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

2. Stanzaic Forms

Jónas wrote stanzaic poetry, based on different schemes of end-rhyme, in both Icelandic and Danish. His end-rhymes are almost always "full" or "perfect" (alrím)39 and the translations in this collection — with a few exceptions40 — reproduce this feature.

Jónas made use of a wide variety of rhyming stanza forms, ranging from those employing simple schemes (like the couplet and quatrain), through those combining simple schemes into more complex ones (like the triolet, ottava rima, and the sonnet), to the "progressive" or interlocking form terza rima. The last four mentioned were in fact introduced by Jónas into the Icelandic stanzaic repertory. All these forms will be familiar to readers of traditional English verse.

Furthermore Jónas's stanzaic poems in Icelandic always follow the modern Icelandic convention of correlating — with these stanza forms — the patterns of structural alliteration inherited from medieval verse.41

In the notes accompanying the translations of individual poems in this collection, information is provided about three aspects of the stanzaic structure of both originals and translations: (1) the number of lines per stanza and the metrical contour of those lines; (2) the rhyme scheme; (3) the alliteration pattern. For example the following stanza — both original and translation — would be described as "a single stanza of four alternating four-and three-stress lines, rhyming aBaB and with the alliteration pattern 22."

stanza with metrical markup
stanza with metrical markup

With regard to the three categories of information mentioned above, the following explanations are necessary:

(1) In noting the "metrical contour" of individual lines, only the number of stresses per line is given. Usually no attempt is made to characterize the rhythm of these lines (or their constituent feet) as "iambic," "trochaic," "dactyllic," etc. On the reasons for adopting this minimalist approach and avoiding the usual Icelandic method of scansion, see Appendix A.

(2) For the purpose of representing rhyme schemes, "masculine" rhymes (karlrím), e.g., monosyllabic rhymes like "long"/"song" are represented by lower-case letters and "feminine" rhymes (kvenrím), e.g., disyllabic rhymes like "table"/"fable" by upper-case letters. Thus the rhyme scheme of the following four lines from one of Shakespeare's sonnets,

Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless and rude, barrenly perish:
Look, whom she best endow'd she gave the more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish,

would be represented aBaB and the rhyme scheme of the following four lines by Wordsworth,

Like clouds that rake the mountain-summits,
Or waves that own no curbing hand,
How fast has brother followed brother
From sunshine to the sunless land,

would be represented AbCb.

(3) When the alliteration patterns of medieval Icelandic strophic poetry are coordinated with rhyming stanza forms, two basic alliterative patterns are possible: the pattern provided by fornyrðislag or dróttkvætt (in which lines are linked in pairs by alliteration [notation: 2]), and the pattern provided by ljóðaháttur (in which the third and sixth lines each contains a single internal alliteration [notation: 1]). When the fornyrðislag model is followed, the first stressed syllable of the second line of a pair continues to contain the head-stave. But since the three-, four-, or five-stress lines in which these stanzas are generally composed are able to accommodate more verbal material than the two-stress lines of fornyrðislag, and are thus able to offer the poet more room for manoeuver, the skaldic rather than the eddic rule applies, and double alliteration is obligatory in odd lines:42

Example 15 Kveður í runni, kvakar í mó
kvikur þrastasöngur;43
eins mig fýsir alltaf þó:
aftur að fara' í göngur.
Example 16 Thrushes warble, throats aglow,
through the plains and islands —
I like roundup, even so,
when autumn fills the highlands.

The English translations in this collection regularly observe the Icelandic rules described here.44 Readers unaccustomed to structural alliteration must prick up their ears and concentrate their aural attention if they want to really hear the alliteration and get some sense of its power. It is not easy to do this. Jón Helgason writes:

What would happen if a foreigner were to make a study of the alliteration in Icelandic poetry? No doubt he could come up with rules for its use that were absolutely correct. But it seems much less likely that he would ever succeed in actually hearing the alliteration — finding it an intrinsic part of his consciousness — as does a person who has grown up with it ringing in his ears. (Rr6)

A. Stanzaic Poems in Icelandic (with End-Rhyme and Structural Alliteration)

It will be most useful to begin this survey of rhymed stanzaic forms in Jónas's work by looking at his rímur-stanzas.

During the whole central period (16th-19th centuries) of modern Icelandic verse, one of the most popular poetic forms was the rímur ("rhymes"). These were "ballads of a type peculiar to Iceland" (IHP76): long narrative poems based on the sagas and eddic poems and on translations of chivalric romance. They exhibit an enormously wide range of stanza forms and revel in a highly artificial diction inherited from skaldic verse.

Jónas despised the rímur, with their tenuous (often vacuous) narratives and empty highfalutin language, and did what he could to kill them off. But he made frequent use of some of their characteristic stanza forms, which by the end of the 16th century had almost completely displaced the earlier skaldic forms, becoming — and remaining until fairly recently — enormously popular not only for the production of brief epigrammatic poems (lausavísur "independent stanzas" or stökur "loners")45 but also as building blocks in longer poems. In Iceland, Sigurður Nordal writes, this "poetry of the complex metres has proven imperishable, poetry where the very struggle with the technique makes composition worthwhile, irrespective of the subject or the degree of inspiration" (IHP76).

Rímur-stanzas come in four-, three-, and two-line varieties. Jónas makes use of the four-liners (quatrains) frequently, the three-liners (tercets) occasionally, the two-liners (couplets) never.

1. Quatrains

Jónas composes independent stanzas (lausavísur) or "loners" (stökur) on the sorts of occasions when an English poet might toss off an epigram or a limerick, for example when the weather is bad enough to call for poetic comment:

Example 17 Hóla bítur hörkubál,
hrafnar éta gorið,
tittlingarnir týna sál,
tarna' er ljóta vorið!
Example 18 Hillsides raked by raging frost,
ravens eating offal,
buntings giving up the ghost —
God, this spring is awful!46

This represents the most common and popular form of quatrain. It consists of four alternating four-stress and three-stress lines with a falling (trochaic) rhythm47 and exhibits the 22 alliteration pattern of dróttkvætt.48

If the quatrain employs alternate rhyme in any pattern (e.g., aBaB [as in the above example, which represents the basic type], ABAB, abab, AbAb) it is called a ferskeytla ("four-cornered poem") and said to belong to the ferskeytluætt ("ferskeytla-family").

The basic ferskeytla form can be varied in an almost infinite variety of ways by altering the pattern of masculine and feminine rhymes, lengthening or shortening the lines, adding patterned initial or internal rhyme or consonance, etc., etc. The immense popularity of this poetic sport in Iceland is shown by the fact that many of these variants have special names. Gagaraljóð, for instance, is the name for a quatrain of four-stress lines rhyming abab:

Example 19 Búðaloka úti ein
er að gera' á ferðum stans,49
úðaþoka hvergi hrein
hún er úr nösum a. . . .50
Example 20 Outside a shivering shopgirl stops,
shaking the water from her clothes.
Mizzling mist with drizzling drops —
mucus from the D—l's nose!

(Note that in Jónas's original — but not the translation — there is perfect quadrisyllabic rhyme at the beginning of the two odd lines.)

Or take the following, which is a basic ferskeytla-stanza in which the second feet of all the lines contain sequential full rhyme (innrím þversetis):

Example 21 Út um móinn enn er hér
engin gróin hola,
fífiltóin fölnuð er;
farðu' í sjóinn, gola!
Example 22 Heath and howe are bare and bleak,
here no flowers revel;
daisies cower, wan and weak —
wind! you sour devil!

This form is known as hringhenda. Jónas's poem "At an Old Grave, 1841" consists of five stanzas of hringhenda (with the endrhyme scheme aBBa). It is inevitable, in verse of this complexity, that the poet's need to pay simultaneous attention to the endrhyme scheme, the inrhyme scheme, and the alliteration, will tend to produce tortuous word order.

Stanzas written with this sort of elaboration are known as dýrir hættir ("precious modes") and were extraordinarily popular in Iceland. Especially "precious" were the ones known as sléttubönd, which — in addition to observing all the rules — could be read both forward and backward. These sléttubönd were most precious of all (aldýr) when every word in an odd line rhymed with its counterpart in the next odd line, and every word in an even line behaved similarly:

Example 23

Dýrra laga vandinn ver
völlu bragastéttar.
Nýrra laga andinn er
öllu haga léttar. (Bl64)

This example is not by Jónas. But Jónas was not averse to trying his hand at the simpler varieties of this form (especially when he was lying in his tent in the rain, bored to death), as his poem "Water Music" attests.

So much for the forms of the ferskeytla-family, i.e., quatrains with various patterns of alternating end-rhyme. There is another vast family of quatrains (stafhenduætt, the "stafhenda-family") in which the rhyme did not alternate but took sequential form (runarím, e.g. aaab, aaaa, aBaa). In basic stafhenda all the lines contained four stresses:

Example 24

Útsynningur ygglir sig,
eilífa veðrið skekur mig;
ég skjögra eins og skorinn kálfur —
skyldi' ég vera þetta sjálfur!

Example 25

This wild sou'wester, like a dagger,
whips at me and makes me stagger,
lunging about like a slaughtered lamb
and loath to think — perhaps I am!

And here is an example of stikluvik, a variant of stafhenda in which the second line contains three stresses and does not participate in the rhyme:

Example 26

Sunnanvindur sólu frá
sveipar linda skýja,
fannatinda, björgin blá,
björk og rinda ljómar á.

Example 27

Balmy winds of summer blow,
breach the mists, revealing
fells above and fields below
and far escarpments crowned with snow.

2. Tercets

Jónas only occasionally makes use of the three-line rímur-stanzas, usually as casual impromptus in letters to friends (see for example 2E12, 184). His most interesting venture in this form is an obscure poem of eight stanzas that seems to be conceived as a sort of mini-ríma. Its first stanza:

stanza with metrical markup

The form is called baksneidd braghenda. First comes a six-stress line containing three internal alliterants; this is followed by a pair of four-stress lines with the standard alliteration pattern 2. The stanza as a whole rhymes ABB; the last stressed segment in line 1 (hett-) consonates with the last stressed segments in lines 2 and 3, which rhyme (gætt-, hætt-).

The severe constraints within which Icelandic poets work when writing rímur-stanzas often result in verse that has little poetic originality or merit. On the other hand, the system of prosodic constraints assures that such stanzas rarely lounge or sprawl.

3. Longer Poems

The basic principles underlying the construction of rímur-stanzas, with their coordinated patterns of end-rhyme and alliteration (and sometimes internal rhyme and consonance) could of course be applied to the longer stanza forms that were introduced into Iceland from abroad during the modern period.

In Jónas's stanzaic poetry, the two basic alliteration patterns (i.e., that of a pair of lines "bound to each other" by alliteration [notation: 2] and that of a single line "held together" by alliteration [notation: 1]) are combined with one another — and deployed — in a wide variety of ways.

It would seem logical to correlate the rhyme-scheme of an eight-line stanza (for example aBaBaBaB) with the alliteration pattern of an eight-line fornyrðislag strophe (2222), and Jónas sometimes does this:

Example 29

Þið þekkið fold með blíðri brá,
og bláum tindi fjalla,
og svanahljómi, silungsá,
og sælu blómi valla,
og bröttum fossi, björtum sjá
og breiðum jökulskalla —
drjúpi' hana blessun drottins á
um daga heimsins alla.

Example 30

Our land of lakes forever fair
below blue mountain summits,
of swans, of salmon leaping where
the silver water plummets,
of glaciers swelling broad and bare
above earth's fiery sinews: —
the Lord pour out his largess there
as long as earth continues!51

Again, it seems logical to correlate the rhyme-scheme of a six-line stanza (for example aaBccB) with the alliteration pattern of a six-line ljóðaháttur strophe (2121), and Jónas does this, too:

Example 31

Snemma lóan litla í
lofti bláu "dírrindí"
undir sólu syngur:
"lofið gæsku gjafarans,
grænar eru sveitir lands,
fagur himinhringur."

Example 32

"Dirrindee!" the plover sings,
darting up on little wings
bathed in morning beauty:
"Praise the gifts of God on high,
grassy fields and shining sky —
that's our daily duty!"

And it is a perfectly logical extension of this practice to correlate the rhyme scheme of a fourteen-line "Italian" sonnet with the alliteration pattern of an eight-line fornyrðislag strophe (2222) + the alliteration pattern of a six-line ljóðaháttur strophe (2121):52

Example 33

Nú andar suðrið sæla vindum þýðum,
     á sjónum allar bárur smáar rísa
     og flykkjast heim að fögru landi Ísa,
     að fósturjarðar minnar strönd og hlíðum.

Ó! heilsið öllum heima rómi blíðum
     um hæð og sund í drottins ást og friði;
     kyssi þið, bárur! bát á fiskimiði,
     blási þið, vindar! hlýtt á kinnum fríðum.

Vorboðinn ljúfi! fuglinn trúr sem fer
     með fjaðrabliki háa vegaleysu
     í sumardal að kveða kvæðin þín!

Heilsaðu einkum, ef að fyrir ber
     engil, með húfu og rauðan skúf, í peysu;
     þröstur minn góður! það er stúlkan mín.

Example 34

Serene and warm, now southern winds come streaming
     to waken all the billows on the ocean,
     who crowd toward Iceland with an urgent motion —
     isle of my birth! where sand and surf are gleaming.

Oh waves and winds! embrace with bold caresses
     the bluffs of home with all their seabirds calling!
     Lovingly, waves, salute the boats out trawling!
     Lightly, oh winds, kiss glowing cheeks and tresses!

Herald of spring! oh faithful thrush, who flies
     fathomless heaven to reach our valleys, bearing
     cargoes of song to sing the hills above:

there, if you meet an angel with bright eyes
     under the neat, red-tasseled cap she's wearing,
     greet her devoutly! That's the girl I love.

As is evident from Examples 29 and 33 (but not Example 31), the rhyme schemes and alliteration patterns in Jónas's poems are often asynchronous — running, as it were, on different cycles. In the octave of the preceding sonnet, for example, the alliteration is on a two-line cycle and the rhyme on a four-line cycle. Asynchrony of this sort is the source of many intricate contrapuntal effects.53

Furthermore the "logical" correlations described above are not the only ones possible. The alliteration pattern in an eight-line stanza need not invariably be 2222, any more than the rhyme scheme need invariably be aBaBaBaB (as it was in Example 29). Thus each of the six stanazs of "To Mr. Paul Gaimard" has the rhyme scheme aBBaCCdd and the alliteration pattern 21122, e.g.,

Example 35

Standing on Hekla's stony height
you stared at braided rivers gleaming
over the peaceful plains and streaming
out to an ocean broad and bright,
while Loki lurked among the boulders
lying beneath the mountain's shoulders —
were you not awed by Iceland then,
this ancient realm of crag and glen?

These examples are enough to suggest the wide range of possibilities.

B. Stanzaic Poems in Danish (with End-Rhyme but without Structural Alliteration)

In Jónas's poetry, stanzas without alliteration occur only in poems written in Danish, where structural alliteration was not a feature of the contemporary prosodic tradition. For example:

Example 36

Og nu jeg ved hverken ud eller ind,
og styrter igennem Skoven,
og søger min hvide, min dejlige Hind —
Stjernerne blinke foroven.

Example 37

And now I plunge through the woods, my mind
distracted, at sixes and sevens,
seeking my white, my delicate hind —
stars are aglint in the heavens.


39 The only exceptions occur in poems of a decidedly impromptu character. Examples: nísk / hörpudisk (1E294), kalla / allar (2E15), skrjáfar / Láfa (2E275).

40 Several examples of slant rhyme have been introduced into the translation of "The Lay of Hulda" in order to provide a little variety in this long text.

Note once again that the translator's Midwestern American pronunciation is adopted as the standard, which is why (for example) clothes [klouz] rhymes with nose [nouz] in Example 20 and why sour is pronounced [ˈsauːər] in the fourth line of Example 22.

41 Jón Helgason has pointed out that the constant need to come up with alliterating words makes an Icelandic poet's job unusually difficult and accounts for the fact that "the diction [orðfæri] of Icelandic verse is more unlike that of natural speech than is generally the case elsewhere" (Rr30).

42 In Jónas's rhymed poetry, instances of single alliteration in odd lines are so rare that Icelandic editors sometimes emend them to conform to the norm. For example, in the third line of the verse that follows

Skuggabaldur úti einn
öli daufu rennir,
skrugguvaldur hvurgi seinn,
himinraufar glennir —

the editors of C and D emend "seinn" to "hreinn," thus providing what they assume to be the missing alliteration.

43 The fact that all three alliterating syllables in this first pair of lines begin with kv- rather than simple k- gives an added touch of elegance; combinations alliterating in this fashion are known as rekstuðlar.

44 There are, however, two additional Icelandic rules which they do not observe:

(1) They sometimes wittingly commit various sins of over-alliteration (ofstuðlun), both (a) triple alliteration in odd lines (e.g., "the bones of both the brothers") and (b) extra alliteration in even lines (after the headstave), e.g.,

Grazing its grassy summit,
a grey ram wanders wide.

(2) In modern Icelandic stanzaic verse, no matter whether written in three-, four-, or five-stress lines, the two "props" (stuðlar) in the first line of an alliterating pair cannot occur haphazardly in any stressed position: their placement is governed by the elaborate set of rules described in Appendix B. One aim (or at least effect) of these rules is to insure that the three alliterants in a pair of lines are not so widely separated from one another that the chime of sound among them is diffused or lost. Since the goal of the present translations is to reproduce the general effect of alliteration in Jónas's originals, but to do this (to the degree possible) without crossing the contemporary English reader's threshold of resistance to alliteration, it seemed advisable to ignore rules tending to collocate and concentrate alliterants. Most English readers, who are unused to structural alliteration anyway, are hardly going to notice — or care — whether or not the Icelandic rules are being observed. It goes without saying that attempting to follow them would vastly complicate a translator's task, introducing a whole new set of prosodic constraints.

Icelanders too, incidentally, sometimes express reservations about structural alliteration in modern Icelandic verse. Jón Helgason had no difficulty imagining a fellow-countryman who might find it "wearisome, noisy, and aggressive — especially in short lines" (Rr330).

45 For a brief survey of their astonishing range of subjects and uses, see 6Íþm361-9.

46 Needless to say, neither the consonance (instead of rhyme) at the end of the odd lines of this translation, nor the rime riche at the end of its even lines, would have given Jónas much pleasure. Icelanders are quick to recognize faulty verse and have a number of uncomplimentary names for it.

Quatrains [lausavísur] composed so sloppily that a prop [stuðull] or headstave [höfuðstafur] was misplaced, or a rhyme missing where it was supposed to occur, were called "mud-births" or "mud-shanties" [leirburður or leirhnoð] or said to be composed "in snag form" [undir hakabrag]. (6Íþm360)

47 It is important to note that in all of the four-line rímur-stanzas (quatrains), one and only one of the unstressed syllables in a line may be replaced by two unstressed syllables (RD128); see, for instance, the fourth line of Example 19 and the second line of Example 24. Anacrusis of one syllable is also permissible (as in the third line of Example 24).

48 Very occasionally, in the even lines of traditional rímur-stanzas, one finds — after the headstave — a pair of stressed syllables with a fresh alliteration. The present translations sometimes avail themselves of this license (see note 44) though Jónas himself does not.

49 An unstressed vowel at the end of a word can be elided (i.e., omitted in pronunciation) if the following word begins with a vowel. The omission is indicated typographically by an apostrophe.

50 Supply the word andskotans "of the Devil."

51 Note that the translation must content itself with a more modest rhyme scheme (aBaBaCaC) than the original, since pure disyllabic rhymes are much less abundant in English than they are in Icelandic.

52 What follows is the first sonnet written in Icelandic. The rhyme scheme of the original (ABBA ACCA dEf dEf) is once again more ambitious than that of the translation (ABBA CDDC eFg eFg).

53 Outstanding in this regard is the calculated interplay of synchrony and asynchrony in the 22 terza rima tercets and 2 ottava rima stanzas of "Gunnar's Holm". The first three tercets have the alliteration pattern 21, 12, and 21 respectively; then come 17 consecutive tercets with the pattern 111; then (with the terza rima section of the poem drawing to a close) two tercets with the pattern 21; and finally two stanzas of ottava rima with the pattern 22112 and 2222. The rhyme-scheme of the poem is equally intricate and elaborate.

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

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