Icelndic-poet-art – 5/15/05
ŅThe Basics of the Drttkv¾ttÓ by Lord Toki Redbeard.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
The Basics of the Drttkv¾tt
by Lord Toki Redbeard
The staple of Icelandic skaldic poetry from the 9th to 14th centuries was the drttkv¾tt (plural: drỏttkvaeðir). The name derives from drỏttkvaeor httr, the meter used by the drỏtt, the retainers of the king of Norway. By the 11th century, the drỏtt were principally Icelanders. Drttkv¾tt and its verse-forms were described in Snorri SturlasonÕs Edda, a 13th century text on poetics.
A skaldic poem can be either a drapa or a flokkr. A drapa is a longer poem, divided into sections by a refrain, or stef. Extant drapas range in length up to 100 stanzas, with some evidence that poets favored a total number of stanzas divisible by ten. A flokkr is a short poem, without a refrain.
Rhyme and Alliteration:
Drỏttkvaett uses schemes of rhyme and half rhyme. The odd-numbered lines use an arrangement called skothending (half rhyme), in which syllables with different vowels and initial consonants, but are followed with the same letters after the vowel, are rhymed. Snorri provides the following example of skothending:
ird kann frelsa fyrdum
An example in English would be as the following:
fjord filled with men bearded
The even-numbered lines contain full rhyme, or adalhendingar, in which the rhyming syllables contain the same vowels as well as the same sounds following. Once again, SnorriÕs example:
fredrofs konungr ofsa
This line does not immediately appear to be six beats long, however, the terminal `rÕ in konungr is an unvoiced, trilled `rÕ. This sound is not found in English. Here again is an example in English:
feared sons, to shore steering
Note that in each of these cases the second rhyme in each line, called vidrhending, is placed in the next to last syllable. The first rhyme, or frumhending, can appear in the beginning of the line (oddhending) or the middle of the line (hluthending).
Alliteration is a major poetic element of the drttkv¾tt. There are twelve alliterating sounds, called `stavesÕ, in each stanza. Three staves appear in each two-line quarter-stanza. It is incorrect to use more or less than three alliterations in each quarter-stanza. Two of the staves are placed in the first line of the quarter-stanza. These staves are called the `propsÕ. The remaining staff falls on the first accented syllable of the following line, and is called the `chief staveÕ. Consonants alliterate with identical consonants, and only the first letter in a cluster is used for the alliteration, except that `spÕ, `stÕ and `skÕ function as single units. If the chief stave is a vowel, then the props must also be vowels. According to Snorri, it is more elegant if all three staves are different vowels. Several things should be noted here about drttkv¾tt alliterations in English. First, Icelandic contains the letter `þÕ, pronounced as `thÕ, and called thorn. Therefore, when composing in English it would be acceptable to allow `thÕ to function as a unit for alliteration. Second, because English has multiple ways of producing the same single consonant sound, I am of the opinion that it is acceptable to alliterate matching single consonant sounds, regardless of the letters that produce them (e.g. `whoÕ would alliterate with `homeÕ).
The Language of Poetry:
Use of language in skaldic poetry falls into three categories: literal description, kenning and allegory.
There are three types of literal description may be `ordinaryÕ, `supportÕ and `doubly strengthenedÕ. An ordinary literal description is one in which a word is supported by literal adjectives or adverbs, such as `severe woundÕ, `sharp swordÕ, or `sailing quicklyÕ. It is called `supportÕ when an additional confirmatory word accompanies the literal description, for instance `deadly sharp swordÕ. If yet another term is added, it is called `doubly strengthenedÕ.
Kenning is somewhat more complex. The word itself comes from the Icelandic verb kenna, or Ņmake known byÓ. It is a stylized type of word play. One variety is the substitution of multiple words for a single noun, e.g. Ņriver-flameÓ for gold. Kennings sometimes contain two parts; the first calls an object by the name of something it is not. The second modifies the first in such a way as to make it poetically appropriate. For example, a literal reading of one verse in EgilÕs Saga describes the wind as Ņthe opposite-rowing giant of the mast.Ó The wind is not a giant, but when described as Ņthe giant of the mastÓ, it becomes both descriptive and appropriate.
Kennings can be constructed on three different levels: simple, double and extended. It is would be simple kenning to call battle `spear-clashÕ, and a double Kenning to call a sword `fire of the spear-clashÕ. If there were more elements, it would be extended.
Allegory starts in the same way as kenning, for instance calling warriors `sword-treesÕ. It then continues with the same idea or imagery throughout the stanza. In the example below, the warriors who are attacked are called sword-trees, so the attackers are foresters. Spears are branches, the corpses are sticks and husks [bone and skin], and so on.
Fast felling the sword-trees, [warriors]
foresters went chopping.
In the broil, some branches [battle, spears]
bloomed with iron nettles.
Sticks and husks were high-piled, [corpses]
harvested from buildings.
Wearied from their axe work,
woodsmen rested briefly.
If the imagery used for an object changes in nature mid-stanza, this is called a `monstrosityÕ, and it is a poetic defect. An example would be if a sword were referred to as a serpent and then as a wand within the same stanza.
There are many verse-forms for drỏttkvaeðir. All of the verse forms begin with the same basic structure. Each stanza has eight lines of six syllables each. Three of the syllables in each line are accented and three are unaccented. Each line ends in a trochee (two beats comprised of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable). All verse-forms and variations begin from this foundation. The four examples of verse-forms that follow are all from Edda. They are shown side-by-side with English translations (by Anthony Faulkes; see sources).
One verse-form is `sixteen-sentencedÕ, in which there are two complete sentences or thoughts in each line.
Vex Idn. Vellir rodna Labour grows. Field goes red.
Verpr lind. Thrimu snerpir, Shield is thrown. Battle grows harsh.
F¾sk gagn. Fylkir eignask. Victory is won. The prince gains.
Falr hitnarr. Sedsk vitnir. Dart grows hot. Wolf is sated.
Skekr rnd. Skildir bendask. Targe is shaken. Bucklers are bent.
Skelfr askr. Gridum Raskar. Ash[-spear] shivers. Peace is disturbed.
Brandr gellr. Brynir Sundrask. Brand rings. Mail-coats are split.
Braka spir. Litask rvar. Spears crack. Arrows are dyed.
Another verse-form is `eight-sentencedÕ, in which a sentence or thought is completed in each line.
Ird verr siklingr sverdum. The king defends the land with swords.
Sundr riứfa spir undir. Spears tear wounds open. The coloured
Lind skerr styr steinda. shield is cut in battle. The head flies
Stkkr hauss af bol lausu. from the separated body. Hosts fall on the
Falla flk velli. field. The generous prince wages war.
Fremr mildr ifurr hildi. The sword edge bites blemishes on limbs.
Egg btr a lim lỷti. The scalp lies cut by sword.
Liggr skr snidin hirvi.
There is no name for the following verse-form, although it would be reasonable to refer to it as `four-sentencedÕ, because a thought or sentence is completed in a two-line quarter-stanza.
Ỷskelfir kann ủlfum The bow-shaker [warrior] generous with
audmildr bủa gildi. wealth knows how to prepare the wolves a
gunnsnarr una harri. the wolfÕs kin rejoice in prey. The friend of
valbiỏr afar stỏran. corpse-beer. The wolf does taste blood-
Vargr tẻr or ben bergia drink from the wound and redden its lips.
blỏddrykk ok grn riỏda.
One further variation of the drỏttkvaett is the `formlessÕ verse form. The name is truly a misnomer. Formless poems contain no rhymes, but the alliteration is as in drỏttkvaett. Formless poetry is very structured poetry. The following is an example from Edda of formless verse:
Ortak ld at minnum I have composed as a memorial for men
th er alframast vissak about the valiant princes whom I knew to be
of siklinga snialla the most outstanding with sixty verse-forms.
med sex tgum htta. In no way have the princes thrown to the old
szt hafa veg n vellum waves [wasted] the honour and gold with
er virdan mik ltu which they honoured me. This is a glory to
aldinn mar orpit us.
(that er oss frami) ifrar.
In the following original formless verse, written in English, a great leaderÕs son is praised. Kennings are shown in italics. `Plain languageÕ equivalents for the kennings follow in brackets.
None dread chieftainÕs dotage,
defended by sword-heir.
Bending bow, the sapling [the son]
boldly will guard hilltops.
On sodden sword-forests [armies]
spikes will fall in torrents. [arrows]
Worm-borer and dwarf-wine [sword, poetry]
will protect the people.
Another way to vary the form is to alter the number of syllables per line. It is a called a `licenseÕ to use `slowÕ or `quickÕ syllables, allowing more or less than six syllables per line to be used. The maximum number of syllables in this case would be nine on the odd numbered lines and seven on the even. `FireÕ might be an example of a slow syllable in English, a one-syllable word, which can easily be pronounced as two.
SnorriÕs Edda discusses 60 verse-forms, and additional licenses. This article has covered only several basic ones.
For Further Reading:
For the better part of six centuries, skaldic poetry was composed in Scandinavia, continuing long after the Viking age had ended. It is impossible for a short article to do justice to the variety of verse-forms that were employed during that period (let alone discussing the rich body of oral tradition and mythology, which inspired kennings). The best way to gain a more thorough knowledge would be to read that material voraciously. An abundance of this literary treasure survives, and has been translated into English. Several good selections are noted below. When reading the sagas, however, it serves well to remember that poetic elements are lost in translation. The good translations show the kennings clearly, but the meter and alliteration are often compromised or lost. Rhyme is almost always omitted. SnorriÕs Edda contains the most thorough information I have found on drỏttkvaett poetics. It is important to select a translation of Edda that contains all three sections: Gylfagginning, Skaldskaparmal, and Hattatal. The edition listed below is one that features all three sections. Most have only Gylfagginning and Skaldskaparmal. It is Hattatal that contains the information on verse-forms, which are the building blocks of drottkvaett. Skaldskaparmal is essentially a thesaurus of kennings, and is also incredibly useful. The following sources all assisted in the writing of this article, and are good places to begin reading. The first two deal with poetics. The latter three provide many examples of skaldic verse.
Preminger and Brogan, ed., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Sturlason, Snorri, Edda. Trans. Faulkes, Anthony. London: Everyman, 1987.
Thorsson, rnỏlfur, ed., The Sagas of Icelanders, New York: Penguin, 2000.
Sturlason, Snorri, Heimskringla. Trans. Hollander, Lee, M. Austin: University of Texas, 1964.
Unknown, NjalÕs Saga. Trans. Cook, Robert. London: Penguin, 2001.
Copyright 2004 by Michael Dixon, 1686 Rugby Road Schenectady NY 12309, mdixon1 at nycap.rr.com. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and 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.