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Old Norse poetry encompasses a range of verse forms written in the Old Norse language, during the period from the 8th century to as late as the far end of the 13th century. Old Norse poetry is associated with the area now referred to as Scandinavia. Much Old Norse poetry was originally preserved in oral culture, but the Old Norse language ceased to be spoken and later writing tended to be confined to history rather than for new poetic creation, which is normal for an extinct language. Modern knowledge of Old Norse poetry is preserved by what was written down. Most of the Old Norse poetry that survives was composed or committed to writing in Iceland, after refined techniques for writing (such as the use of vellum, parchment paper, pens, and ink) were introduced—seemingly contemporaneously with the introduction of Christianity: thus, the general topic area of Old Norse poetry may be referred to as Old Icelandic poetry in literature.
There are also around 122 verses preserved in Swedish rune inscriptions, 54 in Norwegian and 12 in Danish. (See Eggjum stone.)
Poetry played an important role in the social and religious world of the Vikings. In Skáldskaparmál, Snorri Sturluson, recounts the myth of how Odin brought the mead of poetry to Asgard. Poetry is referred to in such terms as 'the drink of the raven-god (= Odin)' even in the oldest preserved poetry, which is an indicator of its significance within the ancient Scandinavian culture.
Old Norse poetry developed from the common Germanic alliterative verse, and as such has many commonalities with Old English, Old Saxon, and Old High German poetry, including alliteration, poetic circumlocutions termed kennings, and an expansive vocabulary of poetic synonyms, termed heiti.
Old Norse poetry is conventionally, and somewhat arbitrarily, split into two types: Eddaic poetry (also known as Eddic poetry) and Skaldic poetry. Eddaic poetry refers to poems on themes of mythology or ancient heroes, composed in simpler meters (see below) and with anonymous authors. Most of the Eddaic poems are preserved in the Codex Regius manuscript, but a few others survive in manuscripts like the fragmentary AM 748 I 4to. On the other hand, Skaldic poetry was usually written as praise for living kings and nobles, in more intricate meters and by known authors, known as skalds.
There are various types of Old Norse poetry which have been preserved. Of particularly of interest to scholars are the Skaldic and Eddic lays, or poems. However, also of interest are occasional verse from other sources. Skaldic and Eddic works have many commonalities besides being written in Old Norse, such as alliteration; however, scholars usually distinguish the two based on certain characteristics.
Scholarly distinction between Eddic and Skaldic works largely derives both from differing manuscript traditions and their typical matter and style.
One major distinction between Skaldic and Eddic poetry derives from the manuscript sources of the surviving known works. The large majority of works described as "Eddic" ultimately derive from one main source, the Poetic Edda, attributed to Snorri Sturluson, (1179–1241), who relied on earlier sources about which little is specifically known. Scholarly discussion of Old Norse poetry tends to begin with the Prose Edda. Some poems not found in the earliest versions of the "Poetic Edda" are also considered to be "Eddic". Examples include the "Lay of Ríg" from the Codex Wormianus; the "Lay of Hyndla" from the Flatey-jarbók; and, the "Lay of Svipdag", which is only found in later, paper manuscripts (rather than vellum).
Compared to the main skaldic style, the Eddic lays tend to be differentiated by three characteristics: the material deals with the mythology, ancient heroes, and ethics of the ancient Norse. Furthermore, the Eddic style is characterized by relative simplicity in terms of style and meter and, "like the later folk songs and ballads, they are anonymous and objective, never betraying the feelings or attitudes of their authors." In contrast, the skaldic poetry tends to concern itself with contemporary events and personalities, although also sometimes dealing with or alluding to myth and legend; skaldic poetry avoids direct narration; and, it is often known who the authors of the skaldic verses are along with their dates, unlike the Eddic poetry.
See also: Alliteration
Old Norse poetry has many metrical forms (Old Norse: hættir). They range from the ancient and relatively simple fornyrðislag ('air of ancient utterings'), closely related to the Old English meter, to the innovative and complex dróttkvætt (Old Norse: dróttkvæðr háttr 'court-spoken meter').
In Eddic, or Eddaic, poetry, the metric structures are for the most part either in the form of fornyrðislag ("old story"/"epic meter") or ljóðaháttr ("song"/"chant meter"). Both fornyrðislag and ljóðaháttr verse form share similarities; such as, partial alliteration of stressed and grammatically important syllables, division of the verse into half lines or full lines and couplets, with fixed numbers of lines, line lengths determined by the number of stressed syllables (called "lifts"), and the linking of full lines or couplets by means of alliteration.
Fornyrðislag is the more commonly used Eddic meter, and is often used for narrative poems. Fornyrðislag formally consists of eight line stanzas. Each line of the stanza has two vocally stressed syllables, also known as "lifts", with a somewhat arbitrary number of other syllables. Through the use of alliteration, lines join into couplets. Generally, in the first line of fornyrðislag, both "lifts", or stressed syllables alliterate. In the second line of any given couplet, only one of the two stressed syllables is alliterated, usually the first—this is the "head-stave" (or, höfuðstafr).
The first lay of the Poetic Edda is the "Vǫluspá".
The third verse goes, in eight lines:
Ár var alda
þats ekki var,
vara sandr né sær
né svalar unnir;
iörð fannsk æva
gap var Ginnunga,
en gras hvergi.
This is an example of vocalic and consonantal alliteration. This verse was translated by Benjamin Thorpe as:
Because of its structure, which comprises clearly defined rhythmic stanzas, ljóðaháttr lends itself to dialogue and discourse.
Galdralag ('the tune of galdrar'), a ljóðaháttr variant, contains a fourth line which echoes and varies the third line.
Also used is málaháttr ('meter of speeches'), closely related to fornyrðislag, but with longer lines, similar to the meter of the Old Saxon Heliand.
Eddic poems have other common characteristics besides verse form. The Eddic poetry lays are diverse; however, three important common characteristics can be described: mythology, ethics, and heroic lore.
One major topic of Eddic poetry is mythology. The mythological topics of Eddic poetry most importantly include Norse mythology, however other types of mythology are also involved, including various other Germanic traditions, probable Christian ideas, and a wide range of other possibilities.
Many of the Eddic lays can be characterized as focused on ethical topics.
Eddic poetry is to indebted narratives describing heroes, which was part of a long oral tradition, as well as textual.
The skaldic forms were so called because of the existence of a socially-defined group of which the individual members were generally known by the term skald, or scold, or by similarly linguistically related terms, in Old Norse and particularly closely related languages. Basically, the skald was a type of poet.
In Skaldic poetry, the structures used tend to be complex, evolved from the common Germanic poetic tradition. Around a hundred meters are known, many only from Snorri Sturluson's Háttatal. Some verse forms include: