The rhythm of English traditional poetry since the time of Chaucer tends to be iambic, i.e., based upon a series of rising pitch-stress patterns ( ⏑ / ⏑ / etc.), whereas the rhythm (hrynjandi) of much modern Icelandic poetry exhibits a trochaic or falling pattern ( / ⏑ / ⏑ etc.). This may well reflect fundamental differences in speech rhythm between the two languages.54 Icelandic is not an "iambic" language: it contains almost no disyllabic words that have their main stress on the second syllable.55
The system of scansion used in analyzing modern Icelandic stanzaic verse is an artificial one, like all systems of scansion. It is based on the assumption that the language — and much of the verse written in it — exhibits a falling rhythm. The traditional Icelandic prosodist sees things this way (the symbol ┃ indicates divisions between metrical feet):
The traditional prosodic analysis of modern Icelandic verse starts from the theoretical assumption that all lines begin with a stressed syllable (áhersluatkvæði).56 The metrical units or "feet" (bragliðir or kveður) that constitute these lines are then analyzed as being of three kinds:
(1) a stressed syllable standing by itself (einliður or stúfur), as in the last feet of the odd lines in Examples 38 and 39;
(2) a stressed syllable and a following unstressed syllable (hnígandi [i.e., "falling"] or réttur ["correct"] tvíliður ["two-member foot"]), i.e., a trochee; this is by far the commonest type of foot in modern Icelandic verse; and
(3) a stressed syllable with two following unstressed syllables (þríliður), i.e., a dactyl).57
If the initial stressed syllable in a line is preceded by an unstressed syllable (as in the third line of Examples 24 and 39), this syllable is analyzed as extra-metrical, an anacrusis (forliður),58 set off from the rest of the line by the symbol . This analytical procedure is often followed in Iceland even with lines that a prosodist of English verse would regard as intractably iambic and would never dream of scanning in the following manner:
It should be added in all fairness, however, that some Icelandic prosodists will describe a line as "iambic" or "anapestic" if this rhythm is dominant and will speak of anacrusis only when an unstressed syllable is found at the beginning of a line that occurs in what is clearly a predominantly trochaic context.
Note, finally, the vowel elision in the first line of Example 40. If the vowel at the end of ekki is not elided, the foot in which it occurs is one syllable too long. Vowel elision is a common feature of ordinary Icelandic speech and there is no "poetic artificiality" about its occurrence in verse.59 Elision is never required in reading the present English translations.
54 Note, for example, that definite articles generally follow nouns in Icelandic (i.e., are suffixed to them). This means that a noun and its associated definite article regularly show a falling rhythm, whereas the opposite is true in English. Compare, for example, the last two lines of "Kolbeinn's Isle" in Jónas's original and the English translation (definite articles are printed in capital letters and underlined):
Nothing could demonstrate more clearly the truth of Jón Helgason's assertion that even so small a matter as "whether a language has its definite article preceding the noun (as in English and German) or suffixed to it (as in the Scandinavian languages) can be of crucial importance for the rhythm of the language, and thus for its poetry" (Rr4).
55 But do not fail to note that the rhythmic contours of lexical items taken in isolation may be a very misleading criterion, since it would be difficult to show that connected speech in Icelandic (or English, for that matter) is either "trochaic" or "iambic."
56 Finnur Jónsson states this with his usual force: "It is a characteristic of the Icelandic language that words are fore-stressed (with stress on the first syllable; 'trochaic'): / ⏑ etc. It is therefore completely wrong (though some people do it anyway) to talk about 'iambs' in Icelandic and about 'iambic' verse, i.e., lines arranged like this: ⏑ / ┃ ⏑ / ┃ ⏑ / etc. This kind of rhythm or gait does not occur in lines of Icelandic verse" (Síb74).
57 Very rarely, in Jónas's verse, one finds feet that seem to contain three unstressed syllables:
He probably intended such feet to be read with some sort of syncopation, e.g., [
ˈdɑpr̥sɪtʏr] or even [
ˈdɑpsɪtʏr]. (There is another example in the second line of "Meyjargrátur.")
58 Anacrusis of more than one syllable is rare in modern Icelandic stanzaic verse and exceedingly rare in the works of Jónas Hallgrímsson (except, of course, when he is writing anapestic verse, as in "The Solitary" ["Einbúinn"]). It does sometimes occur, however, as in the last two lines of the following:
These two lines are highly uncharacteristic and show Jónas's willingness, toward the end of his life, to engage in prosodic experiment.
The present translations make use of single anacrusis much more frequently than do Jónas's originals, and they often avail themselves of double anacrusis as well (as in the last three lines of Example 41).
59 It is interesting to note that marked elisions occur most frequently — in proportion to the length of the texts — in poems to which Jónas, for one reason or another, wishes to impart a low-keyed and conversational flavor ("Table Hymn," "Rev. Tómas Sæmundsson," "Moon Island"). They are much rarer in poems intended to sound formal.