II: RÍMUR AND KVAEDAMENN
Rímur (sing., ríma) are a particular kind of
narrative poetry versified from previously existing prose literature,
such as sagas, romances, or novels. Most texts consist of sets
of rímur (rímnaflokkar). Usually the metre of successive
rímur in a set is varied, clearly separating the individual
rímur from each other. As the task of the poet was simply
to transform an already existing tale into verses, his art was
limited to skillful handling of the poetic passages inherited
from the older skaldic poetry 1 and mastery of of the various
verse metres. However, the mansöngur, a short lyrical introduction
to each rima in the same metre as the ríma itself, is an
exception, as the subject matter is the poet's own; these introductions
were usually omitted in performance, according to most of the
informants. The texts vary in length from single rímur
of less than 100 stanzas to sets of twenty or more rímur
adding up to thousands of stanzas.
The earliest extant text is Ólafs ríma Haraldssonar written in the 14th century, and the latest rímur are of the present century. In the intervening six hundred years rímur were produced in greater quantities than any other kind of Icelandic literature and appear on the whole to be a response to an enormous demand for metrical tales possible to perform (i.e., kvæa). That rímur were expressly made for this purpose is supported by the fact that not a single informant has mentioned rímur ever being simply read aloud for entertainment like the prose literature. Several, on the other hand, heard hymns being recited rather than sung in the course of the traditional house prayers.
Medieval narratives, both native and foreign, continue to be the favorite subjects throughout the history of rímur, but other tales of more recent origin have been used as well in the last two centuries. Even if the poets generally stick closely to the original, it is not unusual for them to omit some parts and expand others. Especially descriptions of battles are drawn out by means of poetic language and various conventional paddings. Catalogues or lists of heroes are also frequently prolonged by making a complete stanza out of each name with the help of a few stock phrases. The same process is used in a particular class of short poems in rímur metres apparently considered as fit for performance as rímur, where instead of legendary heroes, the poet's contemporaries -- the farmers and fishermen of his neighborhood -- are listed. Boat foremen of a certain fishing station, for example, receive tributes similar to the heroes of rímur (i.e., they are brave and strong). Sometimes in this kind of poetry, as well as in rímur , a vivid portrait results when the procedure is modified, as for example in the following stanza taken from one of the numerous lays of foremen. (Note how the sound of the name "Eirikur" is echoed by the rhymes at the beginning and end of each line.)
Eirikur me árar tvær
óra thó sé krappur sjór,
grigur fram i geri rær
glórir i votan andlits bjór.
Eirikur with two oars
in spite of the rough sea
greedily to the fishing grounds rows
the wet hide of his face gleaming.
Stanzas of this order are often found as independent single-stanza
epigrams (lausavísur ), and making such epigrams reflecting
the various aspects of life seems to have been a favorite pastime
of Icelanders in all times. After the skaldic court poetry came
to an end at about the same time as the Icelandic commonwealth
(1262), the skaldic verse metres continued to be used for single
stanzas; it was not until the 16th century that rímur metres
were preferred for this purpose. And now when rímur metres
are no longer in favor, single stanzas in the main metre ferskeytt
are still composed, even if interest in the practice is not as
widespread as it used to be.
Most single stanzas and many of the short poems in rímur metres have never been put in writing. On the other hand, rímur were written down as a rule by their authors. Only manuscript copies circulated until the last decades of the 18th century, when a few sets were printed. After that, inexpensive editions became increasingly available, and by the beginning of this century printed copies were almost exclusively used.
As public entertainment, performances of rímur and readings of sagas took place most frequently in the winter evenings from the end of October to the beginning of April when the people gathered in the living rooms of the farmhouses to work. The following account of this tradition (kvöldvaka) is taken from Magnús Gíslason's recent study of the subject:
Even since the Middle Ages it has been customary on Icelandic
farms for the family and the farm-hands to foregather on the winter
nights in the sitting room, badstofa, which was often the only
living room in the house, the room where they worked or cultivated
their higher interests. This tradition survived as a general custom
until the 1920's and even, in some places until the 1930's.
The sheep pens were frequently situated at some distance from the farm, and the care of the livestock kept the farmer and his men employed throughout the day. The female servants spent most the days of the dark season sitting on their beds in the bastofa working: carding wool, spinning, weaving, knitting and sewing. In the kitchen and pantry the housewife or one of the maids attended to the food. Such was the daily routine.
At dusk on the short winter days the men returned from work. The lamp was not lighted at once, as fuel had to be economized. Instead the adults slept through the twilight...The kvöldvaka lasted from the time the lamp was lit until everyone went to bed. On awakening each person went to his or her appointed place and set to work.The men made ropes of horse hair and saddle girths of wool leftovers or knotted and mended nets, carved tools, firkins or food-boxes of wood and so on. Only the weaving loom was still, as it caused too much disturbance...
Even if the manual work was the most important element in the kvöldvaka it was certainly also strongly associated in the minds of many with the concomitant activities of reading and entertainment, though it might sometimes seem that the intellectual pursuits were just a means of keeping everyone awake.2
The performer of rímur (kvæamaur) usually sat
by the only lamp in the room with a copy of the text. His audience
listened in silence until he reached the long-held last syllable
(seimur, also called lota) of each stanza; then, according to
several informants, one, two, or even more of those present joined
in and held it with him.
Kvæaskapur was not only presented in this public way but also practiced privately, and rímur, or memorized excerpts from them, as well as shorter poems and single stanzas could be performed in the most varying circumstances. Both aspects, public and private, are mentioned by the poet Magnús Stefánsson (1884-1942) in his reminiscences of his childhood at the farm Thorvaldsstair in Langanes:
In the years between my 4th and 7th or 8th year a good kvæamaur
belonged to the household and performances of rímur were
then more frequent than reading of sagas...Once, when I was 5
of 6 years old, a woman from the neighborhood stayed with us one
night. That evening rímur were performed. When she noticed
that I sat without moving a limb and stared at the kvæamaur,
she asked my mother: "Does he understand this?" I found
this a foolish question and an offensive one too because I believed
that I understood rímur completely or at least as well
as anyone else. But one of the reasons why I stared at the kvæamaur
was his habit of shaking his jaw rapidly from one side to the
other in order to get the dill [i.e., tremolo] on the lota or
seimur at the end of each stanza, and it was very amusing to watch
how his beard shook.
The other men of the household could not compare with this kvæamaur . He was a born kvæamaur. But they were only ordinary people. After he left performances in the winter evenings were rare. But it was usual on the other hand that the men would raula while working, both outdoors and indoors. It seemed to me that each had his own kvæa-melody for himself, probably unconsciously, and kept it ever after. He did not need more, and it was without doubt the fruit of his musical talent and temperament. One of the hands, however, could imitate others, but he did not have his own kvæa-melody, and the same happened to me. I had no kvæa-melody and depended therefore on others.3
It is noteworthy that performances of rímur were the
chief entertainment at this farm only when a good kvæamaur
was constantly available; after his departure performances were
rare even if most men could kvea or at least raula. Generally,
good kvæamenn were much sought after, and some of them stayed
at several households as entertainers in the winters earning their
living in this way.
A few names with the prefix kvæa- have come down from earlier periods. Persons with such names probably were professionals as was the case in the last century. The earliest mentioned, Kvæa-Anna, lent the monastery at Thingeyrar 500 pounds of butter in a famine in 1421.4 One of the latest, also a woman, is mentioned by Finnur Jónsson (1842-1924): "I remember a middle-aged unmarried woman in Bikupstunger who was called Kvæa-Ingibjörg. She performed with a strong, clear voice various sets of rímur from memory. She also told tales."5
Until the middle of the 19th century kvæaskapur was appreciated by the entire society, and rímur poets came from all walks of life. At the beginning of the century Magnús Stephensen (1762-1833), the highest administrator of the Danish crown in Iceland, had attacked the "howling" of rímur and wanted it replaced with poetry containing "intelligent and meaningful thoughts" set to "merry tunes," but he had no success.6 The 18th century is perhaps the bleakest period in Icelandic history. Plague and famine reduced the population to less than 50,000. Traditional dancing was abolished, and even the reading of sagas seems to have diminished somewhat. On the other hand, kvæaskapur flourished, as may be seen from the proliferation of texts culminating in the first half of the 19th century.
In the following period adverse criticism of rímur is closely allied to the growth of the romantic lyrical poetry representing a new way of life. And then, with the gradual recovery of political independence, urbanization, and material progress, new tunes, at first mostly of foreign origin, gain ground. At the beginning of this century kvæaskapur was considered worthless and even shameful by the educated, with few exceptions. In the opinion of poet Einar Benediktsson (1864-1941) "a varied wealth of Icelandic musical ideas" appears in kvæa- melodies, but "much of this wealth is probably lost because of the unjust contempt in which the national art has been held of late."7 Kvæaskapur as public entertainment finally disappeared in the places where it was retained the longest at the same time as the sessions in the winter evenings combining work and entertainment were abandoned.
However, after the founding of the state radio station in 1930 kvæaskapur was sometimes broadcast, but with the new song-like style of performance most in evidence. In 1941 the mathematician Ólafur Danielsson (1877-1957) made this comment: "It is a complete fake, it does not resemble in any way the old kveskapur as I heard it in my childhood, it is hardly possible to call it an imitation...The radio kveskapur compares to the old rímnakveskapur as a concrete gabled house compares to a farmhouse."8 The farmhouses Ólafur has in mind are clearly the traditional turf houses with wooden gables. The comparison is apt, as the difference is fundamental in spite of the superficial similarities.
There is no self-evident reason why the style in question was limited in recent times to the district of Breiafjörur in the western part of the country. In the last decades interest in rímur was certainly greater in the west than elsewhere; proper names from rímur, for example, are common only there. But this is true in the neighboring Vestfirir no less than Breiafjörur, and kvæaskapurr as public entertainment was not abandoned earlier there (i.e., between 1900 and 1930). A much more detailed investigation than has been possible until now would be needed to determine to what extent the older kvæaskapur had existed in other parts of the county until lately and what the local differences were. At the present stage the Breiafjörur style (with offshoots in Vestfirir) should perhaps be regarded as one representative example of old style rather than the old style.
When the criteria of well-defined personal style and technical mastery are applied to the performers in question, a few are outstanding. They have something in common which could possibly be called professionalism in spite of the fact that not a single one has been a professional kvæamaur. They have practiced their art primarily for themselves, in solitude. Karl Gumundsson says, for example, the he used kvæaskapur to keep warm while watching his sheep; he also states that he never heard a good kvæamaur in his youth, but mastered the art somehow just the same. The others knew at least one whom they consider of first order; thus Kristján Bjartmarz mentions Benjamin Hjálmarsson at Lambanes and Thórur Gubjarsson and Brynjólfur Björnsson at Litlanes. Brynjólfur was a professional much in demand in the county of Barastrandars´ysla. He did not receive payment, but usually one member of the household where he was staying was sent to his farm to attend to it while he was away. In his boyhood Kristján often had the opportunity to kvea with Benjamín, but this seems an exception rather than a rule, as most of the informants learned by listening and practicing without any guidance. Gunnar Alexandersson believes that he learned first from his father, who put him to sleep with kvæaskapur when he was a child.
It is almost as difficult to get a description of the qualities of a good kvæamaur as of the process of learning. But at least three requirements emerge: good voice, good stemma, and the ability to kvea long phrases, even whole stanzas without a pause. A few have stressed the importance of clear delivery of the text, but most seem to take this for granted. As mentioned above, the presence of an audience has not been usual in the lives of the kvæamenn under discussion; notwithstanding, it is evident from their reactions to their own performances that perfection has been sought.
Rímur og Kvæamenn: Footnotes
1 Skaldic poetry already existed in Norway as court poetry before the settlement of Iceland (in the 9th and 10th centuries). But after the 11th century the poets (skalds) practicing it at the Norwegian and other Scandinavian courts were exclusively Icelandic.
2 Gíslason (1977), 144 and 151. (An extract from the author's English summary.)
3 Ólafsson (1942), 164-65.
4 Thorkelsson (1888) mentions another four such names additionally from the 16th and 17th centuries.
5 Jónsson (1945), 338.
6 Stephensen (1797), preface.
7 Benediktsson (1913), IX.
8 Danielsson (1940). Ólafur was born and brought up in Skagafjörur in the nort