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23.03.20 Frank, The Etiquette of Early Northern Verse

23.03.20 Frank, The Etiquette of Early Northern Verse

The Etiquette of Early Northern Verse is the rare academic book whose style perfectly matches the excitement its subject raises for the author. One of its main goals is to show readers how sparks may fly when two of the major bodies of early medieval Germanic verse, both notoriously flinty, are struck together for side-by-side comparison. And sparks do fly, with largely illuminating results. The book opens with a lament--that Northern verse is often seen as belated, outmoded, and discontinuous with the poetry that came after 1066. Old English and Old Norse are counted out of the tradition of English literature because of temporal and dispositional remoteness. In ring-composition fashion, the book ends with a moving reflection on the efforts of scientists to reanimate frozen flowers long locked in the glaciers of Siberia. Frank writes, “to restore an alien poetry to a state even partially resembling its former self, to recall it into its stalk and leaves once more, has been the goal of these chapters” (162). She aims “to set two early alliterative corpora side by side, and listen, as they slowly reveal their craft secrets” (xvi).

In the book’s three chapters, readers are invited to join her in sitting and listening, rapt, to two things: first, a breath-taking assembly of skaldic and Old English poetic analogues; and second, to Frank’s own rhapsodic style. For someone who wants to bring dead bones of poetry back to life, Frank walks the talk. The book is a pleasure to read, thanks to its style, accessibility, and the way she makes these remote and arcane poetries and poetics feel modern and fresh through her treatment and juxtaposition, much like the allusive and paratactic style of the poems themselves (xxiv). For even as it deals with bones as dry as metrical scansion, the niceties of skaldic alliteration, and internal rhyme schemes, the study is enlivened as Frank flexes her own style, gracefully interleaving adroit assessments of early medieval poetry with references to style as far-flung as Thelonius Monk, the Marx Brothers, Humpback Whale song, and early hip-hop artists. Along similar lines, even the endnotes can be delightful, as in footnote 29 from the introduction: “the following section could be headed “Introduction,” but nobody reads an introduction, and I wanted these pages to be read. I admit this in an endnote, because no one reads endnotes either.”

The next three chapters take up the task of comparing and elucidating the inner workings of Old English and Old Norse skaldic poetry. The first chapter presents “The Rules of the Game,” providing an overview of the poetic rules and tendencies that make these two poetries tick. Frank describes the formal metrical and alliterative systems generally, but also emphasizes their shared stylistic tendencies towards terseness and aloofness. Among the highlights of the chapter are her insightful demonstrations of close reading of kennings (18-19), and her close readings of dróttkvæt stanzas (23-26), which are outright pyrotechnic. Such moments make this chapter valuable to students and scholars alike, as they emphasize the continuity with later English poetries that is often denied when we strand these early northern poetries from the rest of “English Literature.” The book is at its best when it is comparing these two traditions to elucidate how they differ in manners (or when they agree on them), as in the illuminating discussion of the passage in Beowulf on Hrothgar’s “bedfellow” (29-35).

After establishing the basics for how these poetries work, the second chapter searches for “Secrets of the Line.” Among this chapter’s strengths is the argument that incidental metrical and sonic ornamentations are not always mere accidents generated by formal constraints; that we should at least consider them as possibly purposeful on part of skalds and scops. I appreciate the notion that oral audiences may have been capable of processing complicated poetic sound effects and teasing out unstated implications from them; I think we do well to treat people from other times (as well as cultures) as our peers in terms of sophistication. Like Hrothgar examining an ancient hilt for signs of ornament that bear greater depth of meaning, Frank holds skaldic stanzas up to the light to see what else they may be saying through half-rhyme, double alliteration, and cross-alliteration. Such sound effects have sometimes been discounted as accidents of the skaldic line. Yet despite Frank’s heroic effort in reading these secret runes, the results are mixed: sometimes her analysis is valiant, and sheds new light on skaldic and Old English stylistics, as in her reading of Genesis A (38) or the highly insightful reading (100) of Sigvatr’s use of the novel sound “p” to mark newness, foreignness, and Christian-ness in his post-Conversion stanzas. At other times, however, the readings seem less plausible, as in the lengthy section (53-60) on internal rhyme, or when it is suggested that, near the close of Beowulf, as Wiglaf’s mail-coat is described, the inversion of the alliterative sequence h h-s h b “as the young hero enters the dragon’s cave” was meant to subliminally signal the word herebyrne to audiences (82-83).

The third and final chapter is titled, “Accentuating the Negative,” and takes up the reticence, reserve, and other litotic habits that mark these bodies of poetry. Frank provides a useful survey of politeness in the form of ironic understatement and convoluted double (or more) negation. In her own concluding words, “this third chapter has surveyed the codes of reticence held in common by both skald and Old English poet, a shared etiquette of negation, indirection, and understatement, a laconic insouciance that encouraged audiences to read between half-lines, to hear what was not said” (161). The third chapter is especially fruitful, as it illustrates how “poetry tattles on society” (xviii), as when she observes that dróttkvæt poetry seems to grow increasingly litotic “in the last quarter of the tenth century” alongside a growth in Old English audiences, thanks to the Danish kings then sitting upon England’s throne (131).

In the end, this book offers a provocative and energetic model of how poetic and stylistic analyses might help excavate the attitudes and manners of the people who produced and enjoyed these seemingly distant bodies of poetry. In its boldness, it takes risks. Some of these pay off handsomely, while others are less successful. Since this volume originated as a series of lectures, it reads wonderfully, but is not as schematic or thorough in describing the myriad intricacies of the Old Norse poetry as, say, Kari Ellen Gade’s volume on The Structure of Old Norse Dróttkvæt Poetry; Frank’s description of how Old English poetry functions is similarly cursory. One would need the trifecta of Terasawa, Gade, and Frank to do these forms full justice with advanced students. [1] That said, the volume makes a remarkable and vibrant supplement to these other more traditional volumes.

In a volume as fascinating and compelling as this one is, one other peccadillo should be noted. While the volume’s very premise and execution do wonders for getting readers to consider these poetic forms as living and performed things, its engagement with scholarship that draws on Oral Formulaic Theory (OFT) is strikingly minimalist, a couple of brief stray gestures to scholars like Jeff Opland, John Miles Foley, and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe is about the full extent of the book’s engagement with this subfield. At least a bibliographic nod to recent entries in that corpus of scholarship would be a great aid to readers who, drawn in by the warmth and joy of her prose, wish to go further in exploring the orality and formulaicity of these verbal art forms, especially on pages 74-75. [2] Along similar lines, the section devoted to the Beasts of Battle motif (60-64) seemed to overlook recent studies that consider the sonic and emotional valences of this motif in Exodus and other works. Again, the lack of engagement with recent scholarship is likely due to the nature of this work. As the introduction reveals, it began over a decade ago as a lecture series, and this fact helps account for the occasional visible gaps in bibliographic coverage after about 2012.

Despite this, the book is a valuable contribution to formal study of these early northern poetries, and a highly enjoyable read--something seldom said about works on this topic. The book’s introduction, first, and third chapters provide a wonderful overview of how Old English and Old Norse dróttkvæt poetry function, and how fruitful comparing them can be. Its close readings are, by and large, excellent models of how formal analysis of alliterative poetry illuminates both corpora of poetry. The second chapter provides provocative and challenging close readings that merit consideration, whether or not one is convinced in the end. I will certainly be assigning portions of this book to graduate students in years to come, as it models a fruitful and enjoyable form of close reading rooted in philological rigor that shows great promise in reinvigorating the disciplinary approach. And I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to go beyond a mechanical understanding of these complex and aloof poetries, for I think Frank succeeds in resurrecting these extinct strangers for us, bringing them a measure of the life and liveliness that they must have held for generations of Old English and Old Norse speakers.



1. Kari Ellen Gade, The Structure of Old Norse Dróttkvæt Poetry, Islandica 49 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); Jun Terasawa, An Introduction to Old English Metre, Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series, 7 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).

2. Such as Mr. Frog and William Lamb, eds., Weathered Words: Formulaic Language and Verbal Art, Publications of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 6 (Harvard University Press, 2022).