Rima (plural rimur) is a traditional form of narrative
Icelandic epic song chanted or intoned in a specific manner called "ad kveda."
The inner structure and content can partially be traced to Eddic and Skaldic
poetry of the Viking Age. The
rimur rely on the complex metaphors called "kenningar" (singular kenning) and
the poetic synonyms called "heiti."
The Skaldic poetic stanza was an extremely intricate
construct with a unique poetic vocabulary and syntax, frequently employing
metaphors within metaphors in a manner reminiscent of the cryptic crossword.
In the 14th century, the rima started to supplant the
earlier forms of poetry - its attraction being a simple metric style with end
rhymes, usually divided into three types: ferskeytt, braghent and afhent. While
internal rhyme was a central feature of old poetry, end rhyme first appears in
the poem "Hofudlausn" (Head Ransom) in the Saga of warrior-poet Egill
Skallagrimsson (10th century), where he manages to reprieve his head by heaping
praise on his captor, the king of England. End rhyme was then popular in the
British Isles and it has been surmised that Egill introduced it to the
Icelanders. The form of the rima also shows influences from other European
traditions of the 13th and 14th century:
the short lyric
introduction to each rima-section called "Mansongur"
(maiden-song) has been traced to Germany, and the style called "blomadur" has a
counterpart in the flowery and ornate mode of early French romantic poetry.
The early rimur are primarily based on pre-existing
narratives in prose, heroic tales, and mythical or purely fictitious Sagas
being those most frequently selected for adaptation into this metrical form.
The poet usually begins with a certain number of introductory stanzas, the
maiden-song, where he laments his lack of poetic skills and success in the
affairs of the heart. He then starts converting the prose narrative into rime.
After building to a climax, he breaks off and the first rima is finished. Then, usually in a different metre, he begins
a new maiden song, followed by a different portion of the tale. This process is
repeated until the whole narrative has been worked into metrical form. The
subject and the length of the tale can vary in length and scope, and the number
of rimur can stretch from two up to a few dozen. Single rimur are less common,
but the less formal "lausavisa"
(single stanza) introduced a shorter and simpler form into the tradition. As
time went on, the poets took pride in inventing new metrical forms and rhyme
structures, and in the 19th century these were counted in the the thousands.
While the literary tradition of the rimur is well documented
from the 14th century, there is scant evidence of their actual performance. In
"Sorlarimur," one of the earliest examples of the genre, the poet refers to the
dancing that accompanies his recital, and in the 17th century the term "dans"
or dance was synonymous with poetry. An essay called "Qualiscunque Descriptio
Islandiae," which was probably written by Bishop Oddur Einarsson in Copenhagen
in 1588, describes a
performance which may refer to a performance analogous to a
rimur recital: "They select one who has mastered the art of kvedskapur (istam
cantillandi artem). He recites for a while some sort of introduction with a trembling
voice and in a hesitant fashion (tremula ac titubante quodammado voces)."
It is well documented that the Icelanders enjoyed a special
form of communal story-telling and poetry recitals from the earliest times, and
these seem to have developed into the institution of "kvoldvaka" (night-vigil),
of which the chanting of rimur was an integral part.
In 1589, Gudbrandur Borlaksson wrote in the preface to his
book of hymns a pious diatribe against this practice, and said that his aim
with the publication was "lastly in order to have thrown out the undesirable
poems of giants and heros, rimur, love songs, amorous songs, lustful songs,
mocking and satirical songs and other evil and wicked recitation...which are
used and loved by the peasantry of this land to the sorrow
of God and his angels, but to the delight of Satan and all his spawn, a
practice more widespread than in any other Christian land and more suited to
the practice of heathens than Christian folk at their night-vigils and other
In 1634, the Reverend Sigurdur Oddsson wrote a letter to his
bishop complaining that the sacred writ was faring badly in competition with
the impromptu secular entertainment that was practiced outside the churches,
and that people would often leave in the middle of the service to listen to
various tall tales of the heros of yore. He furthermore complains that one his
parishioners had confided to him that "next to hearing about the passion of the
Lord he enjoyed nothing more than the Rimur of Rollant: I must gloss over the
fact that many would sooner listen to Rimur of Brana, Arinnefja et cetera than
listen to the pious song of the church..."
In 1746, the ruling authorities issued a decree to priests
saying that they should "caution the people of the household with the utmost
gravity to guard themselves against undesirable stories and unreasonable fables
and ballads which have been abroad in the land." In the same year another decree was aimed at the pater
familias stating that he should "diligently remind his children and his
servants to begin both work and business with a prayer to God...and they must be
earnestly reminded, on pain of punishment, to guard themselves against unseemly
talk and sport, oaths and swearing, vain stories or so-called Sagas and licentious
poems or rimes, which are not seemly for a Christian and which sadden the Holy
Ghost to hear sung or said forth." And the main proponent of the Enlightenment
in Iceland, Magnús Stephensen, wrote an essay in 1808 lamenting the "horrendous
howling of rimur" which he saw as an enemy of more tasteful musical practices.
But the Icelanders stuck to their most popular form of
entertainment, and, needless to say, these best of intentions did not succeed,
and in the mid-19th century people started to write down and notate the old
rimur melodies. The monumental work of Reverend Bjarni Borsteinsson on
Icelandic folk-songs devoted a special chapter to rimur and its publication in
the years 1906 - 1909 and is a landmark in the preservation of the old
Furthermore, in the year 1903, Jon Palsson made the first
sound recordings of rimur and others soon followed suit. The result is an
enormous collection of melodies that serve as a living and vibrant link to the
past, as the last few years have seen a revival where the old tradition is no
longer considered anachronistic, but something that needs to be studied and
cherished. Hopefully this collection can be seen as part of that revival.
Notes on the recording process
When Steindor first contacted me about this project, I was
thrilled to be part of a rimur recording which was not done for archival
purposes and furthermore I saw this as a chance to put to test some theories
which maintain that the special intonation of the rimur was a direct result of
the environment in which they were performed. Some authorities maintain that as
the rimur were performed in anechoic or non-reverberant spaces such as the
traditional sleeping loft or out in the fields, their vocal style developed
differently to musical styles where people "sang into spaces" such as churches
or chambers where the acoustics become part of the performance.
To this end, I contacted sound engineer extraordinaire
Sveinn Kjartansson and we decided on using a portable 24-bit Pro-Tools set-up
with Apogee AD 8000 converters so that we could record in different locations
chosen by their inherent acoustic properties. Our microphone of choice was the
Calrec Soundfield, which is in my humble opinion simply the best microphone
ever produced. The Calrec Soundfield is unique in the sense that it also
records spatial information and becomes in effect an auditory time-machine, as
you can move it in different directions after the recording - this is done by
recording on four discrete tracks and using a special console where the focus
can be moved back and forth, up and down, as well as to the left and right of a
standard stereo recording.
Tracks 1 to 7 were recorded in the small confines of the
traditional badstofa, and the perspective was that of a member of the household
listening in a typical evening wake situation. Tracks 8 to 11 were recorded in
a small turf church and the
perspective was that of a member of the congregation. A
winter-storm raging outside makes its presence felt from time to time,
appropriately it reached its height when Steindor chanted stanzas about
turbulent weather at sea...
Then we moved to the Salurinn Concert Hall, which is known
for its beautiful acoustics, and tracks 12 and 14 feature pairings with other
elements such as a didgeridoo or another chanter, while tracks 13, 15 and 17
are examples of rimur chanting in a modern musical environment. We changed the
set-up for tracks 16 and 18 as we wanted more control over the subtle nuances
of Monika's Irish harp: these were recorded with Sveinn Kjartansson's other
über-microphones, a pair of the special edition Bruel and Kjær DBA 4040 and a
pair of B & K 4041.
- Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson
In 1929 the society IDUNN was formed in Reykjavik. The aim
of the society was to preserve the tradition of Rimur-chanting. The majority of its members were people
who had moved to the city from the countryside and missed the old times when
the evenings at the farms were passed by listening to the old epic songs. The
memory of the communal sleeping loft, or badstofa, where the traditional chores
of weaving, spinning and knitting were enlivened by the chanter or kvædamadur,
was lovingly recreated, and people gathered together to chant the old rimur and
started to think of ways of preserving the heritage.
The society became a sort of living museum in itself -
people from different parts of the country came forward with different strands
of the tradition, and finally, in the years 1935 - 1936, a new technology
arrived that would be instrumental in recording this heritage for posterity.
The silver-disc recordings from that period are still a vital part of the
workings of the society: since then young people have listened to the
recordings as they try to master the art of "kvædaskapur." Up to the present
day the members of the IDUNN society meet once or twice a month and chant for
each other, and they have resolutely ignored passing fads or periods where
their endeavours were at best labelled quaint and old-fashioned. This quiet
activity went unnoticed for a number of years, but of late, more and more young
people have started looking for the origins of Icelandic music, and in
consequence have discovered the treasures so well preserved by the society.
With this revived interest, IDUNN has for the second time embraced an emerging technology,
and now has a presence on the internet, through the website www.rimur.is, where
interested parties can access all sorts of information relating to the
society's activities and the different metric structures of the rimur poetry,
listen to old recordings and much more.
Steindor Andersen has been president of the IDUNN society
Steindor Andersen was born in 1954. His early interest in
the poetry of the rimur led to his introduction to the IDUNN society where his
unique talent as kvædamadur
was soon noticed. Steindor has taught rimur chanting at
seminars and workshops, and these and his appearances on TV and radio have
contributed to the revival of the rimur tradition in recent years. His
collaboration with the Icelandic group Sigur Ros, resulting in tours in Europe
and the United States, has sparked an unprecedented interest in this hitherto
neglected musical form.
Steindor has of late been part of various projects whose aim
has been cross-cultural fertilization with the intent of bringing the rimur to
a wider audience, but at the same time he has been instrumental in preserving
the "bare bones" of the tradition so that others may draw inspiration or
enjoyment from this simple, yet elaborate, form of music and poetry.
Steindor has for many years worked as a fisherman and as
captain of his own ship called Idunn.
Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson
Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson was born in 1958. Since the early
eighties he has been a prominent part of the Icelandic music scene, shifting
with relative ease between genres, and his work has at some time or other been
classified as rock,
electronics, avant-garde, jazz or neo-classical. He has
worked as producer for a variety of artists ranging from teenage death-metal
bands to established blues legends such as Pinetop Perkins and Jimmy Dawkins.
He has written music for over 20 feature films and in 1991 was awarded the
Felix Prize (the European Oscar) as European Film Composer of the Year for his
work on the film "Children of Nature" which in turn was nominated for an Oscar
in the Best Foreign Film category.
After living for many years abroad he has returned to
Iceland and, as his recent collaborations with Steindor Andersen and Sigur Ros
suggest, his native musical roots as well.
(1853 - 1922)
A self-taught manual laborer who worked on various farms
throughout his life, yet found time to write poetry which brought him some fame
among his contemporaries. Best known for "Rimur af Atla Ótryggssyni" which he
wrote with Simon Dalaskald.
The poet starts off with a mansongur, but only with an
indirect nod to the fairer sex. He starts to ruminate on the art of poetry and
on bad influences from abroad.
Further thoughts on poetry. In a twist on the usual
mansongur theme, where the poet talks about his own shortcomings, the author
starts to decry the output of one of his fellow poets who is accused of envy,
malice and total lack of talent.
The poet now finishes the mansongur after stating that the
audience is growing weary of his musings. In mid poem he shifts over to the
story of how Atli and Bodvar fight over the hide of an ox as each tries to
cover himself in bed. The results are a torn hide and a splintered bed.
A very rough translation of the first verse:
My eloquent tongue was tied,
tired and growing numb.
In bed under an ox's hide
Atli deigned to slumber.
Jon S. Bergmann
(1874 - 1927)
Sailed the seven seas and lived abroad for some time. It was
said that after a seven year stay in England he could write poetry in English
as well as in Icelandic. His strength and courage were also remarked on and
these no doubt served him well when he later in life became Chief Inspector of
Police in the township of Hafnarfjordur. His poetry is strongly moralistic,
with themes that frequently address
the rights and wrongs in life.
A selection of aphorisms: Time will never lay to waste what
one has tasted in youth. Old age still enjoys the warmth of childhood memories.
(1798 - 1846)
The greatest of the Rimur poets. He learned the cooper's
trade in Copenhagen, was in the Danish mercantile service and lived for some
time in Greenland. Although hampered by an imperfect education, he was well
read and did some translations as well as using foreign material as the source
for some of his work. He lived an unsettled life with alcohol and poetry as his
two mainstays and died of starvation in Reykjavik, unjustly neglected and
maligned by a younger generation of poets and intellectuals who wanted to
abandon the entire rimur tradition to the dustbins of history. He was immensely
popular in his day as a poet and personality, and even today, his way with
words, technical wizardry, humour and humanity command respect and admiration.
Based on the story of one of Iceland's most beloved heroes,
Gunnar Hamundarson from the Saga of Njal.
Battle rages, blood flows.
Rough translation of the fourth stanza:
Each along a blade had brought
biting edges wielded.
He slew them without second thought,
mightily then Gunnar fought.
The poet moves from the mansongur to the eve of a
battle. The first scene is at sea in a howling storm.
An ode to the land that fostered the poet. A
mansongur where the maiden is the land itself.
The mansongur moves from women in general to one fair maiden
in particular. The poet dwells on the
memory of one he once loved.
The sun rises and everything comes alive, the meadows glow,
the mountains glitter and the earth spreads out her arms in embrace.
The Reverend Hannes Bjarnason (1776 - 1838)
Hannes Bjarnason received a good education, but started out
as a farmer who wrote epic poetry about bloody battles in his spare time. While
some considered his "Rimur af Andra Jarli" totally inappropriate for a man of
the cloth, they were written before his ordination and pale in significance to
some of the poetry he wrote about his parishioners later in life. He was fond
of the bottle and sometimes coarse,
but the reputation he left behind was that of a kind and generous man
and a good host whose humour and wit enlivened his surroundings.
More bloodshed and battles. This poem puts most
splatter films to shame...
(1880 - 1940)
His life, like that of so many of his contemporaries, was
marred by poverty and lack of education and opportunities. Even as a child he
was made to wander between farms where he earned his keep as a laborer, but
somehow he managed to learn to read and write and find solace in his poetry. In
one of his poems he says that all he asks for is "another day and a good
A contemplation on life and on the difficulty of pleasing
others. "Every tie that ties me down fetters the spirit."
(1858 - 1939)
She and her twin sister, Ólina, were born on the island of
Flatey in a small community of fisherman and farmers. When they were three
years old, their father perished along with the entire crew of the island's
main fishing boat. Twenty children
lost their fathers and their lives were changed forever. Both sisters, however,
became noted poets, respected and admired by all those who knew them. Professor
Sigurdur Nordal wrote this memorable description of the sisters: "They were
aristocrats in their poverty, towering above all pettiness and trivialities in
thought and conduct, high-minded, unblemished, kind and pure of heart."
The poetess writes about the great in the small, on the
beauty of mother nature and on how her embrace will soothe the pains and
sorrows of a lifetime.
Sigurbjorn Johannsson fra Fotaskinni (1839 - 1903)
The late 19th century in Iceland was a period of vile
weather, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, drift ice and an all time low in
agriculture and fishing. There was an ensuing wave of emigration to Canada and
America, and Sigurbjorn Johannsson sailed with his family to the "West-World"
in 1889. Fiercely proud of his
roots and origins, he published one book of poetry in Winnipeg a year before
his death. His daughter, Jakobina Johnsson, became a gifted poet in her own
right and an accomplished translator of Icelandic poetry and drama.
Practical advice on how to buy a horse. Enumerates the
various virtues of the prime specimen.
Magnús Jonsson i Magnússkogum (1763 - 1840)
A farmer, carpenter, and artisan who still found time to
turn out one of the largest corpus of Rimur-poetry that survives today.
Well-liked and admired by his contemporaries, his well-crafted poetry still
retains its power and resonance.
After various trials and tribulations at sea,
the king is still intent on battle...
Stefan fra Hvitadal
(1887 - 1933)
A master of rhyme and technique with his feet firmly planted
in the tradition, yet capable of opening up new vistas in Icelandic poetry and
bringing fresh winds from abroad. He travelled around Iceland reading from his
books like the wandering poets of legend, and his lifetime struggle against
poverty and disease left him unbowed, as he seemed to find something uplifting
in every adversity. As Halldor Laxness wrote: "The Cup of Delight is as
desirable to him on one hand as the Chalice of the Saviour is on the other."
Autumn approaches, life grows shorter.
A rough translation of the 6th stanza:
Seek solace in the heavens you that cried,
the stars that shimmer are the rays of God
in the wintery night.
Stephan G. Stephansson
(1853 - 1927)
Known as the poet of the Rocky Mountains, he emigrated to America
at the age of 20, living successively as a pioneer in Wisconsin, North Dakota
and Alberta. His poetry, a marriage of prairie life and Icelandic tradition, is
unique, and in his time he was considered to be one of the greatest living
Icelandic poets. His reputation was such that he
was even hailed as the greatest poet in all of the British
Dominions. In 1917, he was invited back to Iceland and was awarded a reception
befitting a king.
A song to the sea and its playful aspects.
Hjalmar Jonsson fra Bolu
(1796 - 1875)
His life epitomizes the struggle of the destitute poet
against the ignorance, prejudice and malevolence of his fellow men. But in his
satirical and sometimes vitriolic verse he gave as good as he got! He overcame
his lack of formal education by serious self-study and became an authority on
old lore and literature. His poetry remains a testament to one man's heroic
fight against what the poet Matthias Jochumson called "a pitiless age of
Another song about the sea which is now
roaring and enraged.
(1858 - 1914)
He entered the University of Copenhagen in 1883, but soon
fell under the influence of Georg Brandes and his circle, and gave up academic
life for poetry and social reform. He returned to Iceland, worked as a
journalist and tutor, but was finally awarded a small poet's allowance from the
state. He was a dedicated defender of the weak and a tireless fighter against
hypocrisy in all its forms. He has
been called the Swinburne of Icelandic literature, and both in thought and
technique he has exerted a profound influence.