Review: ‘Viking Poetry of Love and War’

Viking Poetry of Love and War

Author: Judith Jesch

Publication: 2013, British Museum Press

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Front cover

I bought this book last year because I saw it in the shops and thought “pictures! Vikings!” and I must say that the book lived up to those expectations. The target audience is not particularly academic, and some of my frustrations with the book, which I will mention below, stem from that fact.

The book contains a number of poem extracts and short poems from c. 900 to 1300. The poems are organised into 6 categories: scenes of battle; in praise of warriors; a life under sail; love and lust; goddesses and valkyries; love and hate. Poetry in the latter three categories were thematically similar, in particular the material under ‘goddesses and valkyries’ could very easily be ‘love and lust’ since some of them made no reference to goddesses or valkyries.

Each poem is preceded by the attributed author (if known), the century of composition, and a single line about the poem. I enjoyed the selection of poems and thought they were well translated.

Each poem is accompanied by an illustration from the British Museum collection and a few other collections; mostly these were well-chosen chosen and complementary to the poetry. My favourite pictures were those of artefacts from various collections, since I see less of them than paintings or manuscript illuminations. Below is one of my favourites, little Norse chess pieces.

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Beserkers (Norse warriors) from the Lewis Chessmen. Walrus ivory chess pieces, probably made in Norway, c. 1150 – 1175; found on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. Heights (from left) 8.5 cm, 9.2 cm and 8.2 cm. British Museum. Image and caption from http://www2.britishmuseumshoponline.org/?p=1408

What did annoy me a little was that the poem extracts were not attributed to the larger work they were from,  except in the case of the Poetic Edda, which I assume is because it’s anonymous. To be honest I kind of wish the extracts weren’t extracts at all but were given in their entirety; however, that’s not the point of this book and I don’t think it would suit the book’s intended audience.

Finally, I will leave you with my favourite poem from the collection wherein the valkyrie Sigrun visits her dead lover, Helgi, in his burial mound and he speaks to her (because  dead people will talk to you at their grave mounds).I particularly love the last stanza spoken by Helgi.

Anonymous, from the Poetic Edda

Sigrun:

I’m looking forward to our meeting
like Odin’s carrion-eager hawks,
dew-coloured, looking at daybreak,
knowing there’ll be corpses, warm morsels.

I want to kiss the lifeless king
before you throw off your bloody byrnie;
your hair, Helgi, is frost-matted,
the captain is sprinkled with corpse-dew,
Hogni’s son-in-law has rain-cool hands;
how, o prince, shall I repair this for you?

Helgi:

You alone, Sigrun from the Sefafells,
caused Helgi to be sprinkled with corpse-dew;
gold-adorned you weep with grim tears,
sun-bright, southern, before you sleep;
each falls, bloody, on the prince’s breast,
rain-cool, burning inside, sorrow-clenched.

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