Kari Ellen Gade 2012, ‘Formal structures in Old Norse poetry: stanzas and poems’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. lxvii-lxix.
Unlike West Germanic poetry, which is stichic, consisting of successive lines of the same metrical form, Old Norse skaldic poetry is stanzaic, and each stanza consists of eight lines that can be divided metrically and syntactically into two half-stanzas or helmingar ‘halves’ (for exceptions made in kviðuháttr metre, see Gade 2005; for the division into half-stanzas, see Hollander 1947; Kuhn 1983, 187-8; Gade 1995a, 3-4). In editions of Old Norse poetry, the odd and even lines of a skaldic stanza are traditionally numbered consecutively (from 1-8) and printed below each other (and not as long-lines as in eddic and West Germanic poetry). In this edition the helmingar are printed alongside one another in order to save space.
The poetic corpus edited in SkP consists of lausavísur (freestanding, occasional stanzas) and extended poems in the form of vísur, flokkar or drápur (see §3.1 above). The term vísur ‘stanzas’ is used in Old Norse literature to refer to an extended poetic composition without a refrain that commemorates a specific event (e.g. a battle or a journey), and in most cases the poet reports on this event as a participant or an eyewitness. Sigvatr Þórðarson chronicled his two journeys as an envoy to Sweden and England in his Austrfararvísur (Sigv AustvI) and Vestrfararvísur (Sigv VestvI) respectively, and in his Nesjavísur (Sigv NesvI), he commemorated the battle of Nesjar (3 April 1016) at which he had been present. That is also the case with Steinn Herdísarson, whose account of the battle of the river Nissan (9 August 1062) is preserved in his Nizarvísur (Steinn NizvII), and Einarr Skúlason, who composed his Elfarvísur (ESk ElfvII) about the battle of the Götaälv (1159). Sigvatr Þórðarson’s spirited political admonitions to King Magnús inn góði Óláfsson of Norway (Sigv BervII) are also called vísur. A poem labelled vísur could be of a more light-hearted nature, however, such as Haraldr harðráði’s Gamanvísur (Hharð GamvII), in which he commemorates his own warlike exploits while commenting on the attitude of his bride-to-be, Ellisif (Elisabeth) of Novgorod. In Sneglu-Halla þáttr (Snegl, ÍF 9, 276-7), the poets Sneglu-Halli (SnHII) and Þjóðólfr Arnórsson (ÞjóðAII) are said to have composed poetry about cows (Kolluvísur ‘Cow’s vísur’) and carrying out ashes from the fire (Sóptrogsvísur ‘Dustbin vísur’) respectively. In later religious poetry, vísur designated narrative poems about religious characters (e.g. Mv IIVII, BrúðvVII).
A longer poetic composition without a refrain is also referred to as flokkr (literally ‘flock, crowd’), and the distinction between vísur and a flokkr seems to have been somewhat blurred. Sigvatr’s Bersǫglisvísur are alternately called Bersǫglisflokkr (so Flateyjarbók, Flat 1860-8, III, 267), and, concerning Einarr Skúlason’s Elfarvísur (ESk ElfvII), Heimskringla states that Einarr orti um Grégóríúm Dagsson flokk þann, er kallaðar eru Elfarvísur ‘Einarr composed that flokkr which is called Elfarvísur about Grégóríús Dagsson’ (ÍF 28, 359). Other poems termed vísur (Sigv NesvI; Sigv VestvI) are also referred to as flokkar in the prose texts (ÍF 27, 61, 271). It would appear, however, that a flokkr was more indebted to the genre of panegyric than the vísur in that it eulogised a person through his actions, and that vísur expressed a more general concept denoting ‘narrative poem’ which encompassed flokkr as well as poems of a more trivial nature.
The most prestigious extended skaldic composition was the drápa, that is, a longer poem with one or more refrains (stef; see Kuhn 1983, 212-14). Knýtlinga saga (Knýtl, ÍF 35, 124-5) relates an amusing episode in which the skald Þórarinn loftunga appears at the court of King Knútr inn ríki Sveinsson and asks for permission to recite a flokkr that he has composed in Knútr’s honour. Knútr is enraged that Þórarinn has only composed an inferior flokkr about him, and tells him that, unless he redeems himself by composing a drápa with thirty or more stanzas overnight, he will lose his life. Þórarinn then proceeds to change his flokkr into adrápa (ÍF 27, 307): Þórarinn orti þá stef ok setti í kvæðit ok jók nǫkkurum ørendum eða vísum ‘Þórarinn then composed a stef and inserted it into the poem and added some strophes or stanzas’. Knútr was evidently well pleased with the result, and not only granted Þórarinn his life, but also rewarded him lavishly for his efforts. In this particular case, Þórarinn converted his flokkr into a more prestigious drápa by adding a stef. A stef could consist of couplets that were repeated at regular intervals during a poem (e.g. Bragi Rdr 7/3-4III, 12/3-4III; ÞjóðA Haustl 13/7-8III, 20/7-8III; Egill Hfl 6/3-4V, 9/3-4V, 12/3-4V, 15/3-4V), or, later, whole helmingar that were repeated (e.g. ÞjóðA Sex 11/5-8II). A special type of stef that could adorn a poem is the klofastef ‘split refrain’ in which a separate line, syntactically independent from the rest of a stanza, formed a clause with another separate line (or lines) in other stanzas. In Sigvatr’s Knútsdrápa (Sigv KnútdrI), for example, the first line in sts 3 and 7 and the last lines in sts 6, 9 and 11 formed the stef Knútr vas und himnum … hǫfuðfremstr jǫfurr ‘Knútr was under the heavens … the most eminent prince’. In Steinn Herdísarson’s Óláfsdrápa (Steinn ÓldrII), l. 8 in sts 1, 4-6, 8, 12-14 contain the following stef: ríklundaðr veit undir … sik beztan gram miklu …Óláfr borinn sólu, that is, ríklundaðr Óláfr veit sik borinn miklu beztan gram undir sólu ‘proud-minded Óláfr knows himself to be the very best ruler born beneath the sun’. Stef are attested in skaldic encomia from the very beginning onwards, as recurring couplets in Bragi’s Ragnarsdrápa and Þjóðólfr’s Haustlǫng from the ninth century (see above) and as an incomplete klofastef in Úlfr Uggason’s tenth-centry Húsdrápa (ÚlfrU Húsdr 6/8III). In some cases, a drápa could contain more than one stef (e.g. Egill Hfl 6/3-4V, 9/3-4V and 12/3-4V, 15/3-4V), and the title of Þjóðólfr Arnórsson’s Sextefja (ÞjóðA SexII) indicates that his poem could have contained six refrains (although it could well be that this title referred to one stef being repeated six times; see Kuhn 1983, 214).
The introductory section of a drápa (before the first stef) was referred to as the upphaf ‘beginning’ and the conclusion (after the last stef) was the slœmr, literally the last ‘cut’. The latter term is first attested in poetry in the twelfth century (HSt Rst 24/2I; Gamlkan Has 46/6VII). The section between each stef in a poem is called stefjabálkr ‘stef-partition’ or stefjamél ‘stef-interval’, and stefjamél is used in poetry as early as in Arnórr Þórðarson’s Hrynhenda (Arn Hryn 11/4II, c. 1046). A stefjamél (‑bálkr) usually contained between three and six stanzas. In the fourteenth-century anonymous Lilja (Anon LilVII), for example, the upphaf consists of sts 1-25, the first stef falls in sts 26/5-8, 32/5-8, 38/5-8, 44/5-8, 50/5-8 and the second in sts 51/5-8, 57/5-8, 63/5-8, 69/5-8 and 75/5-8, while sts 76-100 form the slœmr. It is not clear whether all drápur actually did contain stef. Kuhn (1983, 213) points out that Einarr skálaglamm’s Vellekla (Eskál VellI) contains no traces of a refrain and that Haukr Valdísarson’s Íslendingadrápa (HaukrV ÍsldrIV) does not have one. Nor is it clear what prompted the earliest skalds to insert such an adornment into their poetry. However, recurring half-stanzas and whole stanzas are found in eddic poetry as well, for example in Vǫluspá (Vsp 6/1-4, 9/1-4, 23/1-4, 25/1-4 and Vsp44/1-8, 49/1-8, 58/1-8), and it is possible that, just as the skaldic metres were ultimately derived from the alliterative eddic metres, the skaldic stef also originated as a stylisation of a feature found in eddic poetry.