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.

Types of poetry

There are various types of Old Norse poetry which have been preserved. Of particular 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.

Distinction between Skaldic and Eddic poetry

Scholarly distinction between Eddic and Skaldic works largely derives both from differing manuscript traditions and their typical matter and style.

Manuscript sources

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" are found only in the Codex Regius, while a few of the poems found in it also survive in independent recensions in the AM 748 I 4to manuscript. Many verses from these Eddic poems are also quoted as evidence in the Prose Edda. Some poems not found in the early Eddic manuscripts are still considered to be "Eddic" due to their style. 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).[1] Together, all of these poems are grouped under the somewhat fluid term the Poetic Edda.[2]

Matter and style

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."[3] 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.[4]

Metrical forms

See also: Alliteration and Alliterative verse

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').

Eddic metrical forms

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.[5]

Epic meter (Fornyrðislag)

The Fyrby Runestone tells in fornyrðislag that two brothers were "the most rune-skilled brothers in Middle Earth."

A verse form close to that of Beowulf was used on runestones and in the Old Norse Poetic Edda; in Norse, it was called fornyrðislag, which means "old story metre". 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, hǫfuðstafr).[6]

The word "line" and "couplet" need some clarification. Essentially, in fornyrðislag and many other forms, Norse poets treated each "half-line" of Germanic alliterative verse as a separate line. The Norse "couplet" is basically a single Germanic line, a pair of half-lines joined by alliteration. Thus, a Norse fornyrðislag stanza of eight lines corresponds to four lines of Old-English alliterative verse.[a] Another difference between the Norse system and the general Germanic pattern is that the Norse poets, unlike the Old English poets, tended to treat each "couplet", or Germanic line, as a complete syntactic unit, avoiding enjambment where a thought begun on one line continues through the following lines; only seldom do they begin a new sentence in the second half-line. This example is from the Waking of Angantyr:

Fornyrðislag had a variant form called málaháttr ("meter of speeches"), which adds an unstressed syllable to each half-line, making six to eight (sometimes up to ten) unstressed syllables per line. This meter is similar to that used in the Old Saxon Heliand. Conversely, another variant, kviðuháttr, has only three syllables in its odd half-lines (but four in the even ones).[7]

Chant meter (Ljóðaháttr)

Ljóðaháttr ("chant" or "ballad" metre) is a stanzaic verse form, organized into four-line stanzas. The first and third lines were standard lines of Germanic alliterative verse with four lifts and two or three alliterations, separated into two half-lines with cæsura; the second and fourth lines had three lifts and two alliterations, and no cæsura. This example is from Freyr's lament in Skírnismál:

Because of its structure, which comprises clearly defined rhythmic stanzas, ljóðaháttr lends itself to dialogue and discourse. There were a number of variant stanza forms based on ljóðaháttr, including galdralag ("incantation meter"), which adds a fifth short (three-lift) line at the end of the stanza; in this form, the fifth line usually echoes the fourth.

Eddic topical characteristics

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.[8]


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.

Heroic lore

Eddic poetry is to indebted narratives describing heroes, which was part of a long oral tradition, as well as textual.

Skaldic metrical forms

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.[9] Basically, the skald was a type of poet.

Verse forms

In Skaldic poetry, the structures used tend to be complex,[10] evolved from the common Germanic poetic tradition. Around a hundred meters are known, many only from Snorri Sturluson's Háttatal.

One of the simpler skaldic meters was kviðuháttr, a variant of fornyrðislag with alternating lines of 3 and 4 syllables, used in genealogical poems such as Þjóðólfr ór Hvíni's Ynglingatal and Eyvindr Skáldaspillir's Háleygjatal. Other Skaldic meters, sch as dróttkvætt and Hrynhenda were more complex..

Courtly Meter (Dróttkvætt)
Drawing of the copper Sigtuna box with a dróttkvætt verse written in the runic alphabet
The Karlevi Runestone contains a dróttkvætt poem in memory of a chieftain.

Dróttkvætt, meaning "courtly metre",[11] added internal rhymes and other forms of assonance to its stanza structures. The resulting verse form goes well beyond the requirements of Germanic alliterative verse and strongly resembles Celtic (Irish and Welsh) verse forms. The dróttkvætt stanza had eight lines, each having usually three lifts and almost invariably six syllables. Although other stress patterns appear, the verse is predominantly trochaic. The last two syllables in each line had to form a trochee[12] (there are a few specific forms which utilize a stressed word at line-end, such as in some docked forms).[13][failed verification] In addition, specific requirements obtained for odd-numbered and even-numbered lines.

In the odd-numbered lines (equivalent to the a-verse of the traditional alliterative line):

In the even lines (equivalent to the b-verse of the traditional alliterative line):

The requirements of the verse form were so demanding that occasionally the text of the poems had to run parallel, with one thread of syntax running through the on-side of the half-lines, and another running through the off-side. According to the Fagrskinna collection of sagas, King Harald III of Norway uttered these lines of dróttkvætt at the Battle of Stamford Bridge; the internal assonances and the alliteration are emboldened:

Krjúpum vér fyr vápna,
(valteigs), brǫkun eigi,
(svá bauð Hildr), at hjaldri,
(haldorð), í bug skjaldar.
(Hátt bað mik), þar's mœttusk,
(menskorð bera forðum),
hlakkar íss ok hausar,
(hjalmstall í gný malma).
In battle, we do not creep behind a shield before the din of weapons (so said the goddess of hawk-land [a valkyrja], true of words). She who wore the necklace bade me to bear my head high in battle, when the battle-ice [a gleaming sword] seeks to shatter skulls.

The bracketed words in the poem ("so said the goddess of hawk-land, true of words") are syntactically separate but interspersed within the text of the rest of the verse. The elaborate kennings manifested here are also practically necessary in this complex and demanding form, as much to solve metrical difficulties as for the sake of vivid imagery. Intriguingly, the saga claims that Harald improvised these lines after he gave a lesser performance (in fornyrðislag); Harald judged that verse bad and then offered this one in the more demanding form. While the exchange may be fictionalized, the scene illustrates the regard in which the form was held.

Most dróttkvætt poems that survive appear in one or another of the Norse sagas; several of the sagas are biographies of skaldic poets.

Flowing Verse (Hrynhenda)

Hrynhenda or hrynjandi háttr ('the flowing verse-form') is a later development of dróttkvætt with eight syllables per line instead of six, with the similar rules of rhyme and alliteration, although each hrynhent-variant shows particular subtleties. It is first attested around 985 in the so-called Hafgerðingadrápa of which four lines survive (alliterants and rhymes bolded):

Mínar biðk at munka reyni
meinalausan farar beina;
heiðis haldi hárar foldar
hallar dróttinn of mér stalli.
I ask the tester of monks (God) for a safe journey; the lord of the palace of the high ground (God — here we have a kenning in four parts) keep the seat of the falcon (hand) over me.

The author was said to be a Christian from the Hebrides, who composed the poem asking God to keep him safe at sea. (Note: The third line is, in fact, over-alliterated. There should be exactly two alliterants in the odd-numbered lines.) The metre gained some popularity in courtly poetry, as the rhythm may sound more majestic than dróttkvætt.

We learn much about these in the Hattatal:[14] Snorri gives for certain at least three different variant-forms of hrynhenda. These long-syllabled lines are explained by Snorri as being extra-metrical in most cases: the "main" form never has alliteration or rhyme in the first 2 syllables of the odd-lines (i.e., rhymes always coming at the fourth-syllable), and the even-lines never have rhyme on the fifth/sixth syllables (i.e.: they cannot harbor rhyme in these places because they extra-metrical), the following couplet shows the paradigm:

Tiggi snýr á ógnar áru
(Undgagl veit þat) sóknar hagli.

[Note the juxtaposition of alliteration and rhyme of the even-line]

Then, the variant-forms show unsurprising dróttkvætt patterns overall; the main difference being that the first trochee of the odd-lines are technically not reckoned as extrametrical since they harbor alliteration, but the even-lines' extra-metrical feature is more or less as the same. The 2nd form is the "troll-hrynjandi": in the odd-lines the alliteration is moved to the first metrical position (no longer "extra-metrical") while the rhyme remains the same (Snorri seems to imply that frumhending, which is placing a rhyme on the first syllable of any line, is preferably avoided in all these forms: the rhymes are always preferred as oddhending, "middle-of-the-line rhymes") — in the even-lines the rhyme and alliteration are not juxtaposed, and this is a key feature of its distinction (the significant features only are marked in bold below):

Stála kendi steykvilundum
Styriar valdi raudu falda....

The next form, which Snorri calls "ordinary/standard hrynhenda", is almost like a "combination" of the previous — alliteration always on the first metrical-position, and the rhymes in the odd-lines juxtaposed (all features in bold in this example):

Vafdi lítt er virdum mætti
Vígrækiandi fram at s'ækia.'

There is one more form which is a bit different though seemed to be counted among the previous group by Snorri, called draughent. The syllable-count changes to seven (and, whether relevant to us or not, the second-syllable seems to be counted as the extra-metrical):

Vápna hríd velta nádi
Vægdarlaus feigum hausi.
Hilmir lét höggum mæta
Herda klett bana verdant.

As one can see, there is very often clashing stress in the middle of the line (Vápna hríd velta....//..Vægdarlaus feigum...., etc.), and oddhending seems preferred (as well as keeping alliterative and rhyming syllables separated, which likely has to do with the syllabic-makeup of the line).

See also


  1. ^ It must be kept in mind, that the Norse poets didn't write, they composed, as did all poets ancient enough for that matter. This "breaking up of lines" was dictated by ear, not pen.


  1. ^ Hollander, Lee M. The Poetic Edda. University of Texas Press (Austin), 1962. ISBN 0-292-73061-6. General Introduction, pp. xiv–xv.
  2. ^ Edward Pettit, The Poetic Edda: A Dual-Language Edition. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2023, https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0308
  3. ^ Hollander, Lee M. The Poetic Edda. University of Texas Press (Austin), 1962. ISBN 0-292-73061-6, General Introduction, p. xv.
  4. ^ Hollander, Lee M. The Poetic Edda. University of Texas Press (Austin), 1962. ISBN 0-292-73061-6, General Introduction, p. xvii.
  5. ^ Hallberg, Peter, translated by Paul Schach and Sonja Lindgrenson. Old Icelandic Poetry. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1975) ISBN 0-8032-0855-3, p. 12-13
  6. ^ Hallberg, Peter, translated by Paul Schach and Sonja Lindgrenson. Old Icelandic Poetry. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1975) ISBN 0-8032-0855-3, p. 12-13
  7. ^ Poole, Russell. 2005. Metre and Metrics. In: McTurk, Rory (ed.). A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature. P.267-268
  8. ^ Hollander, Lee M. The Poetic Edda, Translated by Lee M. Hollander. Second Revision, revised. University of Texas Press, Austin (1962), p. xv
  9. ^ "Wiktionary: "skald"". Archived from the original on 28 March 2023. Retrieved 28 March 2023.
  10. ^ Hallberg, Peter, translated by Paul Schach and Sonja Lindgrenson. Old Icelandic Poetry, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1975) ISBN 0-8032-0855-3, p. 107
  11. ^ Clunies Ross 2005, p. 21.
  12. ^ Clunies Ross 2005, p. 23.
  13. ^ Ringler, Dick (ed. and trans.). Jónas Hallgrímsson: Selected Poetry and Prose (1998), ch. III.1.B 'Skaldic Strophes', http://www.library.wisc.edu/etext/jonas/Prosody/Prosody-I.html#Pro.I.B Archived 21 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Hattatal, Snorri Sturluson