Posts Tagged ‘Iceland’

The Song Weigher, The Complete Poems of Egill Skallagrimsson. By Ian Crockatt, Arc Publications, 2017

Egill Skallagrimsson, writes Ian Crockatt in his Introduction, was the most original, imaginative and technically brilliant of the old Norse skalds.

It is no small feat then, that he has taken on this task of rendering the complete poems of Egill Skallagrimsson, in as close a Norse metric as possible.
The oldest, earliest, of the old Norse sagas is Egil’s Saga. As we have it, it is a wholly prose translation. Egill’s poems, scattered throughout, also have this form.
It was Ian Crockatt’s task to render the prose form into the recorded poetic metrics of this consummate writer. Our English cannot reproduce the old Norse sound, nor syntax, and so Ian Crockatt had to call upon his own great skills and expertise to render accessible and understandable, indeed appreciable, all Egill’s poems, in translation.
He has succeeded brilliantly.

Unlike the skald of Ian Crockatt’s previous book in this field, Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney (Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw), Egill Skallagrimsson is not a very likable man. He is too red in tooth and… well, sword. He is too intent on his warrior trade, and lacks the leavening of Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson’s poems to Ermingerd of Narbonne, his journeys to Jerusalem, his humour, and playfulness.
He does, however, have his own laments for his lost sons, as well as his unstinting praise of friendship, and rare poems of love. The life was not easy for those of more liberal dispositions; these poems chart the ups and downs of the life a warrior led, if he was to survive. And Egill was a survivor.

Egill’s main antagonist in his poems was Erik Bloodaxe (Eirikr Blodox).
He’d actually killed Eirikr’s son at one point, then later, shipwrecked whilst sailing to ‘offer his sword’ to British Saxon King Adalsteinn, ended up seeking sanctuary in Blodox’s own halls. Understandably, his wife, Gunnhildr, wanted Egill’s head.
He was able to save the day through his reputation.
What reputation?
His reputation as the best, most gifted, inventive, skald of the day.

His accommodation to the charges was to take the form of suitably outstanding verses for Eirikr’s family. These are the Hofuthlausen – the Head Ransom – of Egill Skallagrimsson.
Such was the value of a skald’s work in-the-day, that it could save a life.
He composed 21 verses for his own head. And obviously lived to tell the tale.
He lived long enough to bemoan the loneliness and neglect of the fate of that of an old warrior.

His own father was also a highly prized skald.
These verse forms were notoriously complex, involved, tightly controlled, with rules and strictures. But mercifully few were longer than 8 lines in length.
For the Head Ransom he produced a new form, with shorter verses interspersed between the regular length verses, and introducing a greater preponderance of end-rhymed lines. It is suggested that this last embellishment echoed the dominant British form of the period, and so was a gesture towards Eirkir’s British base in England.

For deeper discussion of the verse forms, see my earlier post on Rognvaldr:
https://michael9murray.wordpress.com/2014/10/19/crimsoning-the-eagles-claw/

Muck, slime, mud. We waded
for five mired weeks, reeking,
silt-fouled bilge-boards souring
in Grimsby bay. Nimbly
now, our proud-prowed, Bergen-
bound Sea-Elk pounds over
wave-paved auk-moors, lockhorns
with foam-crests, bows booming.

(reproduced with author’s permission)

The standard form is of eight, six-syllable lines. The poem construction follows strict rules of rhyme, alliteration, half-rhyme, internal rhyme and trochaic ending per line (above).

If, like me, you are a bit of a metre-geek, you’ll love these.

And so, I had a go, using the dominant Drottkvaett form. Eight six-syllable lines, tied in couplets by alliteration, and each even line with two full rhymes. Trochees tend to be the dominant metre.
A recent trip to London gave me these:

Canyons of steel and concrete
caught in blue-red rain, blew to
yelps under lit yellows – 
baffled us battling
back through. Don’t be beaten;
busy cities broker
strangeness: blood is  seen there,
someone hurt; some’s own one.

*

Sea-toadstools; slow-flowing
seep of traffic-halted
jet-black, wet, jellyfish’d
jacks. Belligerent
brolly-bargers billow,
hail-stoned and sleet-harassed:
the City trawls homeward
to suburban harbours.

*

Hail and sleet half day’s light:
how the light is slighted.
What we see’s how wishing
works superstitiously.
Outside worsens; our take
on the season. Reason’s
tangled with belief, truth.
We’ve wrecked the weather. 

Ok.
So what about the use of kennings – you know, the allusions to, but not actually naming of, things known to one’s audience?
I actually state in the piece what the subject is, in the second part.
I tried to keep the sea-theme throughout.
Hmm.

A kenning is a compound word, made from a base word for a thing, and its ‘determinant’ ie what modifies that base word. In Icelandic there is also a highly allusive element, usually to an element in another saga, and/or their world of myths and gods.
Kipling’s ‘old grey widow-maker’ for the North Sea, is fairly easy for a British person.
Ian Crockatt lists and explicates the kennings used in the poems in a very useful appendix. He also has an excellent appendix on Verse-Forms. Invaluable.

Ok, these are first tries, and I was trying for more subtlety.
There is still so much yet to learn about these verse forms.

I hope I have passed on the spark of these to you.
They are certainly a great way of ‘keeping one’s hand in’ in those times of drought.