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Drottkvoett-art - 9/1/14


"Dróttkvætt or That Old Norse Poetry Thing" by Baron Fridrikr Tomasson.


NOTE: See also the files: poetry-msg, 100-Tanka-art, AS-Prase-Poem-art, Goliard-Poets-bib, Japanse-Tanka-art, Nors-Epc-Vrse-art, Rondeau-art, Sextain-art, Iambic-Pent-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org




         Dróttkvætt or

That Old Norse Poetry Thing


by Baron Fridrikr Tomasson



In the sagas of the kings and saints, in the histories of the first settlers of Iceland and the Western Isles, the reader finds both prose and poetry that tells the story and extols the virtues of the greatest heroes, men such as St. Olaf, Magnus Haraldsson, Harald Fairhair, Erik the Red, and many others.  These poems are also written to offer political commentary and to give insult to others.  They form a major part of the extant works of literature from the Scandinavian world during the time from 900-1400.


In this poetry there are many forms, defined by the structure of the poetry. These forms were first defined by Snorri Sturlusson (c. 1179-1241) in the Prose Edda, which was recorded in the Codex Regius, a 14th century manuscript (see GKS 2367 4 to at http://www.am.hi.is:8087/WebView.htm passim for a facsimile of the Codex Regius).[1]   Snorri's purpose in writing the sections of the Edda (the Prologue, Gylfaginning, Skáldskaparmál, and Háttatal) was to record the mythology, poetic forms and dictions of the preceding centuries.  Each section of the Edda is designed as a form of textbook for poets.  In the Gylfaginning ("The Deluding of Gylfi"), Snorri presents a riddle contest of sorts in which the Old Norse mythology from the beginning of the world to Ragnarok is presented.  The third section, following the Prologue and Gylfaginning, is the Skáldskaparmál which presents the "craft of the skalds" by retelling stories from Old Norse lore and legend as examples.  It is in Skáldskaparmál that kennings and heiti ("name") or simple re-namings of people, gods, and things are described and listed.  The fourth and concluding section of the Edda is Háttatal ("List of Verses") which we know that Snorri wrote early in his career.  Háttatl is a series of 102 stanzas that present many different metres that Snorri had identified in Old Norse-Old Icelandic poetry.  Many of these vary only by accents or rhyme schemes that they utilize.[2]


Among the most common and important verse forms Snorri speaks of is the dróttkvætt ("Court Metre" probably named after its popularity as a highly formal metre to recited at the King's court).[3]  There are literally thousands of extant verses of dróttkvætt known to us, ranging from a couple of lines to single verses to entire poems such as Einarr Skúlason's Geisli ("Light Beam"), a Christian poem written in 1153.[4]  Snorri gives a basic definition of the dróttkvætt verse as follows:


There is one aspect of spelling that determines the verse form and creates the poetical effect, that there are twelve staves [alliterating sounds] in the the stanza, and three are put in the quarter-stanza. In   each quarter-stanza there two lines. Each line contains six syllables.  In the second line there is put first in the line the stave which we will call the chief stave (hofuðstafr). This stave determines the alliteration. But in the first line this stave will appear twice at the beginning of syllables. We call these stave props (stuðill). If the chief stave is a consonant, the props must be the same letter as here:


Lætr sá er Hákun heitir

hann rekkir lid bannat


And if the chief stave is a vowel, the props must also be vowels, and it is more elegant that each of them should be a different vowel.[5]


Thus, the first "rule" of dróttkvætt: In each couplet (vísufjórðungr), there is alliteration present at the first or third and fifth syllables of the first poetic line (vísuorð) and at the first syllable of the second vísuorð.[6] Snorri continues as follows:


There is a second aspect of the spelling that is involved in the rule of sound which constitutes the verse-form and poetical effect. This distinction is that the dróttkvætt [court-metre] form requires that the quarter-stanzas have the same arrangement of letters and sounds. In the odd lines this rule is analysed thus:


iörd kann relsa fyrdum


Here there is: iörd . . . furd-. There is one syllable in each position and each has a different vowel and also initial consonant, but there are the same letters after the vowel is both words. This rule of assonance we call skothending [half-rhyme].  But in the even lines it is thus:


fridrofs konungr ofsa


Here there is -rofs . . . ofs-. There is the same vowel and all the same sounds following it in both words, but the words are distinguished by their initial letters. This is called adalhendingar [full rhymes].  The rhymes in dróttkvætt form must be so arranged that the second rhyme in each line, which is called vidrhending, this must be on the last syllable but one.  But the rhyme which is called frumhending [first rhyme] appears sometimes at the beginning of the line - then we call it oddhending; sometimes in the middle of the line - then we call it hluthending. This is dróttkvætt form. This is the form most often used for elaborate poetry. This is the foundation for all verse-forms, just as speech-runes are the principal sort of runes.[7]


Thus, the second "rule" of dróttkvætt: In each couplet, there must be two sets of rhymes, a half rhyme in the first line and full rhyme in the second line.  The second rhyme in each line is on the next-to-last syllable in the line.


The third "rule" that Snorri implies but does not state is that each stanza must consist of eight lines, broken into two half-stanzas (helmingar) and each helmingr must consist of two couplets (vísufjórðungr).  Each line consists of six syllables.[8]  In general, in the stanza, each helmingr, there should be a single syntactic unit.  For example, a simple stanza from Geisli:


1. Upp rann allrar skepnu

2. iðvandr á dag þriðja

3. Krists með krapti hæstum

4. kunnr réttlætis sunnu.

5. Veitk, at mildr frá moldu

6. ,eginfjǫlði reis hǫlða

7. ---- iflaust má þat efla

8. ossa von --- með hǿnum


Iðvandr Kristr, kunnr allrar skepnu, rann upp með hæstum krapti sunnu réttlætis á þriðja dag. Veitk, at mildr meginfjǫlði reis hǫlða reis frá moldy með hǿnum; iflaust má þat efla ossa vǿn.


Carefully-acting Christ, known to all creation, rose up with the utmost strength of the sun of righteousness on the third day.  I know that a worthy great assembly of men rose from the earth with him; beyond doubt that can strengthen our hope.[9]


In this stanza, there are actually three syntactic units: 2 main clauses and an interjected subordinate adverbial clause: iflaust má þat efla ossa von.  There is a clear break between the first helmingr and the second.  It is common in Old Norse-Old Icelandic dróttkvætt stanzas for subordinate clauses and phrases to be interjected into main clauses, often breaking the main clause into two or more parts.  The poet does this to keep his poetry within the "rules".  One example from Útfarardrápa (Drapa about the Journey Out) by Halldórr skvaldri ("prattler") dated to 1184:


1. Stór skalk verk, þaus vǿru

2. (Vánar dags) á Spáni,

3. (prútt lét sløngvir sóttan

4. Sintré) konungs inna


Skalk inna stór verk konungs, þaus vǿru á Spáni; sløngvir Váar dags lét prútt sóttan Sintré.


I must tell of the great deeds of the king, which took place in Spain; the slinger of Van's <river's> daylight [GOLD> GENEROUS MAN] proudly attacked Sintra.[10]


The poet here breaks his subordinate clause, sløngvir Váar dags lét prútt sóttan Sintré, into two parts and interjects them separately, as the rules on alliteration and rhyme require.


This verse also presents us with one of the most basic building blocks that a poet has to use in writing dróttkvætt, the kenning.  As I mentioned before, Snorri talks about the language of poetry in the Skáldskaparmál.  Kennings receive the largest amount of attention from Snorri in this section of his Edda. Kennings and their use is a very complicated subject that has been studied extensively and can be taught in a class of their own.  For our purposes here, a definition of the kenning is a noun phrase consisting of a base-word (noun) and one or more descriptive words (adjectives).  A kenning is a metaphorical phrase, in that it describes a person or thing without naming its subject.  For example, in the verse above, sløngvir Váar dags literally means "slinger of Van's daylight."  Van is a name of a river, and, in typical kenning-diction, a "river's daylight" is gold, probably because gold nuggets in dark water are obvious because they gleam like the sun.  A "slinger" of thrower of gold is typically a generous man or a king in Old Norse-Old Icelandic kennings.  Thus the kenning, sløngvir Váar dags, stands for a King. Another example of a kenning is found in Þórfinnsdrápa, by Arnórr jarlaskáld Þórðarsson (Jarl's skald):


1. Nú hykk slíðrhugaðs segja,

2. síð léttir mér stríða,

3. (þýtr alfǫður) ýtum

4. jarls kostu (brim hrosta).


Nú hykk segja ýtum kostu  sliðrhugaðs jarls; síð léttir mér stríða; brim hrosta Alfǫðr þýtr.


Now I mean to tell men of the excellence of the tough-minded jarl; not soon will my anguish lighten; the surf of malt [ALE] pf Alfaðir <= Óðinn> [POETRY] roars.[11]


Here is one of the best known kennings: Odin's mead (or ale) equaling poetry.  Snorri tells the tale of Odin's theft of the mead from the giants and his flight to Asgard during which he "spills" some onto earth, whence man gathers it.[12]


The dróttkvætt is the basic verse that Snorri describes; it forms the basis for several types of poems.  The most common of these are the drápa, a long praise-poem with a refrain (stef) and the flokkr, a long poem without a stef.  In the category of drápa  is the erfidrápa,  an elegiac poem written to honor the dead. [13] Another significant grouping is lausavísur which are literally "loose verses"; according to Gade, lauavísur could be used by skalds to make personal comments, attacking their enemies (níðvísur) or praising the beauty or sexuality of a young woman (mansǫngr).[14] Verses of dróttkvætt often appear as interpolations in the sagas, and it is not uncommon for the sagas to be the only evidence we have of some lausavísur or drápur.  


            The reason I have made a study of the dróttkvætt is that I have an interest in Old Icelandic culture.  I have attempted to write dróttkvætt both in English and Old Icelandic.  What follows are three examples of the poetry I have written in the past two years.  The first is an erfidrápa I wrote in memory of Duke Morguhn Sheridan, who passed away in September, 2008.  In the poem I attempted to catch some of the history he made, as well as his spirit.    


In the Morguhn drápa jnn Langferðamaðr, I used only a few kennings and admittedly, I frequently dropped the internal rhyme requirement to "tell the story."   This helps underscore the difficulties of transferring the dróttkvætt form which works so well with the more compact, inflected Old Icelandic with the more sprawling, largely uninflected English language. [15]  I also used a line in Old Icelandic to close the stef: Morguhns ǫnd ofar lǫndum, meaning "Morguhn's spirit over the land."   


Morguhn drápa  jnn Langferðamaðr (Drapa for Morguhn the Lomg-Road Walker)


The next is an erfidrápa which I wrote following the passing of Viscountess Rannveigr akonarsdottir in January, 2010. In this poem, I have used many more kennings than in the Morguhn drápa jnn Langferðamaðr. I tried to get more of the flavor of an Old Icelandic poem, rather than an SCA-poem.  Thus there is only one SCA-related kenning (Sword trees white girth'd which stands for knights).  All the rest are classical kennings which I found in the word-hoard at the Skaldic Poetry Project. [16] Once again, I had problems with the internal rhymes and line lengths, but overall, I feel it is a successful poem.


Hvita-Rannveigr drápa dauðibana (Drapa for White Rannveig Death's bane)


Round his waist the white belt

Wedded spurs to high boots

Chain of gold was given

Green clad lord thus knighted


Saw I lord of leaf'd round

Longed to hear the swan's song

Soaring heaven highward

Hied to tourney's violence.

Verdant Morguhn met there

Mighty western belt-lord

Ronald's head was hewn there

High born Morguhn won crown.


Met in boldest battle

Better sword not yet found

Great duke merry mighty

Morguhns ǫnd ofar lǫndum


Saw I realm made royal

Ruled by Princes truly

Leaf clad leaf lord led them

Loved by clear-voiced Meirwen

Four times stood he stalwart

Staid by none nor laid low

Fairly reigned by right hand

Ring lord by his prowess


Saw I oak-strong Aethling

Evil's eye struck death blow

Stood the berry browed lord

Brave til battles ending

Long road walker wanders

Whither no wight follows

We go to join his journey

Gentle Morguhn leads us


Laughter rang out loudly

Light heart sang in bright eyes

Keep his memory mighty

Morguhns ǫnd ofar lǫndum


Met in boldest battle

Better sword not yet found

Great duke merry mighty

Morguhns ǫnd ofar lǫndum


Saw I flame haired fighter

Field stand never yielding

Brash youth green clad granted

Great knights swift deaths eight-fold

Fought from dawn til dark fall

Dragon tors'd fed corse hawks

Conquered Manfred mighty

Made Rowan his first queen


Saw I fiercesome fighters

forty seeking glory

Grass clad Morguhn mighty

Mowed down those who stood there

Met there turquoise tyger

Tribesman Randall gliding

Shadows minion stalwart

Stood til Morguhn slew him


Laughter rang out loudly

Light heart sang in bright eyes

Keep his memory mighty

Morguhns ǫnd ofar lǫndum


Saw I Dragon's doomsman

Delve lords guide to Hel's door

CClunies Rossing river's rock span

that roaring Calon horde kept

Four great giants joined there

Jarred loose rock-scarred foeman

Charging woeful warriors

Wedge from rock's edge threw them.


Saw I Pennsic pastures

Potent Gavin great king

Brought his knights to kneel there

Noble Morguhn summoned


Death-thane thrives on darkness

delves for souls twelve score

Rannveig's great sword righteous

raised gainst death's blade saves us


Mute Death's sable minion

moves to muffled drumbeat.

raven-clad still rider

raises fiercesome spear shaft.

Blind Hoð's deadly dark tipped

dart brings glooming heartache;

brooding stormclouds baleful

broke by lightnings' white fire.


Regal crimson court stands

corbie-clad in mourning;

noble gift-friend fallen

fell Death's thegn has slain him.

Sword trees white girth'd sturdy

stumble adzed like lumber;

wine-dark drink of war hawks

wends to pools unending.


Death-thane thrives on darkness

delves for souls twelve score

Rannveig's great sword righteous

raised gainst death's blade saves us


See how spear maid silent

stands shaft's tip bears banner;

Tyr's longship waits swan white

shines bright gainst night's mare.

Battle Freyja bold and

brazen turns back gazes ---

glowers from Glitnis rider

greedy Fenris feeder.


Growling Hell spawn's ghastly

groan rings out  "thus die all".

daring spear slope dauntless

dreads not Death's fell head song.

Ash shaft tilts, point aims true,

eye slot finds and drives home;

battle serpent bites deep

brand-Sif's mind-stone breaches.


Death-thane thrives on darkness

delves for souls twelve score

Rannveig's great sword righteous

raised gainst death's blade saves us


Spear maid falls as foeman

fades Death's fell sword bite stayed.

swan white hearts hall scarlet

stained.  hot wound-surge draining.

Noble ring-jarl kneels down

new tears fall to yew stand;

Heaven's wheel lights homeland ---

high the praise for Rannveig.


Oðin's maidens make their

master's army vast and

hang her shield in Herjans

hall. sword trees sing greeting.

Under high flung earth tent

evil threatens always;

good folk look for guidance ---

gracious lady, save them.


Death-thane thrives on darkness

delves for souls twelve score

Rannveig's great sword righteous

raised gainst death's blade saves us


The final poem is a lausavírsr in Old Icelandic that comes from Fríðrekr drápa inn Frisi (drapa of Fredrick the Frisian).  This drápa is designed to be part of a new project  However, as it is only at the beginning, the less aid about it, the better.  The method of writing a verse in Old Icelandic is somewhat convoluted.  I generally start with a rough idea of what I want to say, then research vocabulary on modern Icelandic (I have been using the Babblefish.com translation engine http://www.babblefish.com/freetranslator.php for this purpose.  It seems ideal, as it allows for phrase translation).  After this, I look at putting the words in an order that fits the "rules" for dróttkvætt.  I also look for kennings which I can use to heighten the interest of the poem.  In writing for the specific audience of the SCA, I often am put in a position of inventing kennings that For example, in the Morguhn drápa jnn Langferðamaðr, I used "leaf-lord" to stand for a Duke; and in Hvita-Rannveig drápa dauðibana I used " Sword trees white girth'd" as I mentioned above.  In the Fríðrekr drápa inn Frisi, I am taking an approach that involves transforming some SCA history into a riddarasaga (Knight's Tale) or lygisaga (lying saga or romance). [17] This involves some romanticizing, some fictionalizing and mythologizing, and consider able poetic license.  The stanza follows:


1. Friðrek ræsir fremð inn

2. Frisi gráskegg vissin

3. haf-skip siglir  hlyðir

4. humra til Austur rumlend.

5. Metendr leiða morgum

6. morðáls til villi-borgar;

7. öskranfossdœl ásetta

8. ískaldr reista dísasalr.


Gráskegg vissin Fríðrek inn Frisi ræsir fremð siglir haf-skip hlyðir

humra til Austur rumlend. Leiða morgum metendr morðáls til villi-borgar;

ásetta ískaldr öskranfossdœl; reista dísasalr


(Grizzled grey-beard Frederick the Frisian advancer of honor, you sailed the warship from the lobster-slopes [OCEANS] to the Eastern lands.  You lead many testers of the battle eel [SWORD > WARRIORS] to the wild hills; you settled in the ice-cold valley of the roaring waterfall; you built a temple there)


In conclusion, understanding the dróttkvætt is essential to reading and understanding the sagas and other Old Norse-Old Icelandic writing.  The dróttkvætt is a versatile poetic form, despite its restrictive rules of line length, alliteration and internal rhymes.  It is a difficult form to write in English; somewhat easier in Old Icelandic.  Yet, for all the difficulty of understanding and reading the dróttkvætt, it is a very enjoyable to write in the form.

Appendix A.  AM MS GKS 2367 4to

These manuscript pages are of the Codex Regius, the ms. which contains Snorri's Edda. As you can plainly see, they are damaged in some places and illegible (or extremely difficult to read in others.  This helps explain why multiple readings are possible of Snorri's Edda and many other Old Icelandic texts as well.

(Source: http://www.am.hi.is:8087/WebView.htm)


Works Cited

Arnórr jarlaskáld Þórðarson.  "Þorfinnsdrápa." Ed., Diane Whaley.  In Gade 2009, pp. 229-260.


Clover, Carole J. and John Lindow, eds. Old Norse-Icelandic Literature.  University of Toronto Press, 2005.


Clunies Ross, Margaret.  Poetry on Christian Subjects.  Brepols, 2007.


Einarr Skúlason.  Geisli.  Ed., Martin Chase.  University of Toronto Press, 2005.  (Chase 2005)


Einarr Skúlason.  Geisli.  Ed., Martin Chase.  In Clunies Ross 2007, pp. 5-65.


Gade, Kari Ellen.  The Structure of Old Norse Dróttkvætt Poetry. Islandica XLIX.  Cornell University Press, 1995.


Gade, Keri Ellen, Ed.  Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 2.  Brepols, 2009.


Halldórr skvaldri,  " Útfarardrápa," Ed., Kari Ellen Gade.  In Gade 2009, pp. 482-491.

"Handrit.is". The Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies. http://handrit.is/en/">http://handrit.is/en/.  Last accessed: 15 February 2011.


Kalinke, Marianne.  "Norse Romance (Riddarasögur)" in Clover and Lindow 2005, pp. 316-363.


"Skaldic Poetry Project."  University of Sydney. http://skaldic.arts.usyd.edu.au/db.php

. Last accessed: 15 February 2011.


Snorri Sturluson.  The Prose Edda. Ed., Jesse L. Byock.  Penguin Books, 2005. (Byock 2005)


Snorri Sturluson.  The Prose Edda. Ed., Anthony Faulkes.  Everyman Press, 1995. (Faulks 1995)


Wanner, Kevin J.  Snorri Sturluson and the Edda: The Conversion of Cultural Capital in Medieval Scandinavia. University of Toronto Press: 2008.



[[1]]       There are several different manuscripts which contain versions of Snorri's Edda and scholars debate which is the "least corrupt" version (closest to the original).  The general opinion seems to be that GKS 2367 4to is the least corrupt version.  However, if you look at the facsimile (Appendix A), you'll see that there are gaps in it.  Most modern translators use GKS 2367 4to, and supplement it with the Codex Upsaliensis, the Codex Wormianus, and the Codex Trajectinus, for gap-filling.  See Byock 2005, p. xxxiv; Faulks 1995, xxi-xxiii; and Clover and Lindow 2005, pp. 35-39, for further discussion.


[2]       For Snorri's Edda, see Byock 2005 and Faulkes 1995.  For Snorri's life and an interesing interpretation of his reasons for writing, see Kevin J. Wanner, Snorri Sturluson and the Edda: The Conversion of Cultural Capital in Medieval Scandinavia, (University of Toronto Press, 2008).


[3]        Gade 1995, p. 3.


[4]        see Chase 2005 and Clunies Ross 2007, vol. 1, for Geisli.


[5]        Faulks 1995, p. 166.


[6]        For definitions of Old Norse poetic terms, see Gade 1995, pp. xvi-xvii.


[7]       Faulks 1995, p. 166-167.


[8]       Gade 1995, p. 3.


[9]        Clunies Ross 2007, p. 10. Also, Chase 2005, p. 54. All Old Norse-Old Icelandic full verses quotes in this paper will be presented in the same format whenever possible: the verse, followed by an Old Norse-Old Icelandic prose oder, completed with an English translation.


[10]      Gade 2009, p. 485. Here the kenning sløngvir Váar dags is explained in the English translation.


[[1]1]     Gade 2009, p. 231.


[[1]2]     Byock 2005, p. 85-86.


[[1]3]     Gade 2009, p. xli.  One of the most famous of the erfidrapur is the Magnússdrápa by Arnórr Þórðarson jarlaskáld, which appears throughout the Magnús saga in the Morkinskinna.


[[1]4]     Gade 1995, p. 2.


[15]     In an inflected language, such as German and Germanic languages, changes in person, tense, and number are reflected in the endings of the words or in spelling variants.  This helps eliminate prepositions and makes unusual word orders understandable.  In English, this is not possible.  For example: the English sentence "Dog bites man" is completely different is meaning from "Man bites dog".  In Icelandic, however, Dog bites man =   hundur bítur mann; Man bites dog = maður bítur hund.  Any way you order the Icelandic sentences, you get the intended meaning.  This flexibililty is the key to writing the dróttkvætt verse.


[16]     The Skaldic Poetry Project, located at the University of Sydney, Australia, is an international project to edit the corpus of medieval Norse-Icelandic skaldic poetry.  ≪http://skaldic.arts.usyd.edu.au/db.php≫  The project is based on-line, but also is spomsor of the publication of Poetry from the Kings' Sagas, Part Two (Gade 2009) and Poetry on Christian Subjects (Clunies Ross 2007)


[17]     For a discussion of the riddarasögur and lygisögur, see Kalinke 2005.



Copyright 2011 by Tom Ireland-Delfs, 731 South Main Street, Newark, NY 14513. <fridrikr at thescorre.org>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>


Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org