Ah, I need to start finding out about these special days in advance! Today is World Poetry Day. Yay for poetry! I have all sorts of things I’d love to post (with translations, of course)– Erik Gustav Geijer‘s “Vikingen” (= The Viking), Egill Skallagrímsson‘s “Sonatorrek“, and others– but I’m short on sleep and behind on grading and class prep, so this will be a less involved post. I thought of posting the poems I did my dissertation on, but honestly, those need to be cleaned up a bit before they are readable for a casual blog-audience. In keeping with the “Book Reviews” element of this blog, I’ll bring to your attention the relatively recent (2005) A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics by Margaret Clunies Ross (also the author of Prolonged Echoes, my favorite large-scale interpretation of the corpus of Norse mythology). Affordable, and a nice introduction for the beginning grad student, or the ambitious undergrad or enthusiast. I haven’t had the opportunity to teach with it yet (and I’m not sure I would teach it in an undergrad course– actually, I’m not sure I would have the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course in Old Norse poetics at all, though I would like to do a grad course on the subject one day), but it covers the basics as well as a wide range of pertinent issues, from questions of genre, to the transmission and recording of the poetry, to the “Poet as Craftsman” metaphor behind much of the poetic terminology (this section was helpful to me with both my dissertation and a conference paper I gave a couple years ago), to the vernacular grammatical treatises of the later Middle Ages. One day (maybe soon, now that it is on my mind) I will put together a post on Eddic versus Skaldic poetry (and whether that is a useful distinction or not). Meanwhile, there is wikipedia and this book. Well, and some other books as well. Like this book, which will also give you some short, easy-to-read (for the most part) introductions to a whole range of genres and topics in Old Norse-Icelandic literature.
Well, I don’t want to leave you with nothing but prose, so here is some actual poetry, taken from a 13th century rune stave from Bergen, Norway (B255). Text and translation are from A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics, page 20. I’m short on time, so I’ll just let Margaret Clunies Ross tell you what it means.
Vár kennir mér víra
Vitr úglaðan sitja;
Eir nemr opt ok stórom
Öluns grundar mik blundi.
“Intelligent Vár (goddess) of wires [goddess of wires/jewelry=woman] teaches me to remain unhappy; Eir (goddess) of the land of the mackerel (sea) [goddess of the sea = woman (?)] takes away my sleep, often and mightily.”
Or another way to put it, if you are having trouble following the kennings (I’ve got to admit, the goddess of the sea = woman doesn’t really work for me…):
First Couplet: That smart lady is schooling me in misery, but I’m still hot for teacher.
Second Couplet: No sleep for me–that siren keeps me up, way up, every night.
What can I say, I’m a sucker for depressing love poetry (and can certainly empathize with the lack of sleep). Well, OK, maybe my interpretation of this runic poem is a bit on the unsubtle side [edit: actually, now that I look at it again, it could be a bit raunchier than I meant… that’s what I get for paraphrasing skaldic late at night], but if you want the full experience, you’ll just have to go and learn Old Norse. Then you can take another year (or two… or three) to learn how to interpret Skaldic poetry.
EDIT: For more romantic runes, check out this Valentine’s Day post from Viqueen.