A Rough Guide to Viking Poetry


Metre


The metre of Viking poetry is based around the visuorð, which translates literally as ‘verse-word’ or ‘verse-phrase’.  The visuorð is often called a ‘half-line’, although, as oral poetry, Viking verse was not written in lines.  Even when it came to be written down in the thirteenth century, it was not broken into lines on the page.

The Vikings seem to have recognised that their oldest poetical form was fornyrðislag or ‘old story metre’, which is similar to Anglo-Saxon metre with which it shares a common ancestor.  In fornyrðislag and the closely related málaháttr, each visuorð has two stressed syllables and a number of unstressed syllables – some poets seem more aware of syllable count than others. Pairs of visuorð are linked by alliteration, at least one of the stresses in every first visuorð should alliterate with the first stress of the next.  Usually, a stanza will consist of four pairs of visuorð, and today each pair is conventionally printed on a separate line.  Stanzas will often also divide neatly into two equal halves.

Occasionally, poets will vary the standard two-stress visuorð, with a pair of visuorð containing three stresses.  This seems to happen at moments of particular significance, where the ponderous three-stresses slow down the action to lend weight and grandeur.  The three-stress visuorð has slightly different rules of alliteration, with each visuorð typically including internal alliteration, as well as linking to the next.

In ljóðaháttr, pairs of two-stress visuorð alternate with single three-stress visuorð, which contain only internal alliteration.  This single three-stress visuorð usually ended in a stressed syllable and never in a straightforward ‘feminine’ ending (stress, unstress).  A stanza usually consists of two pairs of two-stress visuorð and the accompanying three-stress visuorð.
In the uncommon variant galdralag, the three-stress visuorð also come in pairs.

The Viking court poets, often termed ‘skalds’ in Modern English (though in fact the term skald simply means ‘poet’), could use any of the metres described above, but they came increasingly to use a group of elaborate metres which may have originated with the poet Bragi Boddason the Old.  The most important of these metres was called dróttkvæðr háttr or, more succinctly, dróttkvætt.  Other ‘skaldic’ metres are variants on this original metre.

In dróttkvætt, pairs of three-stress visuorð are linked by alliteration.  Each visuorð should have approximately six syllables with a feminine ending (stress, unstress), and should include regular patterns of internal rhyme.  A stanza usually contains four pairs of visuorð, but unlike other metres, these are conventionally printed one visuorð to a line.

This rather elaborate metre is better suited to praise poetry than to narrative verse, and the general dichotomy between praise poems in dróttkvætt-related metres and narrative poems in simpler forms has led to a scholarly distinction between ‘skaldic verse’ and ‘eddic’ or ‘eddaic verse’.  However, this distinction does little to help us understand the nature of the poetry, and seems to have no real place for praise poems composed in so-called ‘eddic’ metres.

Diction

No description of Viking poetry can be complete without a look at poetic diction, kennings and heiti.  However, this description is so far incomplete ;-)


To see how some of these metres actually work in Modern English, have a look at the Translation Page.

This page was written by Thor Ewing.  If you'd like to contact him about this or any other page on this site, you can do so here