30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Daniel Donovan Brielmaier, "Towards a Skaldic Lyric"

The literary critic M. H. Abrams has warned, memorably, that “the endemic disease of analytical thinking...is hardening of the categories” (1971), a condition to which Old Norse-Icelandic literary studies has been prone from its inception.  In particular the study of verse has found itself plagued with a generic essentialism – the binary of “skaldic vs. eddic” – which, although useful in a formalist sense, has sometimes obscured other equally productive readings.  As a step toward redressing this imbalance, a literary bypass surgery of sorts, this paper suggests that some skaldic verse may be read productively as member of the lyric genre. 

“Lyric” has come to be a generic term of convenience which is widely used but seldom adequately defined.  Here I suggest that a lyric verse is any verse whose chiefest concern is the depiction of the mental and emotional state of a first-person speaker in terms that evoke a sympathetic response from his or her audience.  Bringing skaldic verse within the lyric genre, a genre I define operationally rather than formally, thus allows us to rethink and redirect how we as scholars read and present this poetry.  In a skaldic lyric, subjectivity, interiority, identity, the relationship between the subject and the community – the “I” of the constructed speaker and the “we” who recognize themselves in it – are of central importance.

Through a close analysis of the construction of several skaldic lyric-speakers and their careful contextualization within the socio-historical milieu of this oral heroic world cum Christianized literary culture, I hope to gain access to and present the impulses that gave rise to the skaldic lyric, the social imagination that filled it, and the techniques poets employed to realize it.


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