Richard Wagner as a Poet

Wagner’s Ring and its Icelandic Sources
Stofnun Sigurðar Nordals 1995

It was Wagner’s ambition to write the text of The Ring of the Nibelung in Eddic verse. The author explains the chief principles of Icelandic prosody, unchanged from the Eddas to the present day, and finds that in the main Wagner succeeds in observing these, which makes the Ring a tour de force of versification in the Icelandic manner. The author goes on to examine some other poetic values of Wagner’s text, and concludes that as far as these are concerned Wagner is in his element only when writing in a heavily romantic vein as in “Winterstürme”. He does not succeed in reproducing the starkness nor the nobility of his Eddic sources. But of course he may not have tried.

I. Introduction

I am not a Wagnerian scholar of any kind. What I have to offer to this conference is merely a few impressions of a translator of verse who has rendered some of Wagner’s verse. The reason I thought my impressions might be of some interest is, however, not just that they are those of a translator of Wagner, but that they are those of an Icelandic writer of verse.

II. Prosody

Wagner’s metre in the Ring is derived from the two main metres of the Elder Edda, also known as the Poetic Edda. These are “old metre” (fornyrðislag) and “song measure” (ljóðaháttur). Wagner may have noted a third metre, called “lay measure” (málaháttur) by Snorri Sturluson. This occurs in only one poem of the Edda, The Lay of Attila. This lay metre is related to the old metre, but allows longer lines just as Wagner permits himself in the Ring. I should add that the Eddic metres have been used by some of the greatest poets in Icelandic in later centuries. In the 18th century Jón Þorláksson (1744–1819) translated the whole of Milton’s Paradise Lost using the old metre. Masters of these forms in the 19th century were Bjarni Thorarensen (1786–1841), Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807–1845), Benedikt Gröndal (1826–1907) and Matthías Jochumsson (1835–1920). In our day Snorri Hjartarson (1906–1986) has used them, with subtle variations, to great effect.

One main difference between these Eddic metres on the one hand and the classical metres of Greece and Rome, as well as those of later European verse, is that they do not employ regular rhythms. Complex regular rhythms are the main metrical feature of hexameter or a Horatian ode. (The principles of scansion are not the same for ancient and modern verse, but we must leave the differences out of consideration.) Simpler and more regular patterns characterize a Petrarchan or an Elizabethan sonnet, with rhyme as an additional ornament. The more or less regular rhythmic pattern is so familiar a feature of verse to us — of a song by the Beatles, for example, or of a limerick — that the absence of it in an Eddic poem is something that we have to get used to, unless we happen to be Icelanders brought up on this as a perfectly legitimate and powerful way of writing verse. We can easily see why it was felt to be a revolution in France when Baudelaire rebelled against regular rhythm and “broke up the line”.

The two features of the Eddic line now mentioned — the variations in the length of the line and its free rhythm — undoubtedly served to recommend the Eddic metres to Wagner as a musician. In A Communication to my Friends he praises this method of versification “which, in keeping with true speech inflections, can be adapted to suit the most natural and lively rhythms; which is at all times readily capable of the most infinitely varied expression …” This is obviously a musician speaking. He adds, rather charmingly: “and in which the folk themselves once wrote poetry at a time when they were still poets and the creators of myths.”[1]

I shall say no more about these two features of variable length and free rhythm. I will only remind you that these are fundamental features of modernist 20th-century verse, such as that of T.S. Eliot.

III. Alliteration

We now come to the third and most important feature of Eddic prosody, a feature that Wagner has made famous or perhaps notorious. This is alliteration. It is chiefly alliteration that makes the Poetic Edda verse as opposed to highly stylized prose. Alliteration is a main feature of Icelandic verse to this day. We Icelanders do not write a sonnet or a limerick, translate the plays of Shakespeare or a Broadway musical, without alliterating according to firm principles which are basically the same as those of the Edda. The fundamental pattern may be seen in this halfstanza from The Sibyl’s Prophecy which opens the current production of the Ring at the National Theatre in Reykjavik:

Ár var alda,
það er ekki var,
var-a sandur ne sær
svalar unnir.[2]

In the beginning of time
there was nothing.
There were neither sands nor sea
nor cool waves.[3]

The first emphatic letter of the even-numbered lines is called höfuðstafur, “head-stave”. In German alliteration is called Stabreim for the head-stave. The two alliterating letters of the odd-numbered lines are called stuðlar, “pillars” or “props”. In Icelandic alliteration is called stuðlun for the pillars.

A consonant — like the s in lines three and four — only alliterates with itself, but a vowel or diphthong alliterates with any vowel or diphthong as in

Ár var alda,
það er ekki var,

Snorri Sturluson, in his poetics in the Prose Edda, expressed a preference for alliterating with three different vowels instead of repeating the same one. Icelandic poets to this day tend to observe this. I am not sure if Wagner was familiar with this practice.

The basic scheme of two pillars and a headstave is not all that common in the Ring even if it does occur:

Lass’ ich’s verlauten,
lös’ ich dann nicht
meines Willens haltenden Haft?[4]

When this scheme is appropriate in Wagner’s metre he usually seems to prefer what we Icelanders call “sérstuðlun”, that is to say independent alliteration, as in the third line of this example where we have two pillars and there is no headstave in the following line.

There are firm principles relating to the positions of pillars and head-stave. It would take too long to expound them, but they are defined in terms of what we call hákveður “high beats” — and lágkveður — “low beats” — in the lines. It is, for example, not allowed to place both pillars on low beats. Strictly speaking the division of a line into high beats and low beats is appropriate to rhythmic metres only, but it is applicable by analogy to the Eddic metres as well where scholars speak of “lifts” and “dips” — Hebungen and Senkungen — which serve to determine the correct positions of the alliterating staves.

Wagner’s command of these principles of position is, generally speaking, quite good, and when he fails he will sometimes manage to make up for it in the way he sets his lines to music. Occasionally he fails altogether, as in Fafner’s lines:

Hier lug’ ich noch durch:
verstopft mir die Lücken![5]

Here both metre and music require something like:

*die Lücken verstopft mir.

And strictly speaking the length of these lines requires a second pillar in the first line.

It may seem perverse to complain of lack of alliteration in the Ring. Even the most fervent of Wagner’s admirers seem to agree that Wagner goes too far in his fondness of this exotic device. An Icelander would agree. In Icelandic prosody ofstuðlun, excessive alliteration or over-alliteration, is a grave breach of the principles of alliteration, even if some exceptions are allowed for special effect. Thus Wordsworth’s well-known line

And dances with the daffodils[6]

with its three alliterating d’s, is not permissible by Icelandic principles. Wagner sometimes alliterates as Wordsworth does in this example. His most common offence, however, is secondary alliteration, that is to say additional alliteration on weakly stressed syllables. The Ring is full of it, as in

Vollendet das ewige Werk:
auf Berges Gipfel
die Gotter-Burg,
prachtig prahlt
der prangende Bau![7]

The b’s of “Berges” and “Burg” are an example of one kind of secondary alliteration. There are more kinds, and many more examples of each kind. Sometimes in the music Wagner will emphasize the secondary staves and not the primary ones.

Occasionally secondary alliteration does not matter at all. Take one of Wagner’s fine passages of poetry, Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde:

Der Augen leuchtendes Paar,
das oft ich lachelnd gekos’t …[8]

Here the primary alliteration, both by the metre and in the music, falls on “Augen” and “oft”. But the two l’s of “leuchtendes” and “lachelnd” are not disturbing in the least. The reason is that these lines are rhythmic in a modern non-Eddic fashion. The l’s fall on low beats, and so are not alliterating staves at all. We might complain of a missing second pillar in the first line — there is a second pillar in the Icelandic translation — but Wagner really makes up for that beautifully in the music.

It is remarkable that there are examples in the Edda of Wagnerian over-alliteration, and since these are famous stanzas they may well have given Wagner the idea. Let us take the most celebrated of all the stanzas of Hávamál (Words of the High One). Icelanders are too familiar with this one to be disturbed by it.

Deyr fé
deyja frændur,
deyr sjálfur hið sama.
En orðstír
deyr aldregi,
hveim er sér góðan getur.[9]

Cattle die,
Kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name
Never dies
Of one who has done well.[10]

The first half of the stanza is over-alliterated in true Wagnerian fashion. Compare, for example, Loge’s

Mit List and Gewalt
gelang das Werk:
dort liegt, was Freia lös’t.[11]

The scheme would be identical if Wagner had written “was Freia be-freit”.

I have dwelt on these technical matters of poetic style because they are a peculiarity of Icelandic poetics, of considerable relevance to the proper appreciation of Wagner’s poetic undertaking in the Ring. And even if I have pointed out some flaws in Wagner’s execution of his task these do not, in my opinion, diminish the status of the Ring as a tour de force of versification in the Icelandic manner.

Let us now turn, very briefly, to a few considerations of the substance rather than the style of Wagner’s poetry in the Ring. I must emphasize that I shall now be speaking of the substance of Wagner’s poetry, not of the substance of his drama, much less the substance of his music drama.

IV Substance

It is natural to begin by comparing his poetry to that of his main poetic source, the Elder Edda. Consider this, the stanza projected at the beginning of second act at the National Theatre:

Hrörnar þöll,
sú er stendur þorpi
hlýr-at henni börkur né barr;
svo er maður,
sá er manngi ann.
Hvað skal hann lengi lifa?[12]

The young fir
That falls and rots
Having neither needles nor bark,
So is the fate
Of the friendless man:
Why should he live long?[13]

This is magnificent poetry. The question with which the stanza ends, simple as it is coming after the extended analogy of tree and man, has a peculiar majesty with its mixture of certainty and doubt. Moreover, this line obviously lends itself to further use as a kind of aphorism. In fact the Elder Edda brims with such aphoristic lines, much as Hamlet does. This is by no means its only poetic value, but quite an important one.

Or take the stanza from The Sibyl’s Prophecy that appears towards the end of our performance here in Reykjavík. It describes a vision of the new world after the fall of the gods:

Sér hún upp koma
öðru sinni
jörð úr ægi
falla fossar,
flýgur örn yfir,
sá er á fjalli
fiska veiðir.[14]

I see Earth rising
A second time
Out of the foam,
Fair and green;
Down from the fells,
Fish to capture,
Wings the eagle;
Waters flow.[15]

This is so magnificent that I had perhaps better not say anything about it. Yet I will permit myself to point out the majestic simplicity of the vision.

Wagner’s style in the Ring is generally speaking simple and clear in the manner of these two stanzas. But only rarely is there any majesty —or dignity as Vésteinn Ólason put it — in his admirable simplicity. The element of grandeur is quite absent from his lines as it is certainly not from his music. A few exceptions serve to prove the rule. Brünnhilde’s

Ruhe! Ruhe, du Gott.[16]

is a superbly grand line by any standard. But Wotan, about whom Wagner had a number of Eddic poems to draw on, including the famous Words of the High One, hardly gets a single line of this kind. For example, his lines spoken from a dream on his very first appearance in Rhinegold are flat, so that one wonders if Wagner is doing this on purpose.

I think we can say that in the extensive narrative parts of the Ring there is very little of poetic value. And this need not be taken as criticism. No one blames Lorenzo da Ponte for not being poetic in his masterly libretti. In fact the whole Ring is a highly rationalistic construction, with many threads of a complex story beautifully organized and drawn together to form a systematic logical whole, almost in the manner of the wellmade plays fashionable at the time. There is an immense amount of explanation in the Ring, as there is in a play by Ibsen. An this is presented by Wagner in plain competent verse.

By contrast the Elder Edda, even in its epic lays, is a different kind of literature altogether. Stewart Spencer rightly calls the Edda lyrical rather than epic.[17] Its purpose, we may say, is not to tell stories, but to illuminate known stories by an intense consideration of high moments, as when a modern lyrical poet writes a historical poem such as Yeats about Easter 1916.[18] Some of these high moments of the Edda are reproduced in the Ring, for example the awakening of Brünnhilde on Doe Mountain — as it is known in Iceland — and the meeting of Erda and the Wanderer described by Lars Lönnroth in his lecture to-day. This Eddic method obviously gives much greater scope to lyricism than the logical ordering of events for the purposes of an extended narrative, not to mention an extended narrative meant to hold the attention of an audience in a modern theatre.

But there is more to the text of the Ring than mere narrative. There is also quite a lot of pure lyricism: in “Winterstürme”, for example, in Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde, in the peroration of Brünnhilde and many other places. A small example is “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” with its neat allusion to the sun as the eye of Wotan. Icelanders might compare Einar Benediktsson´s

Alfaðir rennir frá austurbrún
auga um hauður og græði.[19]

All-father casts from the eastern ridge
his eye over land and sea.

It is, I believe, in his lyrical effusions that Wagner is in his element as a poet. And the more effusive he is, the more he succeeds. Here he is writing 19th-century romantic poetry, pure and simple, and he does it in his own original way. The noble austerity of the Edda was not for him except, perhaps, where religious ideas enter the picture, as in

Ruhe! Ruhe, du Gott

and the “Todesverkündigung”.

Perhaps this verdict, made from a narrowly literary point of view, may be connected with a much larger feature of the Ring as a whole as compared with the Icelandic sources. Wagner’s central concern in the Ring is romantic love, and religious concerns only appear in the context of romantic love. Brünnhilde dies of love and for love. Vésteinn Ólason is quite right to point out that love, in the sense of sexual attraction, is a powerful though subdued theme in the Edda. But romantic love, in our sense of that term, is quite absent from the Icelandic sources. In the Völsunga saga Brünnhilde dies for honour and not for love. The motive of honour, so fundamental in the Edda as Vésteinn Ólason emphasized, is, as far as I can see, quite absent from the Ring, for example from the otherwise quite complex character of Wotan.

Perhaps Wagner’s lack of interest in the morality of honour is a partial explanation of his lack of sense for what I called the noble austerity of the Edda, just as his passionate interest in the various emotions of love may explain the powerful lyricism of, for example, “Winterstürme” and “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar”.


[1] Quoted by Stewart Spencer in “The Language and Sources of ‘The Ring’“ in The Rhinegold, Opera Guide 35, (John Calder, London and Riverrun Press, New York, 1985), p. 33.
[2] Völuspá 3. There are various editions of Icelandic texts of the Edda, including school editions with notes. I have used the text of Guðni Jónsson’s Eddukvæði I–II (Íslendingasagnaútgáfan, Akureyri 1954), but I have modernized the spelling in accordance with current practice. The third stanza of Völuspá is on pp. 1–2.
[3] Prose translation by Paul Schach in his “Some Thoughts on Völuspá” in Robert J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason (editors): Edda (University of Manitoba Press, Manitoba 1983), p. 90.
[4] The Ring of the Nibelung is quoted from the edition of the text in Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington’s Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion (Thames & Hudson, New York 1993). These lines are from Die Walküre Act II, p. 148.
[5] Das Rheingold Scene 2, p. 108.
[6] From William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” in his Poetical Works (Oxford University Press, London 1950), p. 149.
[7] Das Rheingold Scene 2, p. 70.
[8] Die Walküre Act III, p. 190.
[9] Hávamál 76, pp. 41–42.
[10] Verse translation by W.H. Auden in his and Paul B. Taylor’s Norse Poems (The Athlone Press, London 1981), p. 156.
[11] Das Rheingold Scene 4, p. 107.
[12] Hávamál 50, p. 35.
[13] W.H. Auden in Norse Poems, p. 153.
[14] Völuspá 59, p. 20.
[15] W.H. Auden in Norse Poems, p. 252. Paul Schach translates in prose: “She sees the earth, freshly green, rise up once more from the sea. Cataracts fall: above the mountain an eagle flies, seeking fish.” “Some Thoughts on Völuspá,” p. 107.
[16] Götterdämmerung Act III, p. 349.
[17] Stewart Spencer: “The Language and Sources of ‘The Ring’,” p. 36
[18] W.B. Yeats: “Easter 1916” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, (Macmillan, New York 1956), pp. 177–180.
[19] Einar Benediktsson: “Sumarmorgunn í Ásbyrgi” in Ljóðasafn I, (Skuggsjá, Hafnarfjörður 1979), p. 65.