Poetry Form - The Skaldic Forms

The Skaldic Forms of Poetry
by J. Zimmerman.

* History. * Form. * Your Composition. * References. * Glossary.


Skalds were first-millennium artistic ministers of propaganda. They wrote poems to praise and applaud their kings and leaders. Skaldic poetry is not epic, elegiac, mournful, dramatic-dialog (like many of the Eddic lays), or didactic. Sometimes it is satiric (such as the work of Sneglu-Halli).

The Skaldic forms probably began in Norway before the ninth century, but based simply on the records, a huge leap of style seems to appear with Bragi in the first half of the ninth century, where the records begin.

Hollander (p.7) summarizes that "Skaldic poetry is fundamentally alliterative, like other Old German poetry, and stanzaic, like the Eddic lays. For the rest, there are such striking differences - in metrics, structure, style, contents - that some scholars have questioned its Germanic quality."


The poetry of the skalds is "ornamental and formal, rather than representational, art" [Hollander (p.20)]. It is "a poetry of nouns and secondarily of adjectives ... whereas verbs are drab and are relegated to a remarkable subordinate function" [Hollander (p.15)].

Specifically, the poetry of the skalds:

Your Composition.



Perfect rhyme: the final vowel in each word sounds the same, as do the final consonant(s).
The occurrence of two of more words with the same initial sound or set of sounds. Although it concerns sounds, its name derives from Latin meaning 'to a letter' perhaps from a context where spelling was phonetic. Hollander (p.2) list its three main functions in Old Germanic poetry (to which skaldic poetry is related by an obscure path) as:
  1. Puts "extra emphasis on logically or emotionally important elements ... [leading to] passionate, pathetic relief and ... peaks of tragic significance."
  2. "A powerful mnemonic device."
  3. By "following simple rules of position, alliteration helps make periodic, structural divisions within the speech material of the poem."
Imperfect rhyme: the final vowel in each word sounds the same, but the final consonant(s) sound differently. Sometimes this is called 'off rhyme'.
A more formal poem, where groups of stanzas were offset by a refrain (stef) of pairs of half lines.
Court measure. A dominant stanzaic pattern in skaldic verse.
A simple poem of a sequence of half lines.
Old Lore Meter, which is used for most of the Eddic lays:
  • Each line has four beats and it divides into two half lines of two beats each.
  • Alliteration.
  • Four of these alliterative lines combine as a vísa, a stanza expressing a thought.
A catch. Signifies the linking of lines through rhyme.
A court poet.
"An implied simile. ... In Skaldic poetry the replacement of nouns by a circumlocution is raised to a principle; ... there is a mania for kennings, so that in extreme cases virtually nothing is mentioned by its own name or designated by an everyday word. Moreover, the rules of the art favor having one kenning built upon the other, to reach two, three, four, or more stories." [Hollander].

A typical kenning is a noun qualifed by a genitive, which yields a new concept. Further, continues Hollander, "Skaldic practice goes one step further in allowing substitution for both basic word and qualifying noun."

For some skalds, kennings were a showy tool, the sizzle of the poem, but often without true relevance. "It is only in the best verse, and rarely, that they grow out of the subject matter and are in harmony with the tone of the composition." Check Hollander for some examples of kennings.

Song Meter, which is used for some of the Eddic lays, and is a variation of the dominant fornydislag form.
Imperfect rhyme of final consonant but unlike vowels.
A refrain in the formal drápa; pairs of half lines that offset groups of stanzas.
A metrical foot of one stressed (or long) syllable followed by one unstressed (or short) syllable.

A Last Word.

Just because you start with the intention of writing a poem in a Skaldic form, you do not have to keep your poem in that form if it does not work for you. Your attempt to write a formal poem may help you find words that you would not have found otherwise. And you may decide that you choose to end up with a poem in a different form, perhaps even a prose poem.


The key reference (look for it in your local used book store) is:
The Skalds: a Selection of Their Poems (1945), by Lee Milton Hollander.

Buy Strand The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms,
edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.

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