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22.08.20 Heslop, Viking Mediologies

22.08.20 Heslop, Viking Mediologies

Skaldic verse is famously intricate in form, structure, and language; its content, for the most part (albeit with some prominent exceptions), comprising encomia to rulers and warriors, “a body of exquisite, intricate poetry almost entirely devoted to the celebration of violence” (135). Because of the difficulties it poses--with regard to authorship, transmission, authenticity, and perhaps most fundamental of all, comprehension--it has received comparatively little sophisticated literary analysis, with the bulk of the scholarly tradition being concerned with what might be considered these basic philological problems. Unlike Old Norse prose, for example, or the main verse traditions in other European vernaculars, skaldic poetry has been examined relatively less frequently as poetry: a species of literature distinguished both for its specificities of form as well as, and no less importantly, for the concentrated emotive or imaginative or experiential intensity intended to be communicated in the first instance through its oral performance. This aspect of skaldic verse has, of course, long been recognised to exist, but has been rather overshadowed by incredibly dry and sometimes rebarbatively technical studies of the how of the corpus rather thanwhat it actually does.

In this profoundly erudite and beautifully written book, Kate Heslop shows us that skaldic verse--like, indeed, much other poetry--acts as intermediary between lived experience as witnessed (according to the claims of the poet) by the composer of the verse, and the imagination of the verse’s audience. It does so by recreating in form, language, metaphor, and narrative content the witnessed experience as memory, sound, image, presented in a rush of words the intricacy and complexity of which serve not least to recreate the thrill of battle and the glory of the subject of the poem, neither of which can easily be expressed or understood in more prosaic form. As an argument--which I have admittedly reproduced in very much boiled-down form and rather clumsily--there isn’t anything especially new about this: we’ve always known that this is what skaldic verse does. What most of us have rarely been able to articulate, even if in the recesses of our consciousness we have somehow perceived it, is the ways in which the methods of the poetry--the technical aspects--have served its literary purposes; and one of the best things about Heslop’s book is the wonderful masterclass it provides in marrying the traditional tools of narrowly-defined philology with a wide range of theoretical impulses in the service of what philology ought to be: the study of texts from the most basic, lexical level upwards to the depths of their intellectual and emotive content, revealing the layers of meaning that can be wrung from the texts by a sensitive and highly-trained reader such as Heslop. All of this is provided in accessible prose that presumes pretty much no knowledge on the part of the reader of Old Norse or its literary or linguistic history, making this a rare work of scholarship on skaldic verse that can (and hopefully will) be read with profit even by those who are not Scandinavianists.

Heslop’s premise is that skaldic verse came into being in a period in which Scandinavian cultures were increasingly in contact with their neighbours and underwent processes of internal transformation leading to more hierarchical social structures and the need or desire for varying and different displays of power and patronage comparable to what was experienced in those neighbouring regions. This form of verse was to provide a greater access to memory in posterity and the recreation of the glory of the verse’s subjects than was possible through, for example, runic inscriptions or more traditional verse forms. Skaldic verse became a medium interceding not just between past and present, but equally between gift and patronage, between cultures in contact and at war, and between different media intending to recreate or preserve memories of events and experiences.

In the first part of the book, Heslop examines the ways in which skaldic poetry--in these chapters primarily Ynglingatal, a poem often thought of as genealogical and/or satirical concerning the more-or-less mythological Swedish ancestors of Norwegian kings--relates to places of memory: rather than being a reflex of a putative ancient Germanic tradition of genealogical poetry related to king-lists, it “constructs a spatial mnemonic, where the kings’ dead bodies make sites of memory and live on in local place-lore” (71). The poem is a means of preserving and passing on that lore in a more permanent, performative medium, and in a metrical form that is also, Heslop argues, relatively new. Ynglingatal is thus to be understood as a response to cultural change that seeks to preserve ancient memorial traditions regarding place, rather than biological descent, and this act of preservation is not intended to aid in a recreation of a glorious past but rather encourages its audience to engage with a past that is already in ruins, and is “as much about the how of remembering as it is about thewhat” (19). This analysis of Ynglingatal is productively framed by a brief consideration of the Rök stone runic inscriptions, which Heslop sees as originating in a roughly similar milieu, both influenced by contact with the Carolingian Frankish world, both creating, in stone and in words, a monumental emulation of the architecture of the Carolingians as a means of conjuring up and displaying a comparable sense of a glorious past.

The second part of this book moves to examining ekphrastic poetry, but frames this analysis not as a study of equivalency between the verbal and the graphic, instead considering the use of ekphrasis as another means of creating an emotive and experiential effect in the reception of a poetic performance. Classical theories of ekphrasis are used productively to show that its use in Old Norse has comparable significance and sophistication, and the poet’s interpretation of the image opens up the possibility of recognising (and I would go further than Heslop explicitly does and say re-cognising in the sense of coming to know again, and thus possibly in a richer manner or from a fresh perspective) the narrative content of the image in a different way. While largely based on readings of the Prose Edda, this chapter is greatly enriched by Heslop’s insightful references to a range of other cultural interlocutors of the viking-age and medieval Scandinavian poets and theorists, from Augustine to the twelfth-century schoolmen.

The last part of this book, perhaps the most innovative and original in a work that is highly innovative and original throughout, considers skaldic verse as organised sound. Skaldic verse is alliterative, and heavily so; the complexity of its internal rhymes are a large part of its complexity and allure. And it is about noise: the sound of battle, the clash of sword against shield, the whistling of spear through the air, the crushing of bone and the crashing of wood. The sound of the poetry itself is evocative of its subject, and one does not have to understand a word of Old Norse to appreciate the sonic power of this verse form. Yet it has not normally been studied as sound. Drawing on insights from developmental psychology and music theory, Heslop argues that the intensifying interest in rhythm in early medieval music and musicology was equally reflected in skaldic verse and Old Norse poetics, and the verse form of the skalds is the beginning of a trajectory leading towards “the condition of music” (159). She is able to demonstrate--effectively, in my view; but I’m possibly biased--the extent to which at least thinking about poetics in the Old Norse world can be compared with, and was influenced by, thinking about rhythm, metre, and music in Latinate Europe; Old Norse poetics thus should be understood very much as a distinct but not discrete subset within a European tradition.

Although I’ve produced dozens of reviews, I found this book hard to write about effectively. It has a depth and richness to it that is impossible for me to do more than nod toward. Its techniques range from examining the etymology of words, a practice grounded in a deep knowledge of Old Norse and comparative Germanic philology, to the productive engagement with theories of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Marshall McLuhan; its scholarly interlocutors range from the philological heavyweights such as Roberta Frank and Edith Marold through German expounders of theories of Medialität like Christian Kiening to scholars of medieval Latin intellectual history such as Mary Carruthers and it draws thus on an intellectual hinterland to which that of most Anglophone scholarship in this field cannot begin to compare; its analyses are based on immersion not just in Old Norse skaldic verse and poetic theory, but equally in (Latin) theories of memory, musicology, and poetics. The density of Heslop’s erudition is belied by the easy elegance of her prose, but will repay multiple readings to digest fully the implications of her arguments.

Two, however, I will highlight here as being of fundamental importance in bringing the study of skaldic verse within the ambit of the study of European literary traditions more generally. The first is the acceptance without question, indeed as a given, of the fact that Old Norse literature, including skaldic verse, was not solely or even primarily a purely “native” tradition: it was at every level open to influences from outside, which it absorbed and to which it responded in ways that were productive and indeed constitutive of its very being. I state this more explicitly than Heslop, but that this is a premise of her study is apparent from the imbrication into her analysis of non-Scandinavian traditions of thought throughout. The second implication of her arguments is more explicit, but raised only briefly as a look forward to where further scholarship might go: the suggestion that a medieval mediology of skaldic poetry would take into consideration also textual variance, and the hope that this book’s arguments might result in “a less stable, static, and authorial, and a more dynamic, processual, and collaborative understanding of skaldic poetry” (12). That such an understanding goes to the very heart of what we think skaldic verse is, is suggested by her preliminary soundings of the corpus which reveal to her a mouvance possibly greater than that found by Keith Busby in his examination of three thousand manuscripts of Old French verse, which encompasses, moreover, variations even of the components of kennings. This is revolutionary talk; anyone who takes even a cursory look at the volumes of the monumental skaldic editing project (with which Heslop has been involved for years, having also been taught and supervised by many of its leading editors) will see, from how different a view of skaldic poetry is presented there, how revolutionary this is. Having argued (albeit far less cogently or elegantly) in a similar vein regarding both skaldic verse and Old Norse literature in general over a decade ago, I am naturally heartened by such arguments from others, and I would urge everyone in Old Norse studies to follow Heslop and embrace this openness to the world (medieval and modern) of literature and ideas outside Scandinavia, and to the possibility of dynamism as a component of tradition. I am delighted that the fruits of such openness have been revealed in a manner far more skilled, with far more enriching and stimulating results, than I could ever have hoped possible. This is a wonderful book. Read it.