26 August 2007

Scops, skalds and poets

Scalds or skalds were Scandinavian/Icelandic, scops were from the Germanic traditions that came to Britain and bard was the term used in Ireland. Minstrels came to England with the Conqueror from France. Legend has it that The Conqueror's minstrel Tallifer begged and was allowed to strike the first blow against the English at Hastings.

Scopas composed verses to the harp and chanted or sang their material to a listening audience. Since the different races mixed in the land we now call the United Kingdom, the techniques of each tradition filtered down in to the rich heritage we now call Anglo-Saxon poetry, and anyone interested in writing might find pleasure in dipping into a poem like Beowulf.

Because the stories were told over and over, listeners knew the storyline. Their pleasure came from the skill of the scop. They would appreciate elaboration in descriptions of banquets, armour and weapons and appreciate being able to hear Hrothgar's footsteps, Grendel's scream and the chink and jingle of a mail-shirt.

Metaphor is endemic. The sun is the sky's candle. The dragon is night's alone-flyer. To refer to a battle as sword-play is characteristic of the grim humour that still pervades the north of England. Complex sentences suddenly end on a simple half-line, as in these few lines about the dragon:
He had poured out fire and flame upon the people,
He had put them to the torch; he trusted now to the barrow's walls and to his fighting strength; his faith misled him.
Some of it will seem gruesome to our eyes and ears:
Let him raise the lament then,
a song of sorrow, while his sons hangs there,
a sport for the ravens.
And some of it is beautiful:
The riders are sleeping,
The heroes in the grave. The harp does not sound,
There is no laughter in the yard as there used to be of old.
He goes then to his couch, keens the lament
For his one son alone there; too large now seem to him
His houses and fields.
Any edition of Old English Poetry will give you an overview of the techniques of the verse, should you be interested; but I'm not suggesting you get bogged down in terms like metonymy and alliterative measures. Only that you dip into and enjoy! I'd love to have picked a beautiful picture of a dragon, too, but I'm so wary of infringing anyone's copyright that I decided against it.

Jen Black
The Banners of Alba
Dark Pool