Poetry or vomit?

In the course of some research this morning for a possible blog post on Indo-European concepts of fate, a note on a website led me back into one of my all-time favorite works of literature, Egil’s Saga.

I was also reminded of Egil, and the poet-protagonists of other sagas (especially Gisli and Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue), a week or two back by an essay of Eliot Weinberger’s that referenced the extreme complexity of oral composition by Old Norse poets. The essay, called What Was Formalism?, concludes with a detailed description of the eight-line stanza form that Egil specialized in.

“Viking formalism meant, for example, that to write a mere epitaph of ordinary statements and sentiments for a tomb – such as ‘Here lies a warrior famed for his virtue. Denmark will never know a more honorable sea-captain, or one stronger in battle’ – one began with a common stanza form, such as the dróttkvatt.

“This stanza form had eight lines, broken into two half-stanzas of four lines, each expressing a single thought, that were, in turn, divided into two couplets. Each line had six syllables; only three could be stressed (and Old Norse, as one can imagine, had genuine stresses). The first line of each couplet had to have two stressed syllables that began with the same sound, which was also the sound of the first stressed syllable in the next line. (The other stressed syllables could not be alliterate.) The two stressed alliterative syllables in the first line could not rhyme; but the first stressed alliterative syllable in the second line had to rhyme with another syllable in the same line to which it was not alliterative.

“The word order was completely unlike that of prose. For example, the structure of a normal prose sentence of 16 words (taking 1, 2, 3, etc., as the words in their proper prose order) looks like this in a relatively simple half-stanza:

2 4 5 3
1 8 9 6 7
12 10 13 14
11 15 16

“In a more complex poem, poetic syntax is further stretched by fragmenting and reassembling the clauses. For example, back to the sea-captain and the first half-stanza. (‘Here lies a warrior famed for his virtue . . . ‘) The poet employs a kenning, or epithet, for warrior (‘the one who carried out the work of ížrudr, goddess of battles’), and the whole sentence reads literally: ‘Under this mound is hidden the one who carried out the work of ížrudr, goddess of battles, whom the greatest virtues accompanied; most men knew that.’ (Though the Old Norse only has 15 words.)

“The poem (keeping the literal English prose syntax) breaks this into something like:

Under this mound / whom the greatest
most men knew that / virtues
accompanied / the one who carried out the work of ížrudr
goddess of battles / is hidden

” The pattern of clauses is:

1 3
4 3
3 2
2 1

“This was merely a tombstone epitaph, not a particularly memorable poem. It was written, as all poetry was, in a single line. (The ragged right-hand margin is a by-product of the availability of cheap paper.) There were no spaces between the words. The form of the poem was musically, not visually, evident – and evident to all its readers or listeners – and was only one of many such forms, most of them even more complex.”

What Weinberger fails to mention is that verses were typically composed in one’s head, ideally off the cuff; they were written down only to preserve them or to enhance their power. As in many other cultures where poetry is or was highly prized, strong memories and performative skills continued to be emphasized long after the introduction of writing systems. (Think of the classical Arabs and the Chinese.) It is not that Norse poets were illiterate – in fact, their skill in rune-carving was an integral part of their mastery of word-magic, as the following excerpt from Egil’s Saga demonstrates. This is the translation by Kneva Kunz in the massive, single-volume collection The Sagas of Icelanders (Penguin, 2000). Kunz’s translations of the verses in particular are an improvement over earlier English editions. Minimal notes explaining the kennings appear in the margin to the right; here, I’ll put them in brackets immediately following each verse. From Chapter 44:

“Bard told Egil to stop mocking him and get on with his drinking. Egil drank every draught that was handed to him, and those meant for Olvir too.

“Then Bard went up to the queen and told her that this man was bringing shame on them, always claiming to be thirsty no matter how much he drank. The queen and Bard mixed poison into the drink and brought it in. Bard made a sign over the draught and handed it to the serving woman, who took it to Egil and offered him a drink. Egil took out his knife and stabbed the palm of his hand with it, then took the drinking-horn, carved runes on it and smeared them with blood. He spoke a verse:

“I carve runes on this horn,
redden words with my blood,
I choose words for the trees
of the wild beast’s ear-roots;
drink as we wish this mead
brought by merry servants,
let us find out how we fare
from the ale that Bard blessed.

[ear-roots: part of the head; their trees: horns]

“The horn shattered and the drink spilled onto the straw. Olvir was on the verge of passing out, so Egil got up and led him over to the door. He swung the cloak over his shoulder and gripped his sword underneath it. When they reached the door, Bard went after them with a full horn and asked Olvir to drink a farewell toast. Egil stood in the doorway and spoke this verse:

“I’m feeling drunk, and the ale
has left Olvir pale in the gills,
I let the spray of ox-spears
foam over my beard.
Your wits have gone, inviter
of showers on to shields;
now the rain of the high god
starts pouring upon you.

[ox-spears: drinking-horns; rain: i.e. of spears, perhaps of poetry (or vomit?)]

“Egil tossed away the horn, grabbed hold of his sword and drew it. It was dark in the doorway; he thrust the sword so deep into Bard’s stomach that the point came out the back. Bard fell down dead, blood pouring from the wound. Then Olvir dropped to the floor, spewing vomit. Egil ran out of the room. It was pitch-dark outside, and he ran from the farm.”

I’m fascinated especially by the suggestion that poetry is something thrown up. The context here is a feast attending a religious celebration, to which Egil and his friends were not invited until the king intervened. Hence the hostility, of course, and hence also the irony of “inviter of showers.” This phrase, in fact, would seem to have a third layer of meaning, since the celebration was the disablot, or winter-time sacrifice to the disir (fates or personal guardians). Vomit as well as blood may have been a sacrament. A further irony is that, through his prowess with drinking, versifying and fighting, Egil “tempts fate” in the most audacious way – and thus serves the “the high god(dess)” far better than the ill-fated Bard.

The ancients attributed powers of inspiration to mead and any other alcoholic drink made with honey.* In fact, in Norse mythology, poetry itself is a form of mead, originally concocted by dwarves from the blood of a wise man. Odin, the patron of poets (and wise men) stole it from the giants in a way suggesting the involvement of other fluids, as well. He turned himself into a serpent, entered the bedchamber of the giantess Gunnlod, and seduced her into giving him a drink of the mead of poetry. Instead of a mere sip, however, he drank all of it in three great gulps, turned into an eagle and flew back to Asgard where he showed off his new prize/skill – that is to say, he spat it up. According to a Medievel Icelandic treatise on poetics, Snorri Sturluson’s Poetic Diction (Jean Young translation), “It was such a close shave . . . that he let some fall, but no one bothered about that. Anyone who wanted could have it; we call it the poetasters’ share.”

This belief forms the background here and in many other passages: Egil composes best under the influence.

*Assuming that the translation is accurate, the drink here was probably an ale-mead hybrid called in later times a braggot, which any homebrewer can approximate with a mix of medium-dark malts, four pounds or more of honey per 5-gallon batch, and a strong Scottish ale yeast. This is a highly inebriating, not to mention nutritious, brew.

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