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So the most untravelled Icelander Harlaw, or to any institution of the
might be a skald, though he had never seen the face of the king or earl, and never wielded sword and shield, nor seen more glorious fray than a dispute over a horse-fight or the right of pasture. No doubt, if he were a good Skald, this home-glory would not content him. It was a stirring time in those days, when "the cankers of a calm world and long peace" were unknown. But his travels would only confirm the title, and not confer it. If his verses found favor with the king or earl whom he chose to visit, he might become retainer and court-poet, and follow his lord both in peace and war, but all this was only the external glory of his profession. The skald was not the battle-bard of Celtic custom (the precursor of the bagpipes and their bitter rival in the seventeenth century), though his own verses, or his recitation of older poems, might help at times to stir the courage of his comrades. When Thormod made the valley above Stikla-stead ring at daybreak with the lines of the old Bjarkamál, he only did it by request for King Olaf's entertainment, and the saga adds that the host was delighted with his idea. King Olaf also wished to have his skalds safe inside the shieldburg. "You shall stay here," he said, "and see all that is done, and it will be no carried tale then, for you yourselves shall tell of it, and make verses on it." The skalds then agreed with each other that it would be a good thing to make some memorial verses on the events about to happen. So each of them composed a single verse, which was immediately got by heart by the men who stood round about
It is probably from a few instances like these that the conception of the wild fighting skald has been derived. Mallet, for example, states of Earl Hákon's skalds that "they each sang an ode to animate the soldiers before they engaged" with the Jóms-víkings. Some verses certainly did pass on tha' occasion, but they bear no analogy to Mac Vurich's brosnachadh catha at
kind. It may also be suspected that Ragnar Lodbrok's death-song has helped the common view a little. There is indeed no lack of battle-rage in "Kráku-mál," but "many speak of Wallace who never bent his bow," and the author of the poem was not with Ragnar in the serpent-pit.
The name of skald, then, whatever its various applications may be, means in itself no more than "poet," one skilled in the art of verse-making. Its origin is uncertain, none of the derivations that have been proposed being Dr. quite satisfactory.1 Gudbrand Vigfusson inclines to the belief that the original sense was a bad one, denoting a composer of satirical or libellous verse. There are certain facts which lend some support to this theory, but there is against it the strong objection that language does not tend to improve the meaning of such words, and the word is commonly used in a sense. Even the good compound skaldskapr, or skaldship, which in legal language denoted "a libel," is also current with the honorable meaning of "poetry," especially in its formal aspect.
The formal side is indeed, as we shall see, the safest from which to approach the poetry of the skalds, if we use the name in its technical sense,-the sense in which it commonly meets us in the sagas. The skald in the tenth, and still more in the succeeding centuries, was above all an artist in language. His poetry consisted in the expression quite as much as in the matter of his verse, and the tendency was for the former to overgrow the latter. "The rude strains that were jingled out on the skaldic lyre," is no more applicable to the verse of Sighvat and Arnorr
1 Most improbable (or rather impossible) is that which derives it from the Old Irish scélide, a storyteller. Even if the word should not more correctly be written scélaighe, the Norsemen could never have heard it so pronounced as to give it the form skald. In modern usage the word is written skáld, and pronounced almost like the English scowled, but the vowel was originally short. The plural has the same form as the singular, the gender being neuter.
than to the odes of English laureates. them, and they formed an essential There may be differences of opinion as part in the telling of many a tale. On to the interest or poetic value of their such verses the saga-writer often had work, but the form is perfect of its to depend, and numerous incidents kind, and as far from "rude" as any were no doubt only remembered beverse could well be. On the other cause of their connection with the hand, when we read that Kormak's poet's words. If these single verses verses "were equally devoid of true lack the complex symmetry and majespoetic genius as those of the other tic swing of the regular drápa, they verse-smithiers who, in that rude contain much of what is most poetic age, hammered out their rhapsodical in the work of the skalds. A solitary ideas into the form of alliterative verse is sometimes the expression of metre," the criticism is more to the the most striking moment in the life point, though none the less capable of of an individual. The author of it being disputed. may not be reckoned among the famous skalds, but his single sonnet had enough in it to keep his name alive to after-times. When Hallstein, son of Thengil the voyager, returned from Norway to his home in the north of Iceland, and learned that his father was dead, he made these lines:—
The forms of Old Northern verse were numerous enough, as may be seen at length in Snorri's treatise (Hátta-tal), for the Icelanders wrote metrical treatises as well as the Irish, though they did not divide the metres into "common," "uncommon," and "unknown!" In dealing with skaldic verse, however, we have practically only one metre to consider,-that which goes by the name of drótt-kvætt.1 The earliest specimens of this belong to the poets of Harald Fairhair, and throughout the tenth century the metre is steadily ousting all others;
in the eleventh and twelfth it is all prevailing. The name indicates that the poems composed in this metre were intended for recitation before the king and drótt (O. E. dryht), or household. It was thus the commonest metre for the drápa, or laudatory poem, in which the skald celebrated the exploits of the king or earl to whom he attached himself, or whose favor he was desirous to gain. The name of "court-metre," is thus appropriate enough, but it had another and no less important use. It was the constant sonnet-metre of the improvising skald, in which he expressed some feeling of the moment, or summed up some personal exploit. The limitations of space gave no great room for poetry, perhaps, but the lines were easily remembered. They served as a perpetual register of the fact which caused
1 The substitution of v for u in the English word quite will give the pronunciation of kvætt.
Droops the Headland,
The simplicity of this is something
The first essential of a dróttkvætt verse is that it shall consist of eight lines, each of three accents, and commonly of six syllables. This at once distinguishes the Scandinavian alliterative verse from the Anglo-Saxon and Old German, where
no such division into stanzas is ob-
Alliteration, of course, is necessary; no Icelandic poetry can be without it, from the earliest times to the present day. When this type of verse was first introduced, probably no more than the
above requirements were necessary, complete in this respect than the origi
but even in the earliest specimens the additional ornament of assonance is present. This feature is lacking in the older and shorter measures employed in the lays of the Edda, and its adoption has been attributed to Celtic influence. We are here on very doubtful ground indeed. Chronicles assure us that Scandinavian contact with Ireland began in 795 A.D., and for a long time the relations were exclusively hostile. The poet Bragi must have flourished previous to 850 A.D., as Dr. Finnur Jónsson has lately taken the trouble to establish. In Bragi's verse we find the beginnings of this system of assonance was adopted from the Irish metre rinnard, is a very doubtful point. The rules for the composition of rinnard are by no means the rules observed in dróttkvætt, and the imitation is at best very problematical.
The general effect of Bragi's verse, as distinct from its more elaborate suc
cessor, may be sufficiently illustrated by two later examples. The one is taken from the verses composed by Torf-Einarr, the Orkney earl, and the other belongs to Egil the son of Skallagrim, or at least is assigned to him in tue saga. Einarr had avenged the death of his father Rögnvald, and thus comments on the way in which his brothers neglected their plain duty in the matter.
Neither Hrolf's nor Hrollaug's
This verse, besides the strict alliteration required,1 shows full assonance in some of its lines (bear, care; think, drink), and imperfect in others (hand, send; Thorir Mæri), being rather more
1 The second line of each couplet shows the alliterative letter in its first accented word. The
same letter begins two words in the preceding
"Rögnvald's Fall is Fairly (Fate is just) requited."
nal, which has only imperfect ones. nor is the second assonant syllable always found at the end of the line, as in the above. Egil's verse, which follows, shows it in a position not uncommon in this early type. Egil, in his seventh year, had lodged an axe in the head of one of his playfellows, which made his admiring mother declare that there was good viking stuff in him, and that he must get a warship when he was old enough. Then Egil, says the saga, made this verse:Mother mine has bidden For myself to purchase Vessel fast in floatingFare abroad with vikings: High in stern upstanding Steer unfearing onward; Hold me then to haven,
Hew both shield and wielder.
Here the only assonances are in the sixth and eighth lines, and in the former the rhyming syllables are steer, fear, both in the first half of the line. A good deal of spurious verse of this early type was manufactured in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries for insertion in the mythical sagas. The death-song of Lodbrok is one of these productions, marked also by showing a verse of ten lines instead of eight.
What distinguishes the finished dróttkvætt verse from this, is that in it the assonances are subject to as The strict rule as the alliteration. first line of each couplet has a half rhyme (skot-hending), while the second line has a full one (adal-hending). The last accented syllable in each line supplies one of the rhymes, the other must be in the first half of the line. For all these varieties there are technical names, which we here "willingly pretermit." Carrying these rules into English verse, the stanza assumes the form of the two specimens given below. A remarkable feature of the metre is the use of parenthetic clauses, which have been retained exactly as placed in the originals.
The first stanza is a rendering of a verse by Sighvat Thordarson on the
loss sustained by him in the death of King Olaf the saint, and perhaps contains an echo of Hallstein's verse in the mention of smiling hills. He was restless at home, says the saga, and went out one day, and said:
All, me seemed, were smiling
Fells, while Olaf held them:
Mild) with tempest wildest.
The second is a somewhat free translation of one of Kári's verses in Njáls
saga. Kári could not sleep by night for thinking of the burning of Njál and
his sons, and when questioned by Asgrim, answered him in these terms:
Long nights through I linger,
These samples will show in what fetters the skald's poetic fancies bestirred themselves "in the quick forge and working-house of thought." Yet it is not incredible that long practice might enable him to produce them with greater ease than their form would suggest. Of Sighvat we are told that in ordinary conversation he was slow and stiff, while his verses came as smoothly and quickly as other men's talk.
Sponte sua carmen numeros veniebat ad
During the contesɩ the king objects to his poet's metre. "Hear, poet Thjódólf," said he; "you said gröm: skömm. That's a false quantity. If you had said hrömm: skömm, the quantity would have been right, though that makes no sense. You have made many better verses." Of equal interest in this connection are the verses made by King Harald just before the battle of Stamford Bridge. He first made one in a very simple old metre, and then withdrew it. "That verse we recited just now is not well made," said he, "and we shall make another and better one"-the better.one being a strict dróttkvætt-stanza. There can
be little doubt that by "better" the king meant "more skaldlike,” that is,
in finer metre. Earl Rögnvald of Orkney was a ready improviser in this metre, as may be read at length in the Orkneyinga Saga, which also tells of the task set by him to an Icelander, Oddi the little. "Make you a verse," said the earl, "about what that man is doing on the tent there, and have your verse ready by the time I have finished reciting mine, and don't use any words in your verse that I use in mine." These and other instances, such as Hallfred's "sword" verse, show that the skald was expected to express himself with readiness even under additional difficulties.
But if a single verse in this metre was not such a difficult task, to compose a drápa of twenty, thirty or even sixty stanzas was something for the skald to be proud of. Einarr Skúlason's poem on King Olaf, which he recited before the kings and archbishop at Nidaros in 1152 A.D., extends to seventy-one stanzas of dróttkvætt, and its composition could have been no light task. While other metres were not seldom employed for this class of poem, no other was so general a favorite. Some poets attempted variations on it by dropping a syllable in the line, but the result is not a pleasing one. It is very different when the line is lengthened by a foot, resulting in the metre hrynhend, the best specimens of which are the poems of Arnorr
and Sturla. Of Arnorr's poem King
Mildest judge, that monks upholdest,
It might have tasked the worthy Egil to save his bald pate and wolfish eyebrows at York, if he had tried to compose his "Head-ransom" in any of these metres. He chose the rarer but simpler device of end-rhymes, and set out thus in praise of Earl Erik.
O'er waves I went
This was in 936 A.D., before the use of dróttkvætt had become so inevitable as it was at a later period. When Gunnlaug in 1002 treated Earl Sigtrygg at Dublin to a poem in the same metre, he was no doubt influenced by the example of Egil, in whose district he had grown up. Only twelve lines are preserved, besides the stef or burden (which is "With flesh he feeds The Fury's steeds," i.e., the wolves):
I know right well
To me he'll lend
His fame rehearse
In finer verse.
One can hardly believe that this kind of thing cost Gunnlaug much racking of brains. Perhaps he thought it good enough for Earl Sigtrygg, who was evidently unaccustomed to hear his praises from a skald. When the recitation was ended, he called his treasurer to him, and said, "How shall I reward the poem?" "What do you think yourself?" asked the treasurer. "How would it do, if I gave him two merchant vessels?" asked the king, as the saga styles him. "That's too much," said the treasurer; "other kings give such things as swords or gold rings in return for a poem." Sigtrygg thus advised, rewarded Gunnlaug with articles of dress and a gold ring. The story makes one speculate wether Earl Sigtrygg was ever berhymed by Irish bards, as his father Olaf Cuaran seems to have been in the lines,
Olaf, that's over
The dear king of Dublin, etc.
These are lines which certainly have a kind of Northern ring about them, and make us wish to know more about the personal relations of Gall and Gael in tenth-century Ireland.
To return to the drápa, there are various technicalities connected with its arrangement, division into parts, insertion of the burden, and SO on, which need not be more minutely considered. They could hardly have added much to the difficulty of composing it, though they may have made it more hard to understand when it was recited. In this we come to the real crux of skaldic poetry, over which so many have stumbled. The hardest of Greek choruses is not more difficult to unravel than some of these compHcated verses, though if but one-tenth of the labor that has been spent on Greek choruses had been given to the Old Northern poetry, the difficulties would have been much fewer by this time. To a considerable extent they
1 "Prince of the eastern ford of meadowy Erin" is the literal rendering, i.e., King of Ath-Cliath, or