The Medieval Review 17.07.08

Goeres, Erin Michelle. The Poetics of Commemoration: Skaldic Verse and Social Memory, c. 890-1070. Oxford English Monographs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. 194. $100.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780198745747 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Sarah Anderson
Princeton University

W. H. Auden's almost too-famous line "[f]or poetry makes nothing happen" is often extracted from his poetic encomium "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" as a kind of stand-alone saying, useful to begin a survey of literature, for example. But Auden's poem, like this satisfying and sharp read of skaldic verse by Erin Michelle Goeres, is rather about poetry as critical for forming and maintaining social memory. And Auden, who imagined himself to be of Icelandic origin, was influenced by that great prosimetric form of the North, the saga, in which he himself would have read skaldic stanzas, at least in English translation. As Auden memorializes Yeats by way of an elegiac poem, so does Goeres start with that fundamental social ceremonial so well-known to readers of medieval literature: commemorating the dead by way of words. She will go on to comment on the genre of skaldic verse, the funeral poems (erfidrápur or erfikvæði), whose verse sequences are sometimes identified as such in the contexts in which they are quoted, as exemplary for "the centrality of poetic memorialization to early medieval court culture" (14). She makes her case for this claim in the case studies that follow, though her examples are restricted to "verses that were likely produced in Norway or in courts under Norwegian influence" (15), which leaves out, as she acknowledges, skaldic verses composed for patrons elsewhere in Scandinavia, Ireland, or Britain.

Goeres begins The Poetics of Commemoration with a strong and elegant argument that both summarizes and advances the idea that skaldic poetry does make something happen--for it remembers and reconstitutes many key social ceremonials of medieval Scandinavia, from heroic deeds to political criticism to crafting social identity. Quoting the path-breaking American scholar on this subject Roberta Frank, herself not without skaldic sharpness and poetic economy, Goeres maintains too that "Poetry perpetuates" (2). [1] The introduction to Goeres's monograph witnesses the breadth of learning that will be applied to both terms of her monograph's title, and, though her style is brisk, it hovers just long enough above theories of social memory, citations from medieval Icelandic and Norwegian literature, and the illustrious modern scholars of medieval Scandinavian literature to show the reader how much of richness awaits in this study. The careful Bibliography, too, reinforces the intellectual command that Goeres will demonstrate in the book's five chapters, and the bibliographic entries of both primary and secondary sources are precise and helpful. No one using this book will curse when looking up Goeres's references in footnotes and bibliography. Instead, Goeres gives her reader the pleasant surprise of actually finding the cited work. And you will want to follow up on every topic covered in this monograph, for Goeres will inspire her reader; no doubt about that.

Goeres takes on familiar, and famous territory in her first chapter, "Remembering Ancestors: Ynglingatal and the Early Scandinavian Kings" (19-53), and she begins her discussion of the verse sequence by Norwegian skald Þjóðóldfr ór Hvini that tells the generations of the royal dynasty of Uppsala, Sweden, the Ynglingar--all twenty-seven generations of them--who migrated to the Oslofjord region of Norway. Goeres asks a simple question about this tough poem: "Do words or monuments provide the most effective means of commemoration" (19)? By way of her succinct query, Goeres exposes the sense of contestation in Ynglingatal between the social memory raised up by the burial-mounds where the royal family were deposited as well as the crossing lexical mazes of skaldic poetry in which the dynasty was remembered, which, as Goeres notes, have been compared to the "process of decoding a riddle" (33; see further, e.g., 33-34 and 33 n49 on skaldic verse and the riddle). Goeres does not leave her reader with generalizations about how very hard skaldic poetry is, but rather frames that problem of the knowing readership of these skaldic verses by asking us to consider the unusual imagery of the poem as play, as political commentary, and as participating in a system of poetic connections linking metaphors of travel with death, and, perhaps more deeply, myth and metaphor. Although her brief is not to speculate upon precise programs of performance for this and other skaldic sequences, Goeres underscores more than once in this chapter that ˂i˃Ynglingatal˂/i˃ makes a "deliberate demand for active audience involvement in the production of memory and, thus, the transmission of memory" (34). Whether by way of an involved audience, schooled in the periphrases of this sequence, or by way of the corroboration of burial sites in the area of Oslofjord that physically witnessed the story of the Ynglingar, Goeres argues for commemoration as active social process. Her reading of Ynglingatal is convincingly demonstrated by citations from the poem, each one of which is translated immediately underneath the verse into Modern English and for which is provided brief comments or footnotes exploring problems with the verse. Of course there is always more to say or to cite, but Goeres is responsible and respectful toward her reader as she argues her intricate case.

Of course, some fundamental themes are introduced but cannot be examined in full in this monograph. For instance, in a subsection within the first chapter, "Women: The Ultimate Riddle?", Goeres takes on Þjóðóldfr's representation of women--the regicides, the women who are as much troll as nightmare, and the "most subversive, as well as the most changeable, supernatural figure in Ynglingatal" (39), the goddess Hel. Goeres captions Hel as "an unstable and destabilizing character" (43), noting how the deity "becomes neutralized in the later stanzas of the poem" (43). Here, and in her subsequent discussion of Skjǫlf, the "archetypal 'inciting woman' as described by Jenny Jochens" (46), one simply wants a fuller discussion of the problems raised by these female characters, not because there is anything wrong with Goeres's treatment, but rather because one is so eager to hear Goeres expatiate on the many topics that she has raised.

The first chapter is paradigmatic for chapters two through five, each one of which offers a sharp and suggestive reading, in about twenty-five pages, of the most interesting skaldic verse that has survived from the period ca. 890-1070 CE. The second chapter, "The Afterlife of Kings," offers three examples of verse that follow a king's downfall, death, and entrance into the afterlife (54-84). Goeres concludes her autopsy of these verses by making a tremendously inventive claim that, supporting the active nature of poetic commemoration: "In each of these three sequences the poet constructs a character who represents the king in his absence, who speaks for the king in an imaginary theatre built by verse" (84). The third chapter, "Changing Patrons," examines the verse of two skalds who were forced to shift allegiance "from the king who has been killed to the man who killed him" (87). Goeres starts her argument about this tricky transaction by way of reviewing the scholarly construction of the relationship between skald and king as "one of trust and mutual reliance" (85). What Goeres uncovers is more complicated, including the fact that skaldic verse embeds within it the recurrence of regnal replacement. Goeres concludes that the Realpolitik of patronage soon re-made the newly situated skald, eventually erasing his devotion to his previous patron. Chapters four (111-145) and five (146-169) explore two significant changes that impact skalds: the rise of Christian eulogies, with their differently abled access to and display of affect, and the change of the skald's relationship to his lord to a family-based one, in which the skald was connected to royal families through systems of fosterage and marriage. In the case of each of these large-scale historical changes, Goeres argues from particular examples. Chapter four, "Elegy, Hagiography, and Advice to Princes," reads skaldic verse about King Óláfr Haraldsson of Norway, whose spiritual status also resulted in considerable worldly authority for his successors. Goeres comments on the work of two skalds who "demonstrate how the memory of the royal saint could be manipulated to serve contemporary political concerns" (113). Her fifth chapter, "Divided Loyalties," zeroes in on Arnórr jarlaskáld, who is associated with the Orkney Islands where he spent most of his adult life. Most of Arnórr's verse is found in the "political sagas," where a tough relationship of both resonance and resistance to the outlier's nominal overlord is developed. Goeres reads the memorial poems of Arnórr as "almost unique" (148) in the corpus of skaldic poetry, for they commemorate his own two combative kin, one of whom kills the other. Goeres suggests that Arnórr's memorial verse "problematizes the division of public and private forms of memory discussed elsewhere in this book" (148). Once again, Goeres proves herself to be not only a good reader of the skalds, but also an incisive commentator on skaldic production itself and on its own marked self-consciousness. In this instance, Goeres states that, besides telling his audience of the deeds of the jarl, expected of memorial poetry, Arnórr "comments on the relationship between the act of composition and his own grief caused by the jarl's death" (157).

The conclusion of Goeres's monograph is compact (171-174). In it, Goeres sets out the themes that have emerged from her study in terms so general that they sometimes barely do justice to all the intellectual work that she has accomplished. It is true that she has shown that there is "a wide range of commemorative verse" in "Viking-Age poetry" (171) and that poetic commemoration is "a complex and multifaceted task" (172). But some of Goeres's most interesting points--like changes to the role of the skald "as new ideologies of rulership are adopted" (172)--are packed off as quickly as they are introduced. Though this monograph presents a literary, not an historical, analysis, the problems of rulership and its morphology shadow nearly all of the skaldic verse Goeres probes. Perhaps a more comprehensive statement about this topic would have been in order in Goeres's conclusion.

Nevertheless, if the conclusion seems slight, that is only because the work done by Goeres in this monograph has been so full. Goeres knows the skalds well, from manuscript to critical edition, and, further, she knows how to frame them in terms of the important, productive theories of medieval memory and commemoration. And many asides in this monograph index comparanda from the corpus of Viking-era poetry in the British Isles. What strikes one, too, is that Goeres is a reader with a sensitive comprehension of skaldic verse, and not just a technician whose drier aim is to decode verse-forms so often said to be difficult that that description itself has been emptied of meaning. So, Goeres's monograph opens with an epigraph from a verse by the Icelandic-born, then North American poet Káinn (or K.N., pseudonyms of Kristján Niels Júlíus Jónsson, 1860-1936). The introduction and each chapter thereafter (excluding the "Conclusion") begin with quotations (often excerpts from poems, though Chapter 3, "Changing Patrons," starts with a quotation from Finnur Jónsson) that highlight and thread their ways that chapter's discussion. Far from being decorative flourishes, these quotations are strategic prologues, pulling the reader in actively, as Goeres has argued throughout is a tactic of skaldic commemorative verse. The quotations may hint, too, at another modest, but refreshing insight: that skaldic poetry is, well, poetry.

Erin Michelle Goeres certainly has much more to say about skaldic verse, as this astute monograph makes plain. Though the "Acknowledgements" state that this title is "a thoroughly revised and updated version" of Goeres's doctoral thesis (supervised by Professor Heather O'Donoghue, Linacre College, Oxford, by the way), this book offers a good deal more than that genre often does. Not a book to be read quickly, The Poetics of Commemoration: Skaldic Verse and Social Memory, c. 890-1070 repays re-reading because of Goeres's invigorating scrutiny of important examples of skaldic verse and the broader theories she brings to bear on memorial structures, both physical and poetic. Goeres has contributed a great deal to the field of medieval studies by way of her probing account of Viking-Age skaldic verse. Hers is a book to read and to be stirred by.

-------- Note: 1. From Roberta Frank, Old Norse Court Poetry: The Dróttkvaett Stanza (Islandica 42; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 120.

Copyright (c) 2017 Sarah Anderson

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login