Voices from the past: Occasional poetry as a historical source – University of Copenhagen

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Voices from the past: Occasional poetry as a historical source

The lecture is held by Dr Þórunn Sigurðardóttir, The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies.

Bring your lunch and we will provide coffee and tea. All interested are welcome. The talk will be in English.


In 1619, an Icelandic poet wrote a funeral elegy on behalf of his brother who had recently lost his young wife. The poem is, on the one hand, composed according to the rhetorical devices acquired by educated men in the Latin schools and universities of the time and, on the other, it follows traditional consolation techniques of Lutheran orthodoxy. However, one can trace in the poem the personal position of the poet, the bereft husband’s sentiments towards the deceased and get an idea about the general social conditions of the deceased woman.

These points might be called, in the theoretical spirit of Stephen Greenblatt, “a touch of the real“, or indications which literary critics and historians of the twenty-first century can use to probe the past. In this paper, it will be argued that occasional poetry can serve as an important historical source, using the tools of new historicism to analyse this particular poem, in order to cast a light on social conditions, attitudes, emotions and gender relations in the seventeenth century, at the same time as the text will be placed in its contemporary textual context.