Monday, January 27, 2014

one verse led on to another verse,\ one poem led on to the other poem - the Poetic Edda

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.


  1. Mythology is fascinating and especially the spiritual verse of Nordic culture, literature, and heritage. Your discussion is insightful and the reference to Hollander's translation is welcome. Thanks for your observations on these verses.

  2. I certainly agree. I suppose a reader with little patience for mythology and legend - I have come across such creatures - would be bored with the Eddas.

  3. On matters poetic, Glyn Maxwell's new book On Poetry is blowing my mind. I would like to see a response to it here, because I think he's saying something (at least to me) new.

  4. How intriguing. Maybe that is an essay you will have to write, Shelley.

    What are you seeing in Maxwell's book?

  5. Just a question, are those verses supposed to have a specific metric? I can tell the translator's trying to stick to 8 or 9 syllables per verse, but sometimes he stretches them out...

  6. The three main examples I give all have different forms. The first uses the fornyrthislag stanza, "the typical metre for narrative lays." Hollander doesn't say what the second is in. The last one is "composed in somewhat incoherent stanzaic forms." Now that was helpful.

    Some of the variation way well come from corrupt texts.

  7. My only exposure to Norse poetry is via the small snippets in translations of the historical sagas such as Grettir's Saga. It seems to be a difficult form to translate, even more difficult than other types of poetry. I have not read either the Poetic or Prose Edda, but you are certainly stimulating my interest.

  8. Very difficult - you must be right. Hollander was a linguist, so the crevices of Old Icelandic were half the fun for him. But the reader has to share some of the effort.

    I love Grettir's and Egil's poems, or at least the idea that these troll-characters are also poets. They challenge my idea of how poetry can be used, what it is for.