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.
Last modified: Oct. 13, 2009
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