Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Viking Art of Poetry

One thing I love about Iceland is how alive the medieval world remains. City streets, candy bars, and beers are named for Norse gods and saga heroes. Ordinary Icelanders--in this case a civil engineer--can teach an expert in Old Norse literature (me) something about Viking poetry.

What are the "songs" in Song of the Vikings? When I talk about the book, I try to explain that Vikings were not only fierce warriors, they were very subtle poets. Because of the work of Snorri Sturluson and his followers, we know the names of over 200 Viking skálds. We can read hundreds of their verses: In the standard edition, they fill 1,000 two-column pages. What skalds thought important enough to put into words provides most of what we know today about the inner lives of people in the Viking Age. 

The big surprise is how much they adored poetry--and how hard they worked at it.

I burned seaweed on the beach. 
I flung kelp to the red flame. 
Strong, thick smoke began to reek. 
That was a short time ago. 
--an anonymous 11th-century verse translated freely by Roberta Frank.

Skaldic poetry is a sophisticated art. The rules are more convoluted than those for a sonnet or haiku. In the most common form, a stanza had eight lines. Each line had six syllables and three stresses. The rhythm was fixed, as were the patterns of rhyme and alliteration. 

The music of a line was of utmost importance--these poems really were "songs," even though we don't know if they were "sung" or chanted or just recited. A skaldic poem was designed to please the ear. It was first a sound-picture, though in a great poem sound and meaning were inseparable. 

The steed runs in the gloaming,
famished, over long paths.
The hoof can wear out the ground
that leads to houses--we have little daylight.
Now the black horse carries me over streams,
distant from Danes.
My swift one caught his leg
in a ditch--day and night converge.
--by Sighvatr Þórðarson, c. 1035, translated by Peter Foote and David M. Wilson.

A skaldic poem was a cross between a riddle and a trivia quiz. Each half-stanza of a poem contained at least two thoughts. These could be braided together so that the listener had to pay close attention to the grammar (not the word order) to disentangle subject, object, and verb. The riddle entailed disentangling the interlaced phrases so that they formed two grammatical sentences. 

The quiz part was the kennings. Nothing was stated plainly. Why call a ship a ship when it could be “the otter of the ocean"? Snorri Sturluson defined kennings in his Edda, which he wrote as a handbook on Viking poetry. “Otter of the ocean” is a very easy one. As Snorri explained, there are three kinds of kennings: “It is a simple kenning to call battle ‘spear clash’ and it is a double kenning to call a sword ‘fire of the spear-clash,’ and it is extended if there are more elements.” 

The king gives currents of yeast
--that is what I judge ale to be--to men
Men’s silence is dispelled by surf
--that is old beer--of horns.
The prince knows how speech’s salvation
--that is what mead is called--is to be given.
In the choicest of cups comes
--this is what I call wine--dignity’s destruction.
--Snorri Sturluson, c. 1220-41, translated by Anthony Faulkes.

Kennings are rarely so easy to decipher as these. Most kennings refer—quite obscurely—to pagan myths, which is why Snorri filled his Edda with stories of gods and giants. He knew that once these stories were forgotten, Viking poetry would die.

When I lecture on Song of the Vikings, I like to use an example from the book Snorri Sturluson and the "Edda" by Kevin Wanner, a professor at Western Michigan University. Wanner gives this literal prose translation of one of Snorri’s own verses: 

The noble hater of the fire of the sea defends the woman-friend of the enemy of the wolf; prows are set before the steep brow of the confidante of the friend of Mimir. The noble, all-powerful one knows how to protect the mother of the attacker of the worm; enjoy, enemy of neck-rings, the mother of the troll-wife’s enemy until old age.

Who is the hater of the fire of the sea? Who is the enemy of the wolf? Who is the friend of Mimir? What does it all mean? As Wanner notes, you need to know five myths and the family trees of two gods or the poem is nonsense. Take away all the kennings, and the poem means simply, “A good king defends and keeps his land.” But then you lose all the poetry.

Kennings were the soul of skaldic poetry. Roberta Frank, in her book Old Norse Court Poetry, speaks of the “sudden unaccountable surge of power” that comes when she finally perceives in the stream of images the story they represent.

For example, here is "the enemy of the wolf": Odin, fighting the giant wolf Fenrir at Ragnarok, in an illustration by Deborah Hardy from 1909.

Kennings also make the music--the song--of skaldic poetry. With infinite ways of saying the same thing--"A good king defends and keeps his land."--the rules for rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration become, not restrictions, but spurs or challenges. They are the medium of the poet's art. 

They are also what's first lost when a skaldic poem is translated. There are no songs, no music in Song of the Vikings because I wrote only in English, not in Old Norse. And there is no music (or at least a very different, modern music) in the translations of skaldic poems I've included here. Unless you hear the poem read in Old Norse, you're not hearing a Viking song.

Last May, I learned in the usual serendipitous way how to explain what was missing. I had gone to a symposium at Oddi, site of the school where Snorri Sturluson studied skaldic poetry and began collecting it. On the way home I shared a two-hour car ride with the civil engineer and former member of parliament Guðmundur G. Þórarinsson, his son, and two friends, one of whom was a retired economist. To pass the time, the civil engineer and the economist engaged in a verse-capping contest: One recited the first lines of a poem, the other had to finish, or cap, it by reciting the next lines. (Icelanders from all walks of life still enjoy poetry.) 

So that I would not feel left out, Guðmundur attempted the same game with me, using lines from Shakespeare. He knew a lot more Shakespeare by heart than I did. 

Seeing that this attempt to entertain me had failed, and knowing that I had written about Snorri Sturluson, Guðmundur turned the conversation to skaldic verse. He wrote out on the back of an envelope some English poems composed by an Icelander, Sigurður Norland, to explain the complicated verse structure. Here is one of them:

Free your heart where fountains boil
from the dart of sorrow
Long apart from loathful toil
Live for art tomorrow.

Guðmundur read it aloud, accentuating the stresses: FREE your HEART … He circled every "f" in the first two lines and every "l" in the second two to explain the pattern of alliteration. He underlined the end rhymes (boil, toil) and internal rhymes (heart, dart, apart, art). 

As poetry, it was insipid--all sound, no sense, no kennings (unless you can count "dart of sorrow"). But as a lesson in poesy it was sublime. I took the envelope home as a souvenir.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

1 comment:

  1. I only became aware of the importance of poetry to the Icelanders from the works of Laxness. It was not so long ago. Nice souvenir!