Norman C. Keul

title.none: Gade, The Structure of Old Norse Drottkvaett Poetry

identifier.other: baj9928.9705.008 97.05.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Norman C. Keul, Duke University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Gade, Kari Ellen. The Structure of Old Norse Drottkvaett Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. Pp. xx, 290. $45 (hb).. ISBN: ISBN 0-8014-3023-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.05.08

Gade, Kari Ellen. The Structure of Old Norse Drottkvaett Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. Pp. xx, 290. $45 (hb).. ISBN: ISBN 0-8014-3023-2.

Reviewed by:

Norman C. Keul
Duke University

The ancient Scandinavian poetry called drottkvaett, the most highly regarded skaldic poetry in its day, has intrigued scholars past and present by its extraordinary artfulness and artificiality. In part because of its complexity, drottkvaett presents a number of problems that cry out for a textured, multilateral approach to their solution. Among the open questions are its origins in the 9th century, its syntactic and metrical structure, its composition and the manner of its performance, and its decline in popularity in the 13th and demise in the 14th century. In her new book, which represents a substantial reworking of her doctoral dissertation, Kari Ellen Gade has revisited these questions in what must be regarded as a fresh and original contribution to drottkvaett scholarship that presents a novel and highly useful way of mapping the overlapping structures of the lines.

As noted earlier, drottkvaett enjoyed enormous popularity in its day as a highly stylized and versatile poetry admirably suited to its role as a vehicle for formal, encomiastic praise of kings (drapa), for bearing the pathos of an aging Egil Skallagrimsson mourning the death of his son, as well as a means of interjecting personal, often ironic and sarcastic commentary on the persons and actions (lausavisur) in the sagas. Viking and post-Viking audiences were quite sensitive to drottkvaett's complex word order, metrical structure based on alliteration and internal rhyme, as well as its distinctive use of metaphor (kennings), and the shapers of these artful verses, the skalds, were much revered for their skill.

The fact that drottkvaett appeared more or less fully- fledged in the 9th century poetry of Bragi, the man credited with being the first skaldic poet, has intrigued generations of scholars and led to competing hypotheses about its origins. Principle among them are the theories that drottkvaett derives externally from Irish syllabic poetry or internally from the older tradition of Eddic (fornyrdislag) poetry in Scandinavia.

Gade's point of departure is to review the traditional arguments for and against drottkvaett's origins in Irish syllabic verse. She concludes preliminarily on the basis of metrical considerations that the relationship is a tenuous one. She also doubts the likelihood that the poetry was sung in performance. In fact, Gade sets as one of the objectives of her book to reexamine the questions of the origins and performance as well as the demise of drottkvaett poetry.

In chapters 2-7 Gade presents in meticulous detail a systematic reevaluation of the metrical features (alliteration, syllabic length, internal rhyme) of drottkvaett and of the syntactic fillers (lexico-grammatical categories) to be found in odd and even lines. In so doing, she acknowledges the pioneering work of scholars such as Sievers, Reichardt, and especially Kuhn but also Arnason, whose book on drottkvaett meter was published in 1991. Relying somewhat upon Arnason's notation, Gade creates a new system of graphic representation of drottkvaett lines that enable her to describe with hitherto unprecedented clarity the verse structures of drottkvaett by focusing on lexical realization and the distribution of metrical markers. By so doing, she is able at various points to challenge and refine Kuhn's scholarly conclusions.

Gade's book is difficult to follow at times. This is due in part to the complexity of the poetry itself, as well as to the multilateral approach that she takes, not to mention the sheer detail involved. Nonetheless, Gade is able carefully to dissect and catalogue drottkvaett's form and the limitations on its content imposed by its form. Among other things, she is able to show how differently odd and even lines are filled. She proves that (contrary to Kuhn's Law of caesura) not all drottkvaett lines contain syntactic caesura. She also defines certain limits on word order, such as the fact that in independent clauses no new sentence can be introduced before the finite verb. In the course of her analysis, Gade sheds considerable light on the relationship of drottkvaett to the older Scandinavian poetry, fornyrdislag, carefully laying the groundwork for her persuasive conclusion that drottkvaett derives from it.

The case supporting Gade's conclusion that drottkvaett could not have been sung (or chanted), is less convincingly demonstrated by her analysis of the close relationship of syntactic and syllabic cohesion (including where caesurae fall). It still relies substantially on the terminology used in 13th century poetics to describe the syllabic form of drottkvaett. This is not to say that Gade's conclusion is wrong.

As for the end of drottkvaett composition in the 14th century, Gade emphasizes two main contributing factors: changes in the aesthetic taste and sensibilities of audiences and phonetic and other linguistic changes that disrupted the fundamental syllable count of the drottkvaett line.

Gade's book is accessible only to those with a well- developed knowledge of Old Norse and a facility with Norse poetry. Indeed, it would have been merciful of the author to offer English translations for the many lines she cites, particularly given the fact that they usually appear out of context. This is a relatively minor shortcoming, however, in what is otherwise a important new contribution to scholarship on the structure of drottkvaett.