Icelandic Culture
30 July 2020

What’s the deal with Icelandic poetry?

Iceland has a long history of poetry and when you look at the environment you'll see that poetic inspiration isn’t hard to come by. When the nordic settlers first arrived in Iceland, it seems they wrote the famous Poetic Edda. A series of poems telling of the old Norse gods like Thor and Loki. And around the same period, the skalds or Icelandic poets were writing their poems of battles, kings, and current events. The skalds are among the best references we have to what happened in the times of Vikings.

Title page of a manuscript of the Prose Edda

Title page of a manuscript of the Prose Edda

Unknown author / Public domain

The most famous old Icelandic poets

The love of poetry in Iceland is still prevalent, and through the ages, Iceland has had many magnificent poets. Many well-known poets are from the settlement period of Iceland, like Snorri Sturluson and Ari Fróði and we definitely recommend Vatnsenda-Rósa, a poet and midwife who lived in the 1800s. The most famous Icelandic poet is undeniably Halldór Laxness, Iceland's only Nobel prize winner. He won the Nobel in 1955 for his novels and poetry. Every schoolchild in Iceland has read at least one of his books and poems. Laxness was very fond of his craft, and in one of his novels, he is quoted saying, "Whoever doesn't live in poetry cannot survive here on earth," reflecting Iceland's love of poetry.

Gerður Kristný

Gerður Kristný

Seppo Samuli/norden.org / CC BY 2.5 DK

What about modern Icelandic poetry?

Recently, poetry has become a little more lightweight, although traditional poetry is still going strong. The poets of our time like Gerður Kristný or Bergur Ebbi Benediktsson tackle current issues with poetry and the art of written words. There are also poets like Þórarinn Eldjárn, who writes poetry for children and gets them engaged early in literature and thinking about the world through art. Even though not everyone in Iceland enjoys poetry or reads it regularly, it is safe to say that Iceland has a fondness of the written word. 


We are all grateful to the skalds of the past for documenting our history through poetry. Reykjavík is even on file with UNESCO as one of the five cities of literature. So when you come to visit, why not hop into a book store and grab a new book of poems? You can find many of the well-known Icelandic poems translated into different languages.