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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
Open, commended

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Ian Crockatt

The terrible loss of his sons

My tongue won't
    – the song-weigher's
sorrow-bound –
    balance breath's sounds.
Can grief-rage
    wrench verse – Odin's
mead-haul – from
    my mind's drowned cells?

Not easy
    – anguished – to retch
from thoughts' well
    that word-frothed brew;
which Odin
    once hawked, stealing
– laughter-winged –
    from Giantland;

which, pure as
    that life-inspired
    craft, poetry,
spews bloodily
    from giants' necks, strands
dwarves' ships at
    Hel's boat-shed door.

For my family
tree is felled;
the culled plane's
    a wood-edge corpse.
What man's not
    downcast who bears
twig-bones from
    his kin's bench-beds?

First I'll speak
    my father's fall;
mother's corpse
    carried away:
bear from my mind's
    hall green-boughed
talk, leaf-lavished

A wave cut
    this cruel breach,
broke my father's
    family's ranks;
careless seas
    cancelled my sons,
left this gaping
    wave-gouged gap.

The sea God
    grapples me down;
frays kin, love,
    fealty, as rope.
Rán's slippery
    waves unknot
kin-love; loss
    un-ravels me.

Translated from the Icelandic by Ian Crockatt

The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem, click here (opens in new window).


Mjök erum tregt
tungu ar hrœra
eðr lotvæi
era nu vænlegt
um Viðris Þýfi,
né hógdrœgr
ύr hugar fylgsni.

Esa auðþeystr,
þvít ekki veldr
ór hyggju stað
fagna fundr
Friggjar niðja
ár borinn
ór Jǫtunheimum.

er lifnaði
á nökkvérs
nökkva 'bragi';
jötuns hals
undir ðjóta
Náins níðr
fyr naustdyrum

Þviát ætt mín
á enda stendr
sem 'hræbarnar
hlinnar marka';
era karskr maðr,
sá er köggla berr
frænda hrørs
af fletjum níðr.

Þó mun ek mitt
ok móður hrør
föður fall
first um telja;
Þar ber ek ύt
ύr orðhofi
mærðar timbr
máli laufgat.

Grimmt várum hlið
Þat er hrönn um braut
föður míns
á frændgaerði;
veit ek ófullt
ok opit standa
sonar skarð
er mér sjár um vann.

Mjök hefr Rán
ryskt um mik,
em ek ofsnauðr
at astvinum;
sleit marr bond
minnar ættar,
snaran Þátt
af sjölfum mér.

Egil Skallagrímsson

Translation commentary

This is a tenth century Icelandic poem, composed and transmitted orally in Old Norse. It was first written down in the thirteenth century.

Sonatorrek translates as the 'terrible loss of his sons'. It is the poem of an old man, once a powerful and headstrong Viking, who has lost his favourite son to the sea, and another to fever before him.

Egil enlivens the poem by use of tropes based on his mythological and religious world-view. In these stanzas, the first seven of a twenty-five stanza poem, he refers to the myth of the origins of poetry – Odin's mead – in which Odin steals the precious blood, honey and spittle mixture from a giant. He escapes in eagle form, carrying the mead in his crop before regurgitating it into bowls when he rejoins the gods in Asgard.

Egil also refers to Odin stranding three dwarfs in a boat on rocks – symbolising the gates of Hell – as a means of forcing them to reveal where the mead is hidden. Poetry as a liquid spouting as blood from wounds, poetry as a god-given gift, the family tree and the tree of life itself, along with the sea as a destructive force, are motifs threaded through the poem.

Such poetry cannot be reduced to a narrative statement, or conclusive meaning. I have tried in this translation to construct a poem with some of the layering and imaginative reach of the original.

'Sonatorrek' is composed in three and four syllable lines. I have used the form – having only twenty-eight syllables per stanza concentrates the mind. But also translation is a meeting of voices – using the original's form, as well as tapping into its imaginative roots, helps the translator find a language in tune with his fellow poet's.

Ian Crockatt