III. Formal Features of Jónas Hallgrímsson's Poetry and the Present Verse Translations

Appendix B
The Rules for Alliterant-Placement in the Odd Lines of Modern Icelandic Stanzaic Verse

Every other foot in a line of Icelandic verse, beginning with the first, is considered by prosodists to be a "heavy foot" (hákveða); the foot that follows it is a "light foot" (lágkveða). Thus:

figure showing metrical division of line

This may be represented schematically as follows:

figure showing metrical division of line

The above example contains five feet; lines of two, three, and four feet are analyzed on the same principle. This alternation of heavy and light feet underlies the rules in modern Icelandic prosody for the placement of alliterants in odd lines that are four or five feet long:60

(1) One of the two props (stuðlar) in the line must stand in a heavy foot; if both occur in light feet, the alliteration (stuðlasetning) is faulty:

figure showing metrical division of line

(2) If both props are located in heavy feet, there can be no more than one light foot between them:

figure showing metrical division of line

(3) If one of the props stands in a light foot, the other must stand in the heavy foot that immediately precedes or follows it:

figure showing metrical division of line

(4) If the second prop stands in a light foot, there must be no more than one foot between it and the headstave:

figure showing metrical division of line

(5) If the second prop stands in a heavy foot, there may be one or two feet between it and the headstave (note that the first example is tetrameter, the second pentameter):

figure showing metrical division of line
figure showing metrical division of line

Presumably the poetic practice codified in these rules evolved gradually over time in order to guarantee that alliterants did not stand too far away from one another in poetic lines that were four and five feet long — lines that only came into use centuries after alliteration had been adopted as a structural principle in lines that were two feet long (i.e., in fornyrðislag and its Primitive Germanic ancestor).

In Jónas's day, this alternation of light and heavy feet had not yet been described in writing, nor had the alliterant-placement rules been formulated as an explicit part of the poetic gradus. Then as now, however, whether the alliterant-placement in a line is correct or not is something that "an Icelander hears immediately, if he has an ear for poetry, whereas a foreigner requires long practice in it" (Rr11). Jónas regularly observes these rules; for him this will have been a matter of inference, taste, and intuition, based on a sensitive and finely-tuned ear. His rival Grímur Thomsen, another important 19th-century poet, had a poor ear for this sort of thing, a real tin ear, and infringes the rules almost as often as do the present translations.61 And Grímur is not alone in this. Finnur Jónsson complained in 1892, less than fifty years after Jónas's death:

The placement of alliterants [stuðlasetning] is a simple and straightforward matter when lines are no more than six syllables long. In longer lines, however, e.g., lines of eight syllables or more, the ear sometimes finds itself at a loss, since there are now a number of syllables with strong — in fact variably strong — stress to choose among. And indeed, one could assemble a vast collection of examples of faulty alliterant-placement in the work of poets writing today. (Síb73)

The regular alternation of light and heavy feet (an alternation emphasized by alliteration), coupled with the relative infrequency with which (in modern Icelandic verse) rhetorical stress overrides this pattern, or is counterpointed against it, is responsible for the sing-song manner — anathema to the modern English or American ear — in which this verse is so often read and recited.

No conscious attempt is made in the translations in this collection to imitate the Icelandic system of alternating heavy and light feet. The historical development of modern English verse has been away from any prosodic regularity of this sort.


60 The earliest attempt to describe acceptable practice in terms of explicit rules (ákveðnar reglur) was made in 1887 by a German, Ph. Schweitzer. Schweitzer found that Icelanders criticized his German translations of Icelandic verse on the grounds of faulty placement of alliterants but were unable to tell him what the rules for correct placement were, assuring him that it was a matter of sensitivity and intuition. Schweitzer — German that he was — brooded for three years about "this intuition business" (þetta tilfinningamál), finally publishing an analysis of the first two lines of Jónas's "Mount Broadshield" ("Fjallið Skjaldbreiður") —

Fanna skautar faldi háum
fjallið, allra hæða val —

in terms of polka rhythm (of all things):

musical notation from article

From this analysis he derived the law that "in lines with two to five stressed syllables, the first, third, and fifth always have stronger stress than the second and fourth," and also made a first attempt at formulating the rules for alliterant-placement described in this Appendix. (See Ph. Schweitzer, "Um stuðla setning og höfuðstafs í íslenzku," Tímarit Hins íslenzka bókmenntafjelags, Áttundi árgangur [1887], 316-8.)

61 Schweitzer cites the following two passages from Grímur's well-known poem "Skúlaskeið" to exemplify his sins:

figure showing metrical division of line

which fails to observe Rule 1, and

figure showing metrical division of line

which offends against Rule 3 (and which Grímur subsequently "corrected" to "strauk hann Sörla' um stinnan háls og makka").

Copyright © 1996-8 Dick Ringler. All rights reserved.

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