanna fælði að fljóði; fljóðið horfði á rjóðan krossinn. Rjóðandi flóð táranna flaut og flóði þá niðr um móður; móðurbrjóstið, strengt af stríði, bar stríðið sem engi síðan.

Translation: Sweet Mary, overcome by weeping, cried at the death of the son; the conduct of the Jews mocked the woman; the woman looked at the red cross. The reddening stream of tears then flowed and streamed down the mother; the mother’s chest, tight from grief, bore the grief like no one since.

The poet uses a variety of the echoing verse-form that Snorri Sturluson termed iðurmæltr ‘repeatedly said’ (SnE 1999, 22) and his purpose is to express the affective piety associated in European medieval poetry generally with the motif of the Virgin Mary weeping at the foot of Christ’s cross. In combination with the native verse-form he uses repetitive word-play, a type of adnominatio, to suggest a rapid sequence of important events that changed the world.

Other kinds of stylistic and conceptual resources that are relatively common in medieval European devotional poetry appear quite rarely in Christian skaldic verse. It is clear from Óláfr Þórðarson’s final example of poetic usage in TGT, a stanza by Níkulás Bergsson (Ník KristdrIII), that typological symbolism was known in Iceland at least from the mid twelfth century (Louis-Jensen 1981), but it does not seem to have been very often used by skaldic poets, except in standard circumlocutions for the Virgin Mary modelled on Latin phrases. Number symbolism and numerological structuring devices also appear relatively rarely in the Christian skaldic corpus, principally in Lil and Líkn. The poet of Lil, which has 100 stanzas, doubtless expressed the notion of the perfection of Christian salvation history through his choice of that round number, although another system, based on a triangular pattern within the circular structure of the poem, has also been detected (Hill 1970, 564-5). It is likely that the poet of Líkn chose to compose 52 stanzas in order to reflect the number of weeks in the year. George Tate, in his notes to Líkn in this edition, gives details of the poet’s emphasis on the concept of time and the Christian year throughout the poem. Líkn 31-7 is also noteworthy for a series of elaborate exegetical figures comparing Christ’s cross to a set of symbols (key, flower, ship, ladder, bridge, scales and altar) which can be paralleled in Latin hymns of the Middle Ages. The poet of Sól also seems to play on a deliberate contrast between Christian and traditional Norse number symbolism.

By far the most obvious and frequent stylistic feature of Christian skaldic poetry is the kenning, characteristically a two-part nominal periphrasis for a noun referent, comprising a base-word (MIcel. stofnorð, German Grundwort) and a determinant (MIcel. kenniorð, German Bestimmung), which is either in the genitive case or the first element of a compound. A simple example is brjótr seima ‘breaker of gold wires’ [generous man] (Gamlkan Jóndr 1/6). The referent, given here in small capitals, is not actually mentioned in the text, but must be inferred from it and from the conventional conceptual system that underpins kenning semantics and was familiar to medieval Icelandic poets and their audiences. In this case, the modern reader needs to know that distributing (‘breaking’, ‘scattering’,‘wasting’) gold symbolises the virtue of generosity in a ruler or other important man, the actual referent in this instance being S. John. Another example of a simple kenning, with an obviously Christian referent, is geymir guðspjalls ‘guardian of the gospel’ [holy man] (Anon Heil 10/5). In this instance the referent is S. Dionysus. Kennings may be simple or they may include more than one referent, what Snorri Sturluson called tvíkent ‘twice modified’, if they contained two referents, or rekit ‘extended’, if there were more than two (SnE 1999, 5). An example of a rekit kenning with three referents (the direction of interpretation being indicated by >) is þollar hreina nausts humra ‘fir-trees of the reindeer of the boat-house of lobsters’ [sea > ships > seafarers] (Gamlkan Jóndr 2/7-8).

This last kenning is typical of the use of such resources of diction in much Christian skaldic verse in that conventional elements of the referential system evoke the conceptual world of Scandinavian material culture, in this case seafaring, rather than the world of Christian history and legend, even though the poet is dealing with a Christian subject and the kenning here refers to Christian men in general. In some cases, indeed, Christian skalds used mythological references to supernatural beings from Old Norse paganism to ornament their Christian kennings. A simple example is Kálfr Hallsson’s use of base-words for goddesses in kennings for S. Catherine, like Þrúðr falda ‘Þrúðr <goddess> of headdresses’ [woman] (Kátr 4/8), Þrúðr being the name of the god Þórr’s daughter in Norse myth, but in skaldic usage standing for any woman. Gamli, the poet of Has, likewise refers to Mary Magdalene as Vr víns ‘Vr <goddess> of wine’ (53/3-4), the woman-kenning in this case possibly alluding to Mary’s sensual nature. Although some such skaldic kennings probably use pagan mythological references for specific contextual effect, the majority of them are quite conventional and decorative, and can be compared to the use of classical allusions in vernacular European poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some modern scholars find it discordant to read kennings whose referents mean warriors or seafarers, when the poet is talking about the behaviour of Christian people in general, where holy women are called by the names of pagan goddesses or even valkyries, and where male saints and apostles are presented in terms appropriate to secular lords and distributors of treasure. However, there is no evidence that medieval Icelandic poets and their audiences saw any impropriety or discrepancy in these allusions. All the evidence indicates that they should be regarded as largely ornamental and in keeping with the high style of Christian skaldic drápur and other long poems.

There is in fact a good deal of variability among the poems in this volume in the extent to which they use kennings. In part, this reflects their age, the later poets tending to use fewer kennings, and those only of simple kind for a restricted range of referents: God, Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and apostles, priests, Christian people and Heaven, the last-named usually embedded in a kenning for God or Christ, of the form ‘lord of the heavens’. To some extent this growing simplicity of diction reflects a deliberate turn away from skaldic complexity, expressed in a well-known declaration by the poet of Lil that he wants to avoid obscure archaisms (hulin fornyrðin 98/3), on the grounds that the Christian message was most effective when it was unencumbered by abstruse and oblique language. However, as the stanza from Mey quoted above and the whole of Lil itself amply demonstrate, such manifestos cannot be taken at face value. Although poetry like that exemplified in Mey 5 contains not a single kenning, it is rhetorically complex in a different way.

It is observable that several of the hagiographical narratives in the collection use a great many kennings, irrespective of their age, while few of the non-narrative group do so, aside from Heildr and Mdr, which are exceptional in the extent to which their poets generate calques on Latin periphrases for the Holy Spirit and the Virgin respectively, as will be discussed below. Three narrative poems that employ a wealth of kennings for their protagonists are Pl, which is amongst the earliest Christian skaldic drápur, Brúðv and Kátr, both probably of the fourteenth century. In each case, the poet is likely to have been working closely from a vernacular prose text and one can assume that his main purpose in using a great many kennings for the protagonists of the legends the poems narrate was a desire to produce a version that was more concentrated in its effect and more highly ornamented than their prose exemplars. Jonna Louis-Jensen’s detailed analysis (1998) of the skill with which the poet of Pl reworked the prose legend of Placitus supports this contention. It does not mean, however, that these poets, or indeed others working from the liturgy or homiletic literature, used only a poetic register. Several words and phrases that would have been neologisms in the general Icelandic vocabulary at or near the time the poems were composed appear for the first time or are among the earliest recorded usages in these poems.

The corpus of kennings from poetry on Christian subjects presents a number of challenges to the editor in terms of their identification, classification and interpretation. These difficulties have been masked to a considerable extent in the standard editions to date, because of the tendency of earlier editors not to break down kennings into their component parts when interpreting and translating them. A great many Christian skaldic kennings assert qualities and activities of their referents that are demonstrably true in terms of Christian doctrine. Thus mildingr himins ‘the king of heaven’ (Pét 5/4) is God, while móðir guðs ‘the mother of God’ (Pét 37/2) can only refer to the Virgin Mary. The referents of these kennings, of which there are very many in Volume 7, are marked in the Translation by lower case nouns, rather than small capitals, and preceded by an equals sign in square brackets. So the referent of Pét 5/4 mildingr himins appears as [= God].

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish whether a particular kenning refers to the Christian deity or a human ruler, because the types of kennings most commonly employed for both are the same. Snorri Sturluson shows his awareness of the role context plays in poetry of the Christian period in determining the referents of kennings for rulers: þar [in Geisl 16/5-8, which refers to both God and S. Óláfr] koma saman kenningar, ok verðr sá at skilja af stoð, er ræðr skáldskapinn, um hvárn kveðit er konunginn (SnE 1988 I, 78) ‘here kennings become ambiguous, and the person interpreting the poetry has to distinguish from the context which king is being referred to’ (Faulkes 1987, 127). Similarly, it is often difficult to decide whether kennings for the deity refer to the first or the second person of the Trinity because they frequently follow the same models (specific kennings for the Holy Spirit are few, see below, and are largely confined to Heildr). Meissner notes this difficulty regarding the persons of the Christian deity (369-71).

There are two points at issue here, one theological and the second to do with the metalanguage of skaldic poetry. The fact that many, but not all, kennings for the first two persons of the Trinity follow similar models depends upon the assumption that the Christian God in his role as Father is the primary expression of the Godhead, and that the person of Christ, Son of God, is, in theological terms, secondary. Skalds seem to have expressed this dogma by using the same models for both persons in many cases. However, they were also able to distinguish God the Father and God the Son where necessary. They did this in one of two ways. First, there is a small number of kennings that can only refer to Christ, represented as the Son of God (Meissner, 386). In this edition, such kenning-types are represented [= Christ] in the Translations. Much more commonly, poets indicate by context alone, or by an epithet qualifying the kenning proper, that a particular kenning, which could in other contexts refer to God the Father, must in fact refer to the Son. An example is Has 26/5-7, where the kenning þreknenninn sættandi ýta ‘powerful reconciler of men’, could refer to God but must here refer to Christ, as the immediate context includes a reference to his Passion. Such contextually-determined instances of kennings for God the Son are represented [= God (= Christ)] in the Translations, and are by far the most frequent type of kenning for Christ.

Leið 31 offers an interesting example of a skaldic poet’s ability to vary standard kenning types for the Christian deity. Here the poet has carefully chosen to refer to all three persons of the Trinity in the context of his treatment of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and Resurrection on Easter Sunday. As is often the case in skaldic practice, this anonymous skald refers to, but does not produce a kenning for, the Holy Spirit (heilagr andi 31/6). He makes his point about the indissolubility of the Trinity by stating that snjallastr faðir allra ‘the most valiant father of all’ (31/2) rose from the dead on Easter Sunday and that sonr hauðrs sólar ‘the son of the land of the sun’ (31/3-4) comforted men. By attributing the Resurrection to the Father, the Leið-poet shows theological and poetic subtlety, and by deliberately introducing a rather unusual kenning for the Son (the base-word being ‘son’ rather than the expected ‘ruler’), he underlines his awareness that it was God the Son who was resurrected and thereby made salvation possible for humanity.

A decision was made in 2005 by the General Editors of SkP to exclude from the count of kennings two-noun periphrases that have the form of kennings, but are actually translations into Icelandic of stereotyped Latin periphrases to be found in Christian texts (like the Bible, the liturgy, hymns, sequences and sermons), on the ground that they do not offer a model that can be varied, as the kenning proper can be. In other words, form and structure are not sufficient grounds for a phrase to be classified as a kenning; variability on a conventional model or base must also be demonstrably present. In the Translations and Notes to this edition, kenning-like periphrases of this kind – and there are many of them – have not been treated as kennings, even though they fulfil some of the functions of kennings.

Some examples of kenning-like periphrases for the major referents of Christian skaldic poetry will clarify this position. Among latinate periphrases for God and Christ are: Geisl 4/4 sunna réttlætis ‘sun of righteousness’ (Lat. sol justitiae), Mey 3/3 sólin riettlætis ‘the sun of justice’ (used there of Christ), also Árni Gd 13/2IV, used there of God; Pét 40/6 lífs brunnr ‘life’s well’ (used of Christ), modelled on Lat. fons vitae; Líkn 7/7-8 vísi vegs ‘king of glory’, probably referring to God rather than Christ (Lat. rex gloriae); Líkn 36/1 heims verð ‘world’s price’ (Lat. pretium saeculi); Líkn 37/1-2 ljóst lamb guðs ‘the radiant Lamb of God’ (Lat. agnus Dei), both referring to Christ. Periphrases for the Holy Spirit include Heildr 2/3, 4 af mætum brunni lífsins ‘from the worthy spring of life’ ; cf. Jer. II.13 fons aquae vitae (used in Jer. of God). The majority of kenning-like periphrases for the Holy Spirit in Heildr are clearly modelled on Latin phrases, especially in stanzas 11-16, which translate the hymn Veni creator spiritus. In all, there are no fewer than twenty-five such kenning-like periphrases for the Holy Spirit in Heildr but only a very small number in other skaldic poems. A possible periphrasis for Christ’s Cross is Líkn 42/2 sigrstoð ‘victory-post’, which may be calqued on Lat. trop(h)aeum ‘victory memorial’ (see further George Tate’s note to this line). This example, because its status is uncertain, has been treated as a ‘normal’ kenning.

There are many periphrases for the Virgin Mary modelled on Latin epithets, of which a selection are given here. Geisl 2/5, 8, 7 frá bjartri stjǫrnu flœðar ‘[Christ was born] from the bright star of the flood’ (Lat. stella maris ‘star of the sea’). This is the only example of such an imitation of a very popular Mary-epithet, except for Mdr 3/4 and 30/2 stiarna siovar ‘star of the sea’. In Mdr there are many such latinate epithets for the Virgin, including, at 10/1, ker kosta ‘vessel of virtues’ (Lat. vas honoris). We also find periphrases like Has 61/1-2 blíðr hǫfðingi snóta ‘gentle chief of women’ (cf. Lat. regina virginum ‘queen of virgins’); cf. Mdr 5/2 and Pét 5/8 konungr vífa ‘king of women’. Also, but with significant embellishment from traditional kenning-types so that they are not simply calques on Latin phrases, there are examples like Has 60/2-4 alskírt hǫfuðmusteri ens hæsta hildings himins birti ‘altogether brilliant chief temple of the highest prince of the brightness of heaven’ (Lat. templum domini ‘temple of the Lord’) and enn glæsti kastali grams hauðrs glyggs ‘the beautiful fortress of the prince of the land of the wind’ (Has 60/5, 7-8). Only the second elements of these periphrases have been treated as kennings.

The influence of Latin phrases is also perceptible in periphrases for heaven and holy men. Geisl 63/8 offers friðarsýn ‘vision of peace’, i.e. ‘the Heavenly Jerusalem’. The compound is a direct translation of Lat. visio pacis ‘vision of peace’, which was believed to be the meaning of the name Jerusalem. This etymology was well known in the Middle Ages and appears frequently in theological writings and in hymns, the most famous being Urbs beata Hierusalem, dicta pacis visio (AH 51:119; Ordo Nidr., 292-3, 335-6). The image of the martyrs and confessors living in endless heavenly bliss, ultimately derived from Scripture (Rev. VII.13-17, XXI.3-4, etc.), is a commonplace in hymns for the feasts of saints, and is probably reflected in Ník Jóndr 2/3 himna sýn ‘a vision of the heavens’. The phrase váttr dýrðar ‘witness of glory’ is a periphrasis for a martyr in kenning form, which expands the sense of the Latin, ultimately Greek, noun. It occurs in Pl 26/3 (referring to Plácitus), while in Geisl 62/3 it is used of S. Óláfr. In Andr 2/1 yfirpostulinn ástar ‘chief apostle of love’ refers to Andrew, though the Lat. apostolus charitatis ‘apostle of love’, usually refers to either Paul or John; other periphrastic references to Andrew are Mey 1/7-8 æzta lífi yfirpostulann ‘the most outstanding chief Apostle’ and Mv I 2/1 inn æsti ástvin guðs ‘noblest bosom friend of God’.


[16] There is a full discussion of skaldic verse-forms and formal structures in the Introduction to the whole edition in Volume 1. Individual deviations and irregularities are mentioned in Notes to specific poems and stanzas.

Martin Chase (2003, 2005a, 21-7 and 124 and his edition of Geisl in this volume) has argued that Einarr Skúlason uses typology in Geisl stanzas 1-6 to identify S. Óláfr with Christ. The poet of Pl used a kind of typology when he compared Plácitus, who suffered many privations as tests of his Christian faith, to the Old Testament figure Jób inn gamli ‘Job the old’ (Pl 1/8 and 26/8). The Plácitus legend also depends on an equivalence between Christ and the hart that appeared to Plácitus while out hunting, an analogy well known to medieval Christians through the Physiologus tradition (see Note to Pl 7/7-8).

For a fuller discusssion of the kenning system of skaldic poetry, see Introduction to the whole edition, SkP, in Volume I.

There are a number of interesting examples, some from the twelfth-century drápur: Leið has manna ‘manna’ 20/7; krisma ‘chrism’ 24/6; Has has paradís ‘paradise’ 24/6. Of the later poems, Alpost has stím ‘tumult, din’ 5/6, plagaz ‘to devote oneself’ 18/8 (also Mey 55/7) and frómi, 3rd pers. sg. pres. subj, of fróma ‘to celebrate, honour’ 12/9; Brúðv has fráleitr ‘ridiculous’ 23/6 and var ‘shelter’ 30/3; Lil has margbrugðinn, ‘often changed, shifty’, 16/6 and auðgint ‘easily beguiled’ 18/1; Mgr has edik ‘vinegar’ 30/8.

They may be repeated without change, however, by the same or different poets, as some of the examples below demonstrate.

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