To The Death!

24.6.2009
Words by Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl
As I may have mentioned before, poetry was (in Iceland) once considered a gift from God, the misuse of which could result in the loss of said gift. Thus 17th century poet Æri-Tobbi had his gift taken away for giving false directions (in verse) to a group of tourists (all of whom died as a result). But there’s a heathen tone to the culture of poetry as well: it was seen as partly (if not wholly) magical & witchcrafty. A decent poet could ‘poetry’ the evil out of things – poetry as exorcism, if you will – or s/he could ‘poetry’ a pretty girl/guy into bed (evidently, this part of the gift was later bequeathed to rock’n’roll). Poetry was utterly sorcerous.

    Poets would also duel with their poetry – one throwing forth a ‘first-part’ (first two lines) of a quatrain while the other would do the ‘bottom’ (last two lines) with correct rhyme, rhythm and alliteration. You won when your opponent could not do a bottom you yourself could do. But if your opponent gave up, and you could not do it either – you lost. Thus it was mostly a game of finding hard rhymes that you could deal with – but your opponent could not.

    The most famous duel of all times was that between Kolbeinn Jöklaskáld (another 17th century poet) and the Devil himself. Kolbeinn poetried the devil back to hell by rhyming the word ‘tungl’ (moon) – our ‘orange’ (unrhymable word) – with ‘ungl’ or ‘úln’: a variation on the word for ‘wrist’ – this is all highly dubious, not really words and not even really rhymes, but the devil always being one to promote the avant-garde, readily agreed and cleared off to hell.

    Hallgrímur Pétursson, yet another 17th century poet and priest, was adept at getting into trouble with his poetry. Having been thrown out of school for poetrying all sorts of nasty things about his headmaster, he headed off to Denmark to continue his studies. In Copenhagen he met an older Icelandic woman, Guðríður Símonardóttir, who’d just escaped slavery in Algeria. Hallgrímur (undoubtedly) used his gift to poetry the woman – and subsequently had to leave the school and return to Iceland on account of their fornication (which lead to pregnancy and marriage).

    Back in Iceland, Hallgrímur eventually got ordained as a priest, but his mischievous nature did not subside. He was soon having trouble with a nasty fox who kept killing his sheep. One day, while in the pulpit, his eye caught a glimpse of his furry nemesis and he immediately proceeded to poetry it away with all his might. Hallgrímur was a modest man and did not realise his own poetry’s strength – and the fox literally sank into the ground and was never seen again (I’m not making this up!).

    God, being fed up with Hallgrímur’s antics, and quite frankly enraged at him for poetrying for secular matters from the pulpit, dried up all the poet’s poetry. Hallgrímur did not get the gift back until he started his 25 thousand word anti-Semitic rant, The Psalms of Passion (1656-1659), which counts among Icelandic Christianity’s literary classics, having been published over 80 times (in a country currently of 320 thousand people) – more often than any other book.

    For having written the Psalms of Passion, Hallgrímur Pétursson counts as one of the most respected poets in the history of Icelandic literature – he’s up there with Snorri Sturluson and Jónas Hallgrímsson.

He eventually caught leprosy and died.

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