STEPHANSSON: ICELAND'S POET LAUREATE IN CANADA
by David May
Despite a small population, harsh climate and relative obscurity among the nations of the world, Iceland is a fiercely literate country. One of Icelanders' literary shrines is the home — now being restored as an Alberta historic site — of Stephan Stephansson, described as the greatest Scandinavian poet since the Middle Ages. For more than 40 years he lived, farmed and wrote in Markerville, just north of Innisfail.
The Stephansson poems are now part of every Icelandic school student's education. Albertans and other Canadians — unaware of the outstanding poetry which, had it been written in English, could well have made him famous in this country — are just now beginning to hear the story of Stephansson, the gentle and articulate farmer-poet, buried in a small cemetery near Markerville.
For his contribution to Icelandic literature, his native country included him posthumously in a series of stamps commemorating 100 years of Icelandic immigration to North America.
Born on the rugged north coast of Iceland October 3, 1853, the son of a farmer, Stephansson migrated to the United States aged 19 to work as a farm laborer near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1874 he married Helga Jonson, the mother of eight Stephansson children and the person responsible for "maintaining the quiet climate necessary for her husband's creative talent." as one Stephansson admirer described it.
He spent nine years with the Icelandic community of Mountain in North Dakota, fighting to carve a farm out of the hardwood forests there. A typical Icelander in his love of debate, he got into many arguments with the Lutheran clergyman there. He flirted with the Free Thought movement, shocking the community's more conservative members by suggesting that differences between men and women might not be God-ordained after all.
I strongly suspect that the friction in the community and the ostracism he experienced further west, "says Jane McCracken, research historian with Alberta Culture and author of a soon-to-be-published paper on this fascinating literary figure.
Stephansson soon became an influential man in the Icelandic community once called Tindastoll (now Markerville) on the banks of the winding Medicine River. He set up his farm there in 1889, and over the years was to be justice of the peace, notary public, census-taker, a moving force behind the establishment of the local school, library, community hall, creamery and — despite his arguments with the clergy — the wooden Lutheran church that stands at the heart of the village to this day.
He and his wife, Helga, lived in Markerville for almost 40 years, raising five sons and three daughters. As in the United States, it was tough in Canada to make the transition from Icelandic ways. Farming techniques had to be radically re-thought.(Iceland, a country of thin topsoil, leans heavily on hay-cutting and raising dairy herds, not tilling the soil.) Even the architectural styles of the old country, where farmers built with lava blocks, had to give way to log cabin construction, a skill to be learned quickly, before prairie winters swept in.
But of all the Scandinavian immigrants the Western Icelanders were both the most adaptable yet the most jealous guardians of their old cultural values. They pooled manpower and resources, whether to farm or to gather books for a new library.
They learned English, but used it strictly in the school or on trips to sell produce in nearby Innisfail or in Red Deer: at home, in their group reading sessions and when writing to relatives. Icelandic was the working language.
Iceland still boasts one of the world's highest standards of literacy in a society where a poet was always considered "the equivalent of a movie star." says historian McCracken.
Stephansson had drawn notice as a poet even before his arrival in Canada. By the turn of the century, his poems and articles were appearing regularly in both the conservative and the liberal Icelandic-language newspapers in Winnipeg as well as in small literary publications.
He nicknamed his poems "sleepless nights," a title he later used for his first volume of collected works, published by friends and admirers in Winnipeg. The title is also an ironic comment on the insomnia that haunted most of his adult life. His father's death in 1881 may have started these sleep-stealing stomach problems; medical exams failed to detect any physical cause for the complaint.
Stephansson cured his pains by the simplest remedy he knew: work to exhaustion. He would farm all day, then write all night in his tiny study overlooking the Medicine River. When morning broke, he would head for the fields once again. He kept up this pace until, utterly exhausted, he would sleep for two days.
Some 2,000 Icelanders from the old country and from Western Icelandic communities in North America visit the old Stephansson farm every year, to stop in the famous study where he composed his works and perhaps to touch the handle of his water pump. Even in his own day, the little room was becoming something of a shrine. The poet finally had a photo taken of his desk, to satisfy many requests from those who could not make the trip west.
In 1917 Iceland named him poet laureate, and critics hailed him as the greatest Scandinavian bard since the Middle Ages. The government of Iceland arranged his trip back to the island and for three months he was feted like the national hero he was. even riding on horseback, something he had not done since childhood.
It was a difficult time, however, for the sensitive yet outspoken pacifist. He viewed the world war raging in Europe, not as "the war to end wars," but as simply another struggle between rival capitalist groups, with millions of ordinary men as their cannon fodder.
His poem In Wartime summarizes how he felt then:
In Europe's reeking slaughter-pen
They mince the flesh of murdered men.
While swinish merchants, snout in trough.
Drink all the bloody profits off!
Stephansson was a complex man. On the one hand, a passionate opponent to war. Yet an incident that brought death all too close to home reveals another side to the man.
The afternoon of July 16, 1909, was hot and thundery. Two of the poet's sons, Gestur and Jakob, were running home just ahead of the storm with their friend Bjorn Thorlakson. Gestur, aged 16, was the last of the three to reach the wire fence as the lightning struck. The boy died instantly. That night his father wrote the poem that Rosa Benediktson. Stephansson's sole surviving child, still believes is his best.
No evil force can overcome the good,
as eons prove, in spite of what might seem.
It lacks the moral strength or hardihood.
And heaven's lightning with its deadly beam
Was innocent of ill-intent, or wrath
As even you, who walked into its path.
Throughout his life, the tall, wiry Markerville farmer was known as a trusting man, a good neighbor and the backbone of his Icelandic village.
He died in Markerville August 10, 1927, aged 72. Shortly after, his widow Helga received the Royal Order of the Falcon from her homeland as a mark of their respect for the family's contribution to Icelandic culture.
Recognition from his adopted country of Canada came more slowly. In 1950 the federal government unveiled a cairn to him in the newly-named Stephansson Park close to the Medicine River he loved. In 1979 Alberta Culture began to work on the old Stephansson farm, now falling into a bad state of disrepair. By 1982 it should be restored to the peak condition of 1907.
The poet remains an enigmatic figure to this day; a poet writing in language so complex in its allusions that many modern Western Icelanders are hard put to catch all his turns of phrase. In the 30s, Canadian poet Watson Kirkconnell said Stephansson was "the greatest poet living in Canada." Kirkconnel was in a unique position to make that statement, being both a poet and fluent in Icelandic.
Stephansson's daughter agrees: her father's reputation would have been assured, she is certain, if only he had written in English.
Perhaps with the publication of McCracken's paper — expected to be available in the spring of 1981 — a revival of interest in Stephansson's massive writings could result in a full-scale English translation, perhaps as a project for a future anniversary.
- Alberta Magazine, July / August 1980.