Poetic Edda

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The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems primarily preserved in the Icelandic mediaeval manuscript Codex Regius. Along with Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda is the most important extant source on Norse mythology and Germanic heroic legends, and from the early 19th century onwards has had a powerful influence on later Scandinavian literatures, not merely through the stories it contains but through the visionary force and dramatic quality of many of the poems. It has also become an inspiring model for many later innovations in poetic meter, particularly in the Nordic languages, offering many varied examples of terse, stress-based metrical schemes working without any final rhyme, and instead using alliterative devices and strongly concentrated imagery. Poets who have acknowledged their debt to the Poetic Edda include Vilhelm Ekelund, August Strindberg, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges and Karin Boye.

Codex Regius was written in the 13th century but nothing is known of its whereabouts until 1643 when it came into the possession of Brynjólfur Sveinsson, then Bishop of Skálholt. At that time versions of the Prose Edda were well known in Iceland but scholars speculated that there once was another Edda—an Elder Edda—which contained the pagan poems which Snorri quotes in his Prose Edda. When Codex Regius was discovered, it seemed that this speculation had proven correct. Brynjólfur attributed the manuscript to Sæmundr the Learned, a larger-than-life 12th century Icelandic priest. While this attribution is rejected by modern scholars, the name Sæmundar Edda is still sometimes associated with "Poetic Edda."

Bishop Brynjólfur sent Codex Regius as a present to the Danish king, hence the name. For centuries it was stored in the Royal Library in Copenhagen but in 1971 it was returned to Iceland.

Composition[edit]

The title page of Olive Bray's English translation of the Poetic Edda depicting the tree Yggdrasil and a number of its inhabitants (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.

The Eddic poems are composed in alliterative verse. Most are in fornyrðislag, while málaháttr is a common variation. The rest, about a quarter, are composed in ljóðaháttr. The language of the poems is usually clear and relatively unadorned. While kennings are often employed they do not rise to the frequency or complexity found in skaldic poetry.

Authorship[edit]

Like most early poetry the Eddic poems were minstrel poems, passing orally from singer to singer and from poet to poet for centuries. None of the poems are attributed to a particular author though many of them show strong individual characteristics and are likely to have been the work of individual poets. Scholars sometimes speculate on hypothetical authors but firm and accepted conclusions have never been reached.

Time[edit]

The dating of the poems has been a lively source of scholarly argument for a long time. Firm conclusions are hard to reach. While lines from the Eddic poems sometimes appear in poems by known poets such evidence is difficult to evaluate. For example Eyvindr skáldaspillir, composing in the latter half of the 10th century, uses in his Hákonarmál a couple of lines also found in Hávamál. It is possible that he was quoting a known poem but it is also possible that Hávamál, or at least the strophe in question, is the younger derivative work.

The few demonstrably historical characters mentioned in the poems, like Attila, provide a terminus post quem of sorts. The dating of the manuscripts themselves provides a more useful terminus ante quem.

Individual poems have individual clues to their age. For example Atlamál hin groenlenzku is claimed by its title, and seems by some internal evidence, to have been composed in Greenland. If so, it can be no earlier than about 985 since there were no Scandinavians in Greenland until that time.

In some cases old poems can have been interpolated with younger verses or merged with other poems. For example stanzas 9-16 of Völuspá, the "Dvergatal" or "Roster of Dwarfs", is considered to be an interpolation.

Location[edit]

The problem of dating the poems is linked with the problem of finding out where they were composed. Since Iceland was not settled until about 870, anything composed before that time would necessarily have been elsewhere, most likely in Scandinavia. Any young poems, on the other hand, are likely Icelandic in origin.

Scholars have attempted to localize individual poems by studying the geography, flora and fauna which they refer to. This approach usually does not yield firm results. While there are, for example, no wolves in Iceland we can be sure that Icelandic poets were familiar with the species. Similarly the apocalyptic descriptions of Völuspá have been taken as evidence that the poet who composed it had seen a volcanic eruption in Iceland - but this is hardly certain.

Editions and inclusions[edit]

The cover of Lee M. Hollander's English translation of the Poetic Edda.

Some poems similar to those found in Codex Regius are normally also included in editions of the Poetic Edda. Important manuscripts include AM 748 I 4to, Hauksbók and Flateyjarbók. Many of the poems are quoted in Snorri's Edda but usually only in bits and pieces. What poems are included in an edition of the Poetic Edda depends on the editor. Those not in Codex Regius are sometimes called Eddica minora from their appearance in an edition with that title edited by Andreas Heusler and Wilhelm Ranisch in 1903.

English translators are not consistent on the translations of the names of the Eddic poems or on how the Old Norse forms should be rendered in English. Up to three translations are given below, taken from the translations of Bellows, Hollander, and Larrington with proper names in the normalized English forms found in John Lindow's Norse Mythology and in Andy Orchard's Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend.

Mythological Poems[edit]

In Codex Regius[edit]

Not in Codex Regius[edit]

Heroic lays[edit]

After the mythological poems Codex Regius continues with heroic lays about mortal heroes. The heroic lays are to be seen as a whole in the Edda, but they consist of three layers, the story of Helgi Hundingsbani, the story of the Nibelungs and the story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths. These are, respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin. As far as historicity can be ascertained, Attila, Jörmunrekkr and Brynhildr actually existed, taking Brynhildr to be partly based on Brunhilda of Austrasia, but the chronology has been reversed in the poems.

In Codex Regius[edit]

The Helgi Lays
The Niflung Cycle
The Jörmunrekkr Lays

Not in Codex Regius[edit]

Several of the legendary sagas contain poetry in the Eddic style. Its age and importance is often difficult to evaluate but the Hervarar saga, in particular, contains interesting poetic interpolations.

Allusions and quotations[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Tom Shippey (2003), The Road to Middle-earth, Houghton Mifflin, ch. 3 p. 70-71, ISBN 0-618-25760-8.
  2. ^ John D. Rateliff (2007), The History of The Hobbit, volume 2 Return to Bag-End, HarperCollins, Appendix III; ISBN 0-00-725066-5.

Bibliography in reverse chronological order[edit]

Original text[edit]

Original text with English translation[edit]

English translation only[edit]

Commentary[edit]

External links[edit]