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Runic Dictionary

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Anonymous Poems (Anon)

III. Málsháttakvæði (Mhkv) - 30

5: Málsháttakvæði (‘Proverb poem’) — Anon MhkvIII

Roberta Frank 2017, ‘ Anonymous, Málsháttakvæði’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 1213. <> (accessed 3 July 2022)

stanzas:  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28   29   30 

Skj: Anonyme digte og vers [XIII]: A. [1]. Málsháttakvæði, Et orknøsk(?) digt, omkr. 1200. (AII, 130-6, BII, 138-45)

in texts: Flat

SkP info: III, 1213

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance references search files


The thirty stanzas of Málsháttakvæði ‘Proverb poem’ (Anon Mhkv) are found immediately after Jómsvíkingadrápa (Bjbp JómsI) on the final two folios (54v-55r) of ms. R, one of the seven chief mss of SnE. The poem is written in the same hand as the rest of the ms. Two stanzas (1 and 16) are defective as a result of damage at the top of the folios (‘mouldered away’, CPB I, xlvi). Möbius (1874, 14) reports Jón Sigurðsson’s view that the end of the final stanza had once occupied the first three lines of fol. 55v, a page illegible in the nineteenth century (‘blackened and begrimed’, CPB I, xlvi) and apparently not in much better shape in the seventeenth or eighteenth. Stanza 11/5-8 (the poem’s stef ‘refrain’) is also transmitted in Flat.

Mhkv, lacking a title in R, has gone under several names in the past century and a half: Amatorium carmen ‘Love-song’ or Mansǫngsdrápa ‘Love-song poem’ (LP (1860)); Mansǫngskvæði ‘Love-song poem’ (Bugge 1867); Málsháttakvæði ‘Proverb poem’ (CVC; Möbius 1874; Fritzner; Wisén 1886-9, I, 73; Skj; Skald); Proverb-Poem (CPB II, 363); FornyrðadrápaDrápa about old lore’ (Eiríkr Magnússon 1888, 323; Finnur Jónsson 1890a, 253; Konráð Gíslason 1895-7, II, 135; LH II, 45; Almqvist 1978-9, 94); and Griplur ‘Pickings’ (Hermann Pálsson 1984, 260). The poem has been described as ‘a sort of lay of a minstrel’ (Gudbrand Vigfusson 1865, 211), ‘a versified collection of proverbs’ (Krömmelbein 1992, 115), ‘a heaping-up of pre-existing proverbial matter’ (Evans 1986, 9), and (voices in chorus) a medley, patchwork, quilt, florilegium, hotch-potch, potpourri, farrago, or random harvest of old sayings and old lore. The skald who collected these forn orð ‘ancient sayings’ (st. 1/5) framed his catalogue as an erotic complaint, the frenetic piling up of sayings mirroring his alleged inner turmoil. The use of a love-motif to structure a poem is first seen in skaldic verse in JómsI and Mhkv and in a third, fragmentary composition, Ormr Steinþórsson’s ‘Poem about a Woman’ (Ormr Woman), five half-stanzas of which are cited in SnE (ms. R) (Bjarni Einarsson 1961, 35; Ólafur Halldórsson 1969b; Poole 1982).

The date, authorship and place of origin of Mhkv are uncertain. Certain rhyme words (see Notes to sts 4/6, 5/8, 11/4, 18/2) have long been taken to indicate composition in Norway or the Northern Isles rather than in Iceland (Bugge 1875, 240; Finnur Jónsson 1890a, 261; Konráð Gíslason 1895-7, II, 135-6; LH II, 47-8). Bjarni Kolbeinsson (1150-1223), bishop of Orkney (1188-1223) and named in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar and Jómsvíkinga saga as the poet of JómsI, is sometimes granted Mhkv as well (Möbius 1874, 24; Bugge 1875; CPB II, 363; LH II, 48; Jón Stefánsson 1907-8, 46-7; Noreen 1926, 278; Olsen 1932a, 148-50; Holtsmark 1937a, 17; but see Eiríkr Magnússon 1888; de Vries 1964-7, II, 69-70; Hermann Pálsson 1984, 263). JómsI and Mhkv share a handful of rare lexical items, such as mansǫngr in the general sense ‘love poetry’ (st. 20/3; Jóms 42/4I); both feature a poetry-kenning, bjórr Yggjar ‘strong drink of Óðinn’ (st. 29/3; Jóms 1/6I), that occurs nowhere else in the corpus of Old Norse poetry. Each poem makes correct and frequent use of the archaic expletive particle of, and each juxtaposes the grand passion of a hero from the Viking Age with the speaker’s own unhappiness in love. For a synopsis of opinions on Bjarni’s authorship of Mhkv, see Fidjestøl (1993e).

Mhkv appears to allude, often ironically, to motifs, incidents, and expressions also found later in SnE and to the technical terminology both of Snorri and of the four great twelfth-century Christian drápur (Harmsól ‘Sun of Sorrow’ (Gamlkan HasVII), Leiðarvísan ‘Way Guidance’ (Anon LeiðVII), Plácitusdrápa ‘Drápa about Plácitus’ (Anon PlVII), and Geisli ‘Light Beam’ (ESk GeislVII)): see Notes to sts 2/6, 11/1, 20/3. Three of the poem’s four kennings (sts 7/1, 9/6, 29/3) and three allusions to kennings (sts 8/3, 8/6, 27/1) all relate to stories later told in SnE. Several of the proverbs in Mhkv are found in Norse wisdom poems such as Hugsvinnsmál (Anon HsvVII) and Hávamál (Hávm) as well as in the kings’ sagas and sagas of Icelanders. But the iron rations of wit that the skald carries in his knapsack are also gathered from farther afield.

The impulse to organise proverbial wisdom in collections goes back to the Bible and ancient Egypt and extends to the Renaissance (Erasmus’s Adages) and beyond. Twelfth-century collectors included Peter Abelard, Serlo of Wilton, Galand de Reigny and William de Montibus, who devoted eight pages of his Proverbia to Amor, with over forty quotations from Ovid (Rigg 1992, 116). Several twelfth-century French and Latin collections of versified proverbs supply an explication for every adage. Alain de Lille (c. 1125/30-1202) caps the sentence ‘I cannot stop a dog from continually barking’ with the clarifying ‘nor close the lips of a deceitful person’ (Liber parabolarum 33-4). But the similar proverb in Mhkv – ‘a dog is shaped for barking’ (st. 4/3) – remains open and suggestive, available for use in a variety of situations. The momentous – Norse gods and goddesses, golden pagan heroes – appears alongside the everyday in our Old Norse poem: wave-washed skerries, frangible spring ice, foxes, cows, pigs, frogs and bad haircuts. The narrator talks constantly about himself, trespassing on our field of vision like a family member whose toothy mug obstructs every photographed wonder of the world. Lovesick, he flirts shamelessly with the discourse of disease, mentioning minor miseries such as boils, cataracts, toothache and diarrhea, along with the more exalted pestilence and mania. The refrain, forming the second half of sts 11, 14, 17, and 20, alludes to the bewitchment of King Haraldr hárfagri ‘Fair-hair’ Hálfdanarson by the Saami enchantress Snjófríðr, a legend recounted elsewhere in Old Norse prose and poetry (Poole 1982; Mundal 1997).

Mhkv is a drápa, a triptych consisting of three panels of identical length: an introductory section (upphaf ‘beginning’) of ten stanzas (1-10); a central section (stefjabálkr ‘refrain section’) of another ten in which a refrain (stef) appears four times (sts 11-20); and a ten-stanza conclusion (slœmr ‘end’; sts 21-30). Although the skald warns his audience at the outset not to expect an artfully constructed narrative (st. 1/7-8), the more energetically he announces how incoherent and nonsensical his poem is, the more he challenges his hearers to locate meaning in its three-part movement. The first panel appears preoccupied with spring, anger, glory, brave kings, ancient heroes, gods, and battles, feuds, ships and gold; the second, with uncertainty, human limitations, sorrow, transiency and self-control; in the third, the skald’s imagery shifts to storms, chill, winter, the indifference of the elements, Óðinn’s malice, last things, death, the world laid waste, the fettered wolf, the dragon in his hot den. The chatty speaker of Mhkv underlines this tripartite structure by enthusiastically proclaiming both the arrival of the central panel (st. 11/1-4) and its departure (st. 19/8). He refers, once in each section, to a sea-voyage, a frequent metaphor over the centuries for successive stages in literary composition: the rower shoves off (st. 2/7); his craft seems not up to speed (st. 12/1); rudderless, he brings his poetic ship into port (st. 30/1). The poets of the Christian drápur used the all-important penultimate stanza to name a poem or put pressure on hearers for a reward (ESk Geisl 70VII, Gamlkan Has 64/2VII, Anon Leið 44/8VII, Anon Sól 81/4VII, Anon Líkn 51VII, Anon Lil 98/8VII); the next-to-last stanza of Mhkv alludes instead to the speaker’s desire for anonymity and, rather indelicately, to the worthlessness of his verse.

Most lines in Mhkv consist of a complete sentence, either a proverb or an allusion to old lore; there are only two enjambed lines (sts 17/1-2, 20/1-2). The poem is composed throughout in the alliterating runhent or ‘end-rhymed’ metre with seven metrical positions per line first seen in Háttalykill (RvHbreiðm Hl) sts 33-4, where it is called rekit ‘extended’, and in Háttatal (SnSt Ht) sts 90-91 and 94, where it is called in minni runhenda ‘the lesser end-rhyme’. Mhkv uses a hnept ‘squeezed’ or ‘curtailed’ (by one syllable) variety of the octosyllabic hrynhent ‘flowing-rhymed’ metre. The seven-syllable (or eight-syllable) lines of Mhkv rhyme either on a long monosyllable or on a (metrically equivalent, resolved) disyllable, the first element of which is always short. Only six stanzas consist entirely of lines with monosyllabic rhyming couplets; the rest are a mixture of the two types. Lines with iambic openings do not occur; compounds with secondary stress on the second element and nouns with a post-posited definite article tend to be found in line-initial position. The second position is often filled by a finite verb; its lift more often than not falls on a short syllable. As in dróttkvætt ‘court poetry’, the first syllable of even lines always alliterates; in odd lines, either the first and fifth or fifth and seventh syllables bear alliteration, never the third. Vowel-alliteration predominates (thirty-two couplets), almost a third of the total. Elision is frequent: the insistent rhythm of Mhkv tends to sweep all before it.

Icelandic and international proverb scholarship early and late has mined Mhkv for its sapiential ore: AM 604 4o (sixteenth century, ed. Kålund 1886); Guðmundur Ólafsson (1652-95, ed. Kallstenius 1930); Guðmundur Jónsson (1830); Hallgrímur Scheving (1843-7); Finnur Jónsson (1914); Finnur Jónsson (1920); Gering (1916); Ísl. Málsh.; Singer (1995-2002); Harris (in progress). The poem has been translated into English twice (CPB II, 363-9; Frank 2004, 23-31). The first modern edition of Mhkv was published by Möbius in 1874. His text was based on a fresh transcription of R by Jón Sigurðsson (RJS), who suggested a number of restorations and emendations. Jón had access to at least two earlier, incomplete transcriptions of R, one from 1660 (Mhkv 3/1-27/4), the other (Mhkv 5/1-14/4) by Jón Ólafsson from Grunnavík (1705-79). The editions of the poem in CPB II, 363-9 and Wisén (1886-9, I, 73-6) use Möbius’s text; their emendations are mentioned in the Notes below. Finnur Jónsson’s rendering of Mhkv in Skj A is based on his own 1889 transcription of the poem (RFJ); his normalised edition in Skj B is less conservative than Möbius’s text. The normalised text presented here is based on a transcription by Valgerður Erna Þorvaldsdóttir, whose readings sometimes agree with RFJ against Skj A for the latter has  a handful of minor typographical errors (e.g. sts 6/5 ‘ymsir, 8/1 ‘þeir’, 12/4 ‘gengt’, 25/1 ‘hittiz’). The RJS and RFJ transcripts, made when the ms. may have been in a slightly better condition than it is today, include a few readings no longer visible; each successive transcript appears to capture a little less than its predecessor (see st. 1/1-2). Earlier readings have been noted in the textual apparatus, but in several instances (e.g. st. 26/8 gelti) it has not been possible to distinguish confidently between nineteenth-century ms. readings and editorial conjectures.

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