Writing Like a Viking

In Egil’s Saga, it’s told how Egil fell into the power of his enemy, King Erik Bloodaxe. Egil managed to save his life by composing a 20-stanza poem of praise for Erik, overnight, and reciting it from memory the next morning.

Those were the days when poets really had to work for their living!

You couldn’t just dash off something in free verse, either. There were demanding technical rules governing how a poem could be composed.

Technical Stuff You Can Skip If You Just Want to See a Sample:

Egil’s poem was a drápa, a poem of praise–usually a longer poem, consisting of 8-line stanzas, with a periodic refrain. Each line had to meet certain requirements also. The verse forms for drápas varied, but one possibility was Dróttkvætt or “courtly metre”. This is a trochaic metre (stresses fall on the first syllable of each syllable pair, or foot). Think Longfellow’s Hiawatha–“By the shining big sea water”. The dominant form in English, back when people worried about stuff like that, was iambic, with accents falling on the second syllable. Think just about anything Shakespeare ever wrote–like “This time of year you may in me behold”.

Each verse in Dróttkvætt has 3 feet. Further requirements vary by line–for odd lines, two of the stressed syllables must alliterate with each other, and two (not necessarily the same two) must share a partial rhyme (similar consonants, different vowel sound). For even lines, the first stressed syllable must alliterate with the two alliterated syllables from the previous odd line. Then, two of the stressed syllables within the even line must rhyme with each other.

My Personal Quest:
I have been tackling the task of writing a drápa in English, using the Dróttkvætt verse form. Mine is a relatively short drápa–just 100 lines, 13 stanzas counting the refrain. Still, it’s about the hardest piece of writing I’ve ever done. In the better stanzas, though, the lines play off each other to create a distinctive music that’s hard to describe.

The Sample:

This is my 4-line refrain.

Wish-lord watches high-throned,
Wanderer still fares onward,
Found One finds the rune-hoard,
Famed the names of Odin!

My poem is a poem of praise for Odin, particularly his feat of discovering the runes. Odin
is famed for having many names, and one of the extra tasks I set myself was to include a different name of Odin in each stanza. In this, the refrain, I include four, the first three translated into English.

Wish-lord watches high-throned,
This is an odd line, the alliteration supplied by ‘wish’ and ‘watch’. The partial rhyme is also supplied by these two words–I’m fudging just a little on the word endings. ‘High-throned’ refers to Odin’s high seat, from which he can see everything that occurs on Earth. Wish-lord is one  of his more intriguing titles; Valkyries are also sometimes known as ‘wish maidens’.

Wanderer still fares onward,
The Odin-name ‘Wanderer’ of course carries on the ‘w’ alliteration from the first odd line. The two rhyming syllables (it doesn’t need to be a full word) are ‘wan’ and ‘on’. ‘Wanderer’ has an extra unstressed syllable, it’s the only place in the poem I allowed myself that particular luxury.

Found One finds the rune-hoard,
Alliteration and partial rhyme are supplied by ‘found’ and ‘finds’. ‘Found One’ seems a particularly ominous name for Odin, especially from the point of view of those evildoers who would rather not find him!

Famed the names of Odin!
‘Famed’ and ‘names’ supply the rhyme, ‘Famed’ the carry-on alliteration.
There you have it! Not too difficult, right? Now, just keep on doing that for 96 more lines…and for extra credit, be ready to recite it tomorrow morning in front of a hostile audience!

2 thoughts on “Writing Like a Viking

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