I have been working backwards here. The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Icelandic poems written – likely, at some point, spoken – by various anonymous poets in the 9th, 10th, and later centuries. The poems are the source material for most of the mythic and legendary material in Snorri’s Prose Edda and in the more fantastic sagas like Hrolf Kraki and Volsungs.
The Poetic Edda is not the source for the “historical” sagas, so no Burnt Njal or Erik the Red discovering America here. Just Thor and Siegfried and the like. I guess this is obvious from the dates.
Compared to Old Icelandic prose, the Poetic Edda is difficult: fragmented, corrupt, cryptic, and the province of linguists. Any decent edition will be footnote-heavy. The poems take a little bit of work, although no more than their Old English contemporaries, and Beowulf aside, I think they are more rewarding.
There is the mythological stuff – see Thor go fishing for the Midgard Serpent:
Doughtily drew undaunted Thór
onboard the boat the baneful worm;
his hammer hit the high hair-fell
of greedy Garms’s grisly brother. (“The Lay of Hymir,” 87)
That stanza only needed two footnotes.
But often the effect is completely different, a moment isolated from a familiar story for a particular emotional effect, as in “The First Lay of Guthrún,” the title character’s lament for her slain husband Sigurth:
Erst Gjúki’s daughter unto death was nigh,
as o’er Sigurth she sate sorrowfully;
she whimpered not, nor her hands she wring,
nor wept, either, as do women else.
Went to the widow wise earls kindly,
the heavy heart of her to ease;
nor yet Guthrún her grief could weep,
in her bosom though her heart would burst. (247)
Because of the Niebelungenlied I most strongly associate this character with Guthrún’s (Kriemhild’s) revenge for her husband’s death, so it is moving to focus even for the length of a poem on the depth of her grief. Tennyson wrote a fine short poem, “Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead,” that was inspired by this lay.
Book bloggers will be inspired by this verse, from “The Sayings of Hár”:
Know’st how to write, know’st how to read,
know’st how to stain, how to understand,
know’st how to ask, know’st how to offer,
know’st how to supplicate, know’st how to sacrifice? (37)
Do I ever! As an earlier stanza says, “one verse led on to another verse,\ one poem led on to the other poem” (36). Story of my life.
Penguin has a version of the Poetic Edda with a new, pretty cover, tied into the Hobbit movie somehow, but I read Lee Hollander’s great 1962 translation. I have noticed that a number of reviewers on Amazon ding it for archaicisms, which adds to the effort. They are right. Hollander uses the full resources of the English language to remarkable effect.