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Skald (poet)

The skald was a member of a group of courtly poets, whose poetry is associated with the courts of Scandinavian and Icelandic leaders during the Viking age.

The skalds wrote their verses in the Old Norse language in a version of alliterative verse, almost always using the difficult dróttkvætt stanza. The name of the verse form itself means "lordly" or "courtly" poetry. The technical demands of the form were equal to the complicated verse forms mastered by the Welsh bards and Irish ollaves, and like those poets, much of the skaldic verse consisted of panegyrics to kingss and aristocrats, or memorials and testimonials to their battles. The kings and nobles, for their part, were not only intelligent and appreciative audiences for gifted skalds; some of them were poets in their own right.

The verses of the skalds contain the greatest profusion of kennings, the fixed metaphors found in all Germanic poetry. In all forms of alliterative verse, the kennings are devices ready to supply a standard image to form an alliterating half-line; but the substantially greater technical demands of skaldic verse required that these devices be multiplied and compounded in order to meet its demands for skill and wordplay. These images can become somewhat hermetic, at least to those who fail to grasp the allusions that lie at the root of many of them.

The skalds were active mostly between the ninth century and the thirteenth century, when Snorri Sturluson compiled the Prose Edda to preserve an appreciative understanding of their art. The Eddas were compiled in Icelandic largely to preserve the mythology needed to understand skaldic allusions and kennings; the Elder Edda preserves traditional non-skaldic verses in simpler poetic forms, needed to understand the images. The Prose Edda, by contrast, contains mythological stories (the Gylfaginning), an extended discussion of the image of the mead of poetry (the Skáldskaparmál\, and an account of the verse forms used in Norse poetry (the Háttatal).

The skalds generally did not write long poetry; the epics found in Old English poetry and other Germanic poetry are not found in the Norse literature. The skaldic poetry is preserved instead in Snorri's Edda, and as incidental verse in the many sagas that told historical tales of the kings of Norway and the Iceland settlers. Snorri's Heimskringla preserves many poems.

One prominent sort of incidental verse found in the sagas is the drápa, literally a "slaughter," an elegy for the fallen or a commemoration of battle, usually containing a refrain. Lighter skaldic verse was called flokkr. Other incidental skaldic verse found in the sagas and histories includes the lausavísur, which is a single stanza of dróttkvætt said to have been improvised impromptu for the occasion it marks. Skalds also composed satire (níðvísur) and very occasionally, erotic verse (mansøngr).

Some notable skalds include: