Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
235
ICELAND

Distichs), Merlin’s Prophecy (paraphrased from Geoffrey of Monmouth by Gunnlaug the monk), Jomsvikinga-drapa (by Bishop Ketil), and the Islendinga-drapa, which has preserved brief notices of several lost sagas concerning Icelandic worthies, with which Gudmundar-drapa, though of the 14th century, may be also placed.

Just as the change of law gave the death-blow to an already perishing commonwealth, so the rush of medieval influence, which followed the union with Norway, completed a process which had been in force since the end of the 11th century, when it overthrew the old Icelandic poetry in favour of the rimur.

The introduction of the danz, ballads (or fornkvædi, as they are now called) for singing, with a burden, usually relating to a love-tale, which were immensely popular with the people and performed by whole companies at weddings, yule feasts and the like, had relegated the regular Icelandic poetry to more serious events or to the more cultivated of the chiefs. But these “jigs,” as the Elizabethans would have called them, dissatisfied the popular ear in one way: they were, like old English ballads, which they closely resembled, in rhyme, but void of alliteration, and accordingly they were modified and replaced by the “rimur,” the staple literary product of the 15th century. These were rhymed but also alliterative, in regular form, with prologue or mansong (often the prettiest part of the whole), main portion telling the tale (mostly derived in early days from the French romances of the Carlovingian, Arthurian or Alexandrian cycles, or from the mythic or skrök-sögur), and epilogue. Their chief value to us lies in their having preserved versions of several French poems now lost, and in their evidence as to the feelings and bent of Icelanders in the “Dark Age” of the island’s history. The ring and melody which they all possess is their chief beauty.

Of the earliest, Olafsrima, by Einar Gilsson (c. 1350), and the best, the Aristophanic Skída-rima (c. 1430), by Einar Fostri, the names may be given. Rimur on sacred subjects was called “diktur”; of these, on the legends of the saints’ lives, many remain. The most notable of its class is the Lilia of Eystein Asgrimsson, a monk of Holyfell (c. 1350), a most “sweet sounding song.” Later the poems of the famous Jon Arason (b. 1484), last Catholic bishop of Holar (c. 1530), Liomr (“gleam”) and Píslargrátr (“passion-tears”), deserve mention. Arason is also celebrated as having introduced printing into Iceland.

Taste has sunk since the old days; but still this rimur poetry is popular and genuine. Moreover, the very prosaic and artificial verse of Sturla and the last of the old school deserved the oblivion which came over them, as a casual perusal of the stanzas scattered through Islendinga will prove. It is interesting to notice that a certain number of kenningar (poetical paraphrases) have survived from the old school even to the present day, though the mass of them have happily perished. The change in the phonesis of the language is well illustrated by the new metres as compared with the old Icelandic drott-kvædi in its varied forms. Most of the older rimur and diktur are as yet unprinted. Many of the fornkvædi are printed in a volume of the old Nordiske Litteralur-Samfund.

The effects of the Reformation was deeply felt in Icelandic literature, both prose and verse. The name of Hallgrim Petursson, whose Passion-hymns, “the flower of all Icelandic poetry,” have been the most popular composition in the language, is foremost of all writers since the second change of faith. The gentle sweetness of thought, and the exquisite harmony of wording in his poems, more than justify the popular verdict. His Hymns were finished in 1660 and published in 1666, two great Protestant poets thus being contemporaries. A collection of Reformation hymns, adapted, many of them, from the German, the Holar-book, had preceded them in 1619. There was a good deal of verse-writing of a secular kind, far inferior in every way, during this period. In spite of the many physical distresses that weighed upon the island, ballads (fornkvædi) were still written, ceasing about 1750, rimur composed, and more elaborate compositions published.

The most notable names are those of the improvisatore Stephen the Blind; Thorlak Gudbrandsson, author of Ulfar-Rímur, d. 1707; John Magnusson, who wrote Hristafla, a didactic poem; Stefan Olafsson, composer of psalms, rimur, &c., d. 1688; Gunnar Pálsson, the author of Gunnarslag, often printed with the Eddic poems, c. 1791; and Eggert Olafsson, traveller, naturalist and patriot, whose untimely death in 1768 was a great loss to his country. His Bunadar-balkr, a Georgic written, like Tusser’s Points, with a practical view of raising the state of agriculture, has always been much prized. Paul Vidalin’s ditties are very naïve and clever.

Of later poets, down to more recent times, perhaps the best was Sigurd of Broadfirth, many of whose prettiest poems were composed in Greenland like those of Jon Biarnisson before him, c. 1750; John Thorlaksson’s translation of Milton’s great epic into Eddic verse is praiseworthy in intention, but, as may be imagined, falls far short of its aim. He also turned Pope’s Essay on Man and Klopstock’s Messiah into Icelandic. Benedikt Gröndal tried the same experiment with Homer in his Ilion’s Kvædi, c. 1825. There is a fine prose translation of the Odyssey by Sweinbjörn Egillson, the lexicographer, both faithful and poetic in high degree.

Sagas.—The real strength of ancient Icelandic literature is shown in its most indigenous growth, the “Saga” (see also Saga). This is, in its purest form, the life of a hero, composed in regular form, governed by fixed rules, and intended for oral recitation. It bears the strongest likeness to the epic in all save its unversified form; in both are found, as fixed essentials, simplicity of plot, chronological order of events, set phrases used even in describing the restless play of emotion or the changeful fortunes of a fight or a storm, while in both the absence of digression, comment or intrusion of the narrator’s person is invariably maintained. The saga grew up in the quieter days which followed the change of faith (1002), when the deeds of the great families’ heroes were still cherished by their descendants, and the exploits of the great kings of Norway and Denmark handed down with reverence. Telling of stories was a recognized form of entertainment at all feasts and gatherings, and it was the necessity of the reciter which gradually worked them into a regular form, by which the memory was relieved and the artistic features of the story allowed to be more carefully elaborated. That this form was so perfect must be attributed to Irish influence, without which indeed there would have been a saga, but not the same saga. It is to the west that the best sagas belong; it is to the west that nearly every classic writer whose name we know belongs; and it is precisely in the west that the admixture of Irish blood is greatest. In comparing the Irish tales with the saga, there will be felt deep divergencies in matter, style and taste, the richness of one contrasting with the chastened simplicity of the other; the one’s half-comic, half-earnest bombast is wholly unlike the other’s grim humour; the marvellous, so unearthly in the one, is almost credible in the other; but in both are the keen grasp of character, the biting phrase, the love of action and the delight in blood which almost assumes the garb of a religious passion.

When the saga had been fixed by a generation or two of oral reciters, it was written down; and this stereotyped the form, so that afterwards when literary works were composed by learned men (such as Abbot Karl’s Swerri’s Saga and Sturla’s Islendinga) the same style was adopted.

Taking first the sagas relating to Icelanders, of which some thirty-five or forty remain out of thrice that number, they were first written down between 1140 and 1220, in the generation which succeeded Ari and felt the Icelandic sagas. impulse his books had given to writing, on separate scrolls, no doubt mainly for the reciter’s convenience; they then went through the different phases which such popular compositions have to pass in all lands—editing and compounding (1220-1260), padding and amplifying (1260-1300), and finally collection in large MSS. (14th century). Sagas exist showing all these phases, some primitive and rough, some refined and beautified, some diluted and weakened, according as their copyists have been faithful, artistic or foolish; for the first generation