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  • Hallgrímur Pétursson and the Icelandic Baroque
  • Shaun F. D. Hughes
Icelandic Baroque: Poetic Art and Erudition in the Works of Hallgrímur Pétursson. By Margrét Eggertsdóttir. Translated by Andrew Wawn. Islandica, 56. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library, 2014. Pp. xii + 558. $65.

This volume is a meticulous and elegant translation of a revised and up-dated version of the author’s doctoral dissertation, “Barokkmeistarinn: List og lærdómur í verkum Hallgríms Péturssonar”.1 The volume examines the work of Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–74), one of the most beloved of Icelandic poets. Previous studies of Hallgrímur’s work have tended to interpret it from a theological or biographical point of view.2 Icelandic Baroque, on the other hand, places Hallgrímur squarely in the middle of the literary concerns of Lutheran Europe in the seventeenth century, while at the same time emphasizing that he is equally comfortable with traditional Icelandic poetic genres and stylistic aesthetics, writing hymns that would have been appreciated in Copenhagen, Stockholm, or Berlin, but also composing rímur (metrical romances) that would have completely baffled the same audiences. Margrét Eggertsdóttir spent the academic year 1991–92 at the Eberhard Karls Universität in Tübingen, academic home of Wilhelm Friese (1924–2008) who had published a very influential book on what he termed Scandinavian Baroque poetry.3 From 1970 to 1992, Tübingen was also the academic home of Wilfried Barner (1937–2014), whose book on Baroque rhetorics has left a palpable trace [End Page 244] on Icelandic Baroque, although it is not cited in the bibliography, probably because its insights have become commonplaces.4 Even though Professor Friese was by this time emeritus, Tübingen was the place to be for a young scholar interested in the European baroque. The term “baroque,” applied to the literature of the seventeenth century, has become a somewhat contentious concept in literary studies, and in Germany the term “frühe Neuzeit” (early modern period) seems to have taken over from “Barock.”5 However, Margrét Eggertsdóttir does not use the term prescriptively or dogmatically. It is to be understood rather as a convenient way to signal the shared background and concerns of seventeenth-century Lutheran writers in the German-speaking lands and Scandinavia. What was going on in Anglican England and the Catholic rest of Europe at the same time would be an interesting follow-up, but the situation in those areas has little immediate bearing on the concerns of the present study.

The most important single finding of Margrét Eggertsdóttir’s research is to demonstrate conclusively that at this time Icelandic intellectuals were not isolated from the theological and literary concerns of mainland Europe. If there is a “dark ages” in Icelandic literary history, then it surely is the seventeenth century.6 While the name and works of one or two prominent figures are known (but not necessarily read), the vast majority of the copious output of the period lies still unpublished in manuscript, and the editions that do exist are of very uneven quality. The poetry is often extraordinarily dense, with kennings and other figures of speech thickening the verse until it is virtually incomprehensible, yet there is no dictionary of poetic terms or other handbooks to assist the researcher in making sense of what is there. When scholars do not know what is in the literature, nor its extent, nor its concerns, then sometimes serious mistakes in analysis may occur. Take for example the case of the anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup’s Nature and Policy in Iceland 1400–1800, where she comes to the conclusion that the Icelanders suffered from “‘Uchronia’ . . . an ever-living dream of another time,”7 and that [End Page 245] the country was “in a state of event-poverty,” in which history was experienced but not produced.8 Nothing could be further from the actual state of affairs, and Icelandic Baroque makes it impossible for such views to have currency any longer. But this is only a first step. There are many other authors from the period who deserve first to have...


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