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I'm trying to read "The Nibelungenlied" in metrical English translation by George Henry Needler (http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/niebn10h.htm). However, I've got certain difficulties with doing this. The translator explicitly notes in the preface that the strophes of the poem have this structure: three regular lines with two half-lines each with three accented syllables and a caesura in the middle, then fourth line with three and four accented syllables in each half respectevily, so that the last line of strophe is lengthened.

I was unable to read it aloud keeping the rhythm, because after reading three regular lines, fourth isn't getting into my mind no matter how I try. For example, take the first strophe:

To us in olden story / are wonders many told
Of heroes rich in glory, / of trials manifold:
Of joy and festive greeting, / of weeping and of woe,
Of keenest warriors meeting, / shall ye now many a wonder know.

So, my first question is: how are the accents placed in the last half line (shall ye now many a wonder know, for example)?

Moreover, the poem has many "strange" rhymes, that do not sound rhyming at all, like "diemisery" (strophe 70) and "warafar" (strophe 83). Can someone give me pointers on how to interpret them? Maybe I should look for pronunciation of the corresponding word in Middle English (the author is trying to make the language look archaic)?

  • It appears to be a stylistic feature of that particular poem (or its translation) that the final half of the final line of each stanza has an extra foot. Doubtless this is to alert the listener that the stanza has ended and we're about to begin a new one. – Robusto Oct 16 '14 at 18:30
  • I would place the accents on shall, many, wonder (first syllable), and know. But I don't think there's a hard and fast rule for that. – Matt Gutting Oct 16 '14 at 18:42
  • The words die and misery, as well as war and afar, rhymed in the Elizabethan era. Rhymes like these are common in poetry from Shakespeare's times. I suspect these were used by the poet to give it an air of antiquity. You probably shouldn't read it with a 16th-century accent, though, because nobody would understand it if you did. – Peter Shor Oct 16 '14 at 20:31
  • On the other hand, the poem also contains rhymes like steed and glad, which didn't rhyme in Shakespeare's time. So maybe the translator is just using near-rhymes. Most lines it's pretty obvious which words should be accented. For the last line you give, however, I think you could accent either shall or ye, which gives four accented syllables when you include many, wonder, and know. – Peter Shor Oct 16 '14 at 20:38
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Perhaps you should have as a second source the German Reclam edition that has the original text of the Nibelungenlied and a translation in modern German and an audiobook then you can hear how the original text is read.

The Reclam edition is good, reliable and inexpensive. At amazon.de you can have a look inside.

I would read it in this way:

To ús in ólden stóry / are wónders mány tóld

Of héroes rích in glóry, / of tríals mánifóld:

Of jóy and féstive gréeting, / of wéeping ánd of wóe,

Of kéenest wárriors méeting, / sháll ye nów - mány a wónder knów.

  • First of all, thank you for pointing out the Reclam edition, I'll have a look. I'm looking at your accents and when I try it, it sounds just weird :) Maybe it's just because this poetic style is so different from what is usual in my native culture (Russian). – Максим Кольцов Oct 16 '14 at 19:08
  • I agree with your accents except for the last phrase where it seems that "shall ye now" is a "pickup" (to borrow a musical notation term) to the "downbeat" of "many". So to make it fit, I'd run shall ye and now together and put the first accent on many...*shall-ye-now mány a wónder knów* – Kristina Lopez Oct 16 '14 at 20:54
  • A possibility, I agree. When I read it I make a pause after "sháll ye nów - mány a wónder knów. This part is special because there is an interior rhyme in it, now + know - it's not an exact rhyme but it comes near a rhyme. – rogermue Oct 16 '14 at 21:11
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    This suggested accentuation of the last line doesn’t really work—it makes five accented syllables, rather than four. My intuitive reading would be “shall yé now mány a wónder knów”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 16 '14 at 21:38
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    i rather think that shall ye is just a pick-up to the downbeat of now. So there would be only four beats in the last half of that line (which matches the last lines of the other stanzas then). – Robusto Oct 16 '14 at 23:10
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The strophe structure you are talking about is the so called “Nibelungen stanza” (“Nibelungenstrophe” in German) which has had a major influence on medieval German epic poetry. The last half-line is emphasized through an additional syllable, so keeping the rhythm is in fact an issue here.

However, don't forget that the Nibelungenlied is a song in the first place. Unfortunately, the corresponding melody was not retained. I recommend that you take a look at the Middle High German version, whose structure was obviously adapted by the translator.

To make a long story short, the solution is to improvise the last half-line (e.g. in a simple spoken-word manner) and to intentionally break the rhythm. I found some interesting interpretations on YouTube by Knud Seckel and Eberhard Kummer. Both are in Middle High German, but there should be no problem in catching the rhythm. Hopefully this will help you along.

While reading the Nibelungenlied, I always imagine a minnesinger or a vagrant musician with a lute/gitter/harp singing the song while sitting by the fire and playing a chord every two seconds. While singing the last half-line the musician takes a long look at the audience. So maybe interpreting it that way will help you, too.

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