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Runic Dictionary

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(subheadings only)

5.1. Metres

The intricate dróttkvætt ‘court metre’ is the dominant metre in the skaldic corpus as a whole, and it is fitting that it also predominates in the present volume, dedicated chiefly to formal encomiastic poetry. Accordingly, in the Introductions to individual poems, the metre is noted only where it is not dróttkvætt. Nonetheless, the encomia do employ a diversity of metres, both ‘skaldic’ and ‘eddic’, and partly owe their differing characters to those, and the kings’ sagas also preserve non-encomiastic poetry in a range of metres. This section gives a brief overview of the metres represented in SkP I.


The classic skaldic metre has a line with six metrical positions (and normally six syllables), patterned according to distinct principles, while pairs of lines are linked by alliteration and by alternation of hendingar or internal rhyme: skothending or consonantal rhyme in the odd line and aðalhending or full rhyme in the even. The earliest instances are preserved outside the kings’ sagas (see Bragi RdrIII, Þjóð HaustlIII), but within this volume Þorbjǫrn hornklofi’s Glymdrápa (Þhorn Gldr) represents a stage at which some metrical licence in the incidence of hendingar is still observable. A number of poems or stanzas employ the dróttkvætt variant munnvǫrp ‘mouth-throwings’, i.e. ‘improvisations’, in which the pattern of hendingar is less demanding: the lausavísur Torf-E Lv 1-5, Bárðr Lv and Anon (Hhárf) and the forty-five-stanza Jómsvíkingadrápa by Bjarni Kolbeinsson (Bjbp Jóms). Another long historical poem, Hallar-Steinn’s Rekstefja (HSt Rst), by contrast uses the more demanding tvískelft ‘twice-trembled’ or ‘double-shaken’, in which the alliteration is normally placed early in each odd line, producing a heavy onset.


The ‘old story metre’ is closely related to the Germanic alliterative long-line and is used in a wide range of eddic poetry as well as skaldic. In this metre, half-lines containing four metrical positions are linked by alliteration to form long-lines. Fornyrðislag is found in a number of lausavísur in the present volume: those attributed to Vitgeirr seiðmaðr (Vitg Lv), Þorleifr skúma (Þskúm Lv), Óláfr Tryggvason (ÓTr Lv 2), Stefnir Þorgilsson (Stefnir Lv 1), Einarr þambarskelfir (Eþsk Cpt), Óláfr helgi (Ólhelg Lv 1, 3), Óttarr svarti (Ótt Lv 2), Halldórr Rannveigarson (HalldR Lv), and the anonymous Anon (Fsk) and Anon (Vǫlsa) 1-2, 4-13.


This ‘songs’ form’ or ‘songs’ metre’ is a uniquely Nordic metre in which the odd line consists of a pair of alliterating half-lines like those of fornyrðislag (but sometimes hypometric), while the even line is a full line with different alliteration (and sometimes hypermetric). Three important early ‘eddic’ encomia alternate ljóðaháttr stanzas with málaháttr stanzas (see below).


This ‘speeches’ form’ or ‘speeches’ metre’ is a variant of fornyrðislag with five rather than four metrical positions per half-line. It is frequently mixed with fornyrðislag or ljóðaháttr, and is difficult to tell apart from fornyrðislag with occasional hypermetric lines. Three early encomiastic poems in SkP I which form a distinct group on the basis of their use of dialogue form, as well as of mythological and legendary content, are also united by their combination of ljóðaháttr and málaháttr: Þorbjǫrn hornklofi’s Haraldskvæði or Hrafnsmál (Þhorn Harkv, where the metres are combined within each of sts 18-23), Eyvindr skáldaspillir’s Hákonarmál (Eyv Hák) and the anonymous Eiríksmál (Anon Eirm), all from the ninth and tenth centuries. Ljóðaháttr is deployed for the mythological scenes depicting valkyries in Eyv Hák 1-2 and for the heroes’ reception in Valhǫll in Anon Eirm 3-9 and Eyv Hák 9-21. Þrándr Kredda is also in málaháttr.


Kviðuháttr ‘poem’s form’ or ‘poem’s metre’ is a catalectic variant of fornyrðislag. The even line has four metrical positions as in fornyrðislag, but the shortened odd line only three. It is associated especially with extended genealogical and memorial compositions, the earliest known being the ninth-century Ynglingatal of Þjóðólfr ór Hvini (Þjóð Yt) in this volume. Eyvindr skáldaspillir Finnsson’s Háleygjatal (Eyv Hál) and Þórarinn loftunga’s Glælognskviða (Þloft Glækv) are from the tenth and eleventh centuries respectively.

The syntax in kviðuháttr poetry frequently has concatenation of clauses which obscures the boundaries between helmingar and eight-line units, and hence points to a more fluid structure than the tight eight-line stanzas favoured in dróttkvætt and other skaldic metres (Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson, ÍF 26, xxxvii; Gade 2005). Stanza divisions have not been stable in the editorial tradition, and the present edition, following the syntax rather than imposing eight-line stanza boundaries, diverges at some points from Skj and other editions. This applies to the long kviðuháttr poems in this volume, as well as to two important kviðuháttr poems from the later period edited in SkP II: Anon NktII, c. 1190 (clearly influenced by Þjóð Yt and Eyv Hál) and Sturl HákkvII, c. 1263.


Tøglag ‘journey metre’ is a variant of fornyrðislag with internal rhyme. It is possible that it takes its name from Þórarinn loftunga’s Tøgdrápa ‘Journey-drápa’ (Þloft Tøgdr), an encomium of c. 1028 addressed to Knútr inn ríki, and it has been suggested that the metre arose at Knútr’s court in England, though a much earlier example is attributed to Bragi Boddason (see Section 4.3 of General Introduction). Tøglag is also the metre of Sigvatr’s Knútsdrápa (Sigv Knútdr). The date of this poem, and therefore whether it or Þloft Tøgdr came first, is uncertain.


Runhent ‘end-rhymed’ is a general term used for a variety of skaldic metres employing end rhyme rather than internal rhyme. Þorkell Gíslason’s twelfth-century historical poem Búadrápa (ÞGísl Búdr), the sole example in this volume, is composed in an end-rhymed version of Haðarlag ‘Hǫðr’s metre’, which in turn is a skaldic variant of málaháttr.

Other metres and mixed metres

Þjóðólfr ór Hvini’s Poem about Haraldr hárfagri (Þjóð Har) blends fornyrðislag, kviðuháttr and málaháttr, and the couplet Brúlf Lv 1 combines a fornyrðislag line with a Haðarlag line. On other early poems in blended metres see málaháttr above.

5.2. Poetic diction

Poetic terms or heiti and the poetic periphrases known as kennings (which are often formed out of heiti) are crucial to the appreciation and understanding of skaldic poetry, and they are discussed in Section 5 of the General Introduction. Kennings are the single most distinctive stylistic feature of the poetry; they lend themselves to very variable use, and therefore contribute a great deal to the individual character of poetry composed by different skalds and within different periods, genres or metres. Some of the principal trends observable in the kennings in SkP I are outlined here.

Statistics for the volume as a whole show that, on average, the dróttkvætt poetry of the ninth to tenth centuries uses more than four kennings per stanza (counting each kenning within complex kennings separately, the complex kennings being tvíkent ‘doubly-modified’ and rekit ‘driven, extended’ kennings in which the determinants are themselves kennings). Guthormr sindri (Gsind Hákdr, mid tenth century), with almost twice that rate, is the most prolific creator of kennings, and the works of Eyjólfr dáðaskáld (Edáð Banddr, early eleventh century) and Tindr Hallkelsson (Tindr Hákdr, late tenth century) are also strikingly rich in kennings. In each case, a large overall number includes a high proportion of complex kennings and inverted kennings. Relatively straightforward examples from Edáð Banddr are the rekit kenning reiðir riðloga randvallar ‘brandisher of the swinging flame of the rim-plain [shield > sword > warrior]’ (st. 1/5-6) and the inverted tvíkent kenning handa logreifir ‘presenter of the flame of hands [(lit. ‘flame-presenter of hands’) gold > generous man]’ (st. 2/3, 4). Fewer and simpler kennings are then characteristic of the eleventh century. There is no sudden shift, but the poems in this volume would suggest a change of practice c. 1015 between the reigns, in Norway, of Eiríkr jarl Hákonarson and Óláfr Haraldsson. Sigvatr Þórðarson’s large oeuvre, all or mostly composed after this date, contains several scores of kennings, yet much of his inventiveness lies in other directions, and his kennings tend to be of a straightforward kind, with complex and inverted kennings a rarity (two inverted kennings in Sigv Lv 14, for instance, stand out). This might be attributed to personal preference on the part of the skald or of his main patron Óláfr Haraldsson (perhaps averse to kennings because of their frequent pagan allusions), and because such a large proportion of the earlier eleventh-century poetry that survives is by Sigvatr, it is difficult to distinguish individual preference from general trend. Nonetheless, the kenning style of Sigvatr’s nephew Óttarr is similar, and there is only a modest kenning ‘recovery’ among poets of the mid eleventh century such as Þjóðólfr Arnórsson and Arnórr jarlaskáld, whose work is edited in SkP II. By contrast the historical or non-contemporary poems Óláfsdrápa Tryggvasonar (Anon Óldr) and Hallar-Steinn’s Rekstefja (HSt Rst) show a fuller use of the kenning, including several complex and inverted examples. Whether early or late, poetry in eddic metres tends to use few and simple kennings. At the extreme, the anonymous Eiríksmál (Anon Eirm) has just one, and the anonymous stanzas from Vǫlsa þáttr (Anon Vǫlsa) only two.

The concepts referred to using kennings (their referents) remain largely stable across the poetry in SkP I. Kennings for concepts such as ‘warrior’, ‘battle’, ‘sword’, ‘ship’, ‘sea’ and ‘gold’ abound at all periods, as do individual patterns such as ‘tree of the sword’ for ‘warrior’ or ‘fire of water’ for ‘gold’. Indeed the very nature and interpretability of the kenning depends on the recognition of stereotypical patterns. At the same time, the skalds, and the kenning system, are adaptable, as when Þjóðólfr, poet of Yt, reflects the often macabre subject-matter of his poem by producing three kennings for Hel, the goddess or realm of the dead, in a single stanza (Þjóð Yt 7), as well as others for ‘gallows’ (sts 9/11-12, 12/5-6), ‘sorceress’ (st. 3/3), ‘pitchfork’ (st. 8/15-16) and so on. Sigvatr coins kennings for ‘sea-weed’ and ‘fisherman’ (Sigv Lv 1) as well as the jocular gætir grefs ‘minder of the hoe [farmer]’ – a satirical device of a kind more common in the poetry of the Íslendinga sögur edited in SkP V. Kennings are perhaps at their most effective when used cumulatively and with contextual aptness. Þorbjǫrn hornklofi uses kennings for ‘battle’ based on weather terms to build an ostinato of battle-noise in Glymdrápa ‘Clangour-drápa’ (Þhorn Gldr), and Einarr skálaglamm opens his poem Vellekla (Eskál Vell) with a magnificent series of poetry-kennings which refer to the myth of the mead of poetry using base-words referring to sea or wave, thus creating a double layer of imagery.

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