04 May 2011

'Seekan Back Tae Rackwick'

Several weeks ago, now, I promised a second blog inspired by my recent rambling to Orkney. The unfortunate delay has been caused by my indulgence in even more Norse and Viking ramblings in the meantime, on which I may report when (if) I get a moment... But I did want to do a second Orkney blog, this time about poetry, which is, in my view, one of those essential aspects of life which get far too little airing here (care to suggest some others?).

Various things conspired to make me think about Old Norse influence on modern poetry in English. Now there are plenty of books and articles that will tell you about poets from the sixteenth century onwards who have written on Norse and Viking themes of one sort or another. But there is relatively written about those brave poets who have tried to write, in English (or some form of English), in that most demanding of metres known as dróttkvætt or, to the uninitiated, simply as 'skaldic' verse. There aren't that many, here I'd like to present three.

That great 'lover of islands' and fan of Iceland in particular, W.H. Auden, once tried his hand, published in Secondary Worlds (1968):
Hushed is the lake of hawks,
Bright with our excitement,
And all the sky of skulls,
Glows with scarlet roses;
It sounds quite good, and even manages to follow some of the rules, though those who have mugged up on their skaldic metres will straightaway see that the alliteration is not quite perfect. But what does it mean? (The second half stanza is even less comprehensible.) That, by the way, was a rhetorical question, so please spare me your literary analyses; over the years I have quite convinced myself it means nothing at all, and that the great WHA only did it so that he could write the following sentence, a memorable piece of literary criticism:
It is clear that in such verse it would be absolutely impossible to tell a story. Sagas, if composed at all, would have to be written in prose.
My next poet is a much more obscure one, the Kirkwall draper and conchologist, Robert Rendall. An excellent poet, in my view, though you do have to have a taste for the kind of poetry that was already well out of date by the time he wrote. His poems are little known, and I am quite proud of my small but perfectly-formed collection of his works, many of them published in Kirkwall and therefore quite hard to get hold of. When not draping, or collecting shells (on which he was an acknowledged scientific expert), he wrote pious sonnets, or dialect verse. Once, though, he had a go at what he called 'An experiment in Scaldic metre' in the poem 'Shore Tullye', published in Orkney Variants and Other Poems (1951). Rendall doesn't gloss 'tullye', but according to Hugh Marwick's Orkney Norn (1929) a 'tully' is 'a large kind of knife with a blade fixed in the haft; used chiefly for splitting fish or cutting up meat'. It seems appropriate, though I'm not absolutely sure it's right, but then I haven't found anything else it could be. Apart from (or perhaps because of) the dialect words, Rendall's poem at least makes sense:
Stretched the battle beachward;
Bravely back we drave them.
But he too fails in the proper alliteration of the last two lines:
Never kam sea-rovers
Seekan back tae Rackwick.
But of course real poets find their inspiration where they can and don't generally let themselves be trammelled by metrical pedantries. While in Orkney I met the Scottish poet Ian Crockatt, who is currently doing a PhD on how to 'translate' skaldic poetry, from the point of view of a creative writer rather than an academic like me (interesting for me, since we work on the same poet). He has published a chapbook called Skald: Viking Poems (2009) - the title says it all. In this collection he 'tried to keep to original features like the strict syllable count and the patterns of alliteration, internal rhyme and half-rhyme' while making no attempt to reproduce the kennings. Here he is, also on some raiders, from 'His Ring':
Not gold - gilt silver that
glowed like those gleam-haloed
stone-encrusted crosses
grabbed from Christ-cold abbeys
So there you have it, three poets, three approaches, but what they have in common is that their poems foreground the sounds. And good for them.


  1. Thank you for this posting. I hadn´t seen these poems before. Being an amateur skald, I greatly appreciate English versions of dróttkvætt.

  2. Anonymous5/5/11 22:56

    excellent post dear blogger.

  3. Ian Crockatt19/6/11 17:30

    Hi there Viqueen,
    here's a version of a Rognvaldr poem; progressing to trochaic line-endings,(but sometimes deliberately not, for sound and significance purposes) though wreaking a bit of havoc with alliteration and rhyme occasionally.

    34. He laments his wife's illness.

    I brood at her bedside
    - I've brought lace, necklaces,
    bone combs - who lies, limbs and
    lips feverish - wishing
    back our glad hours hawking
    low-isled water-meadows.
    I shape grave words - heart-deep,
    honed,brief - to imprison grief.

  4. Thanks Ian, I like that a lot. Just wondering about 'low-isled water-meadows', sometime you'll have to explain to me what those are.
    As ever, VQ.

  5. Shore Tullye means "Shore struggle" although the word isn't in the Orkney Norn, as you say. Walter Traill Dennison's Orkney Folklore and Traditions (1961) has the story of the Mither of the Sea, who has her summer residence under the sea, but the winter resident, Teran, dosn't go quietly, and the conflict (which of course brings stormy seas)in spring is called the "Vore Tullye" "Spring struggle" Teran is then tied up for the summer but breaks free in the autumn giving rise to the "Gore vellye" "Harvest destructive work". I don't know why the word isn't in Marwick though.

  6. Many thanks, Jim E., for this information. Your comment prompted me to have another look and this time I found it, where I should probably have been looking in the first place, in the Dictionary of the Scots Language, especially the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (see www.dsl.ac.uk). It's spelled in a variety of ways, (e.g. tulyie), comes from Middle English 'toyle', cf. Old French 'tooil', Modern English 'toil' and, as you say, means 'quarrel, dispute, fight, brawl'. So not Norn at all, which explains why it's not in Marwick.