Thursday, March 16, 2006

Norse Poetica

[Note: blogrolling has been having problems, so I've commented it out in my blog template until they fix what's wrong, b/c it was keeping my page from loading.]

In my posts on old Germanic poetry I just barely touched on the varieties developed by the Norse. This page is a relatively straightforward easily readable rundown of Norse poetry. It doesn't have all the many variations of poetic form the Norse skalds developed, but it's got the basic ones, and is a good introduction. Note the features Norse poetry shares with Old English:

  • Alliteration is the main sound device used to connect words, not rhyme.
  • Vocabulary is increased by the fabrication of kennings ("whale-road" for the sea, etc.).
  • As usual, some archaic vocabulary survived in the poetry that didn't survive in prose.

It's the differences that are the most fascinating though. Many different forms developed, unlike in Old English which used one form for everything. The different Old Norse forms are all ultimately based on the common Germanic poetic form, but the skalds (poets) apparently had a lot more fun toying with meter and even introduced a form of rhyme (which they got from the Celts if I remember right).

Check out the form Fornyrðislag--it's basically the same as the Old English form. Now shorten every even line (to one half-line instead of two) and you have Ljóðaháttr. Or instead, add a bit of rhyme within a line (partial rhyme in odd lines, full rhyme in even lines) and you have Dróttkvætt. Actually strictly speaking you have Hrynhenda. Dróttkvætt has six syllables per line, not eight. Again, it's an introduction. For more, the Wikipedia article, with its links, is also helpful.

I also mentioned comparative terseness (not a lot of unstressed syllables per each stressed one) as one of the reasons the Norse were able to play with their language the way they did, at least compared with Old English, and especially compared with Old Saxon (check out the Heliand).* It's worth seeing for yourself: If you're ambitious, try composing your own verses in Dróttkvætt in English. Here are the precise rules:

Lines: 8 lines per stanza.
Syllable Count: 6 syllables per line for Dróttkvætt.
Meter: 3 stressed syllables per line. Every line must end in a trochee.
Alliteration: Each pair of lines is bound by alliteration: 2 out of 3 stressed syllables of the first (odd) line must alliterate with the first stressed syllable of the second (even) line.
Rhyme: This is slightly different from how we usually conceive it. There are two types. 1) For odd lines, the last stressed syllable must have partial rhyme with any other syllable in the line: i.e., they end in the same consonant and have close but not identical vowels. E.g.: up and weapon. (This is called skothending, 'a glancing hit'.)
2) For even lines, the last stressed syllable must have full rhyme with any other syllable in the line: i.e. they end in the same consonant and have the same vowel. E.g.: burn and learning. (This is called aðalhending, 'a direct hit'.)

Good luck! I think you'll find lines almost don't have enough room to say things the way the English language wants to say them.

* By the way, the Bibliotheca Augustana has a chronology of Old German (and Saxon) texts, all online. Enjoy!

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