STEPHAN G. STEPHANSSON (1853-1927)
by H. Milnes.
OCTOBER THE THIRD this year was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the poet, Stephan G. Stephansson. He lived most of his life in Canada, yet few Canadians outside of our Icelandic community have ever heard of him. Icelanders, here and in Iceland, consider him one of the greatest men they have ever produced, and in the West he is affectionately referred to as "Stephan G."— his name has become a household word.
At nineteen he came to this continent from Iceland, attempted the pioneer life in Wisconsin and North Dakota, and finally settled near Markerville, Alberta, where he remained from 1889 until his death in 1927. In the early days he worked in the bush and on the railway, but it was farming he settled down to, raising crops and stock as well as a large family.
If that were the whole story, it would not be surprising, and would sound like the outline of a full life. But it is a second "full" life he led that makes him of intense interest. He arrived in this country soaked in the lore and literature of Iceland, and fired by an urge to write creatively which is not uncommon among his countrymen. Laura G. Salverson has described the same urge working on her father, a saddler fresh from Iceland, in her Confessions of an Immigrant's Daughter.
Manual and intellectual work are reconcilable for Icelanders, and they have a special chapter-heading in their literary histories for "Farmer-Poets". The farming does not suffer under this arrangement—the poet merely cuts down on sleep, and so Stcphan's six ample volumes of poetry are fittingly named Wakeful Nights. The letters and essays he wrote by burning more of the midnight oil fill another four large volumes. All ten volumes are in Icelandic. And yet Stephan considered himself primarily a working man rather than an intellectual, and once turned down an invitation to join the Canadian Authors' Association by explaining this fact. In 1899 he wrote a quatrain about his activities which might be called "Pioneer Jack-of-all-trades":
For years 'twas I that had to preach,
To read the law and act the nurse;
I ran the forgo, ruled, had to teach —
Was not just cart and plough, but horse!
He managed, after his full load of farm work, to make at least a nodding acquaintance with such figures as Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Goethe, Heine, Ibsen, Hugo, Maeterlinck. Zola. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Tolstoi, Turgeniev, Gorki, Marx, Wagner and a host of others. He translated into Icelandic pieces by Burns, Longfellow, Carman, Kipling and Service, and wrote poems in honor of Robert Ingersoil, St. Patrick, Dreyfus, Wilfrid Laurier and Eugene Debs, as well as a wide range of contemporary, historical and mythological Scandinavian figures.
Through it all Stephan G. does not become less an Icelander, any more than Hugh MacDiarmid becomes less a Scotsman through extension of cultural ties. In fact, he has an intimate way, related to the genius of his native language, of acclimatizing foreign names to his latitudes. Mrs. Salverson, mentioned above, and Nellie McClung become somehow a bit more Icelandic as "our Solvasoti." and "Knella." The great Prairie river is the "Saskat-sjuan," and the railway becomes the "Sipiar" (C.P.R.). In one poem he disguises the Titanic as "Skessan" (the giantess), and Heine, Goethe and Theodore Roosevelt are adopted into his realm as Haenir, Gauti and Rosfell minn (my dear Rosehill).
By the time he was sixteen, Stephan was writing verses in the traditional Icelandic forms, of which a variety lay ready to his hand. The normal graces of poetry included, besides meter and rhyme much as we know them, the ancient device of alliteration which was never eclipsed in Iceland as it was in England and Germany. In subject matter too, Stephan began by following paths marked out by tradition. He wrote eloquent poems about his natural surroundings in both original and adopted homelands. Here is a sample, "Hermit Mountain," translated by Paul Bjarnason of Vancouver, a Canadian-Icelandic poet in his own right:
Lone Peak rears his bust to the beautiful sky,
And the bullrushes look on astounded.
The copsewood refuses to clamber so high
And the creepers lose footing around it.
And though the cold blasts ever beat without ruth
On his brow, in the strife he engages,
Unconquered he stands, as if courage and truth
Were carved from the rock of the ages.
In a poem approaching epic size, he set down his own pioneering experiences. Then there arc any number of little poems where he crystallized a perception or feeling about some homey incident, for Icelandic poetry traditionally has a recognized place in daily life. For example, it was natural for the community to call on him for a poem on the national holiday, August 2. and it is one of these Icelanders' Day poems of his, written in 1904, that has entered Icelandic anthologies as a national favorite. Again, where the Irishman holds a wake, it is standard procedure for the Icelander to compose a poem, either celebrating the fine qualities of the dead friend, or setting down the feelings of those who have to adjust to the absence of a loved one. Stephan wrote many of these, including two to his sons Jon and Gestur, who died young.
One of his friends, a noted wrestler, asked if he couldn't please have his memorial poem before he died, and Stephan complied. Here is the last verse of "Lucky Bjarni":
Well, when he finally does depart,
I expect there'll be speeches, but say —
Do you think he'll get any wrestling in,
Or much fun from the verses that day?
Icelanders associate poetry with certain other everyday situations, such as leave-takings. Stephan called the collection of his versified greetings "Stirrup Cups," and often ended a friendly letter with a similar poem.
While it never detracted from his interest in the affairs of daily life, Stephan came to take a poetic and philosophic interest in current world issues. The first step in his development was evidently from orthodoxy to a youthful scepticism. At the ripe old age of 22 he wrote this poem, entitled "Progress":
When young I held all sorts of beliefs,
As many a child has done.
But doubting came on me with age —
And now I don't hold one!
He moved on to adopt strong, consistent and utterly uncompromising views which, in the fields of religion and politics, kept his critics in Winnipeg and Iceland hopping most of his life. There arc two things about his religious convictions that mark him apart from the crowd: first, he was not connected in any orthodox way with the church, and second, he did not pretend to be. Both peculiarities are shown in a note written after a critic had stated that his religious position was "obscure": "This misses the point, because any Christian can see that I am a heathen and an atheist."
Stephan's religious views are clearly shown in his poem "Eloi Lamina Sabakhthani," and the Icelandic critic Sigurdur Nordal puts the shoe on the right foot when he says that no one can read and understand this poem without realizing that something serious was wrong with the church which claimed to be Christ's, but which could not attract to it a man with the qualities of Stephan G. Stephansson. This poem, which runs to 27 verses, has been fittingly translated into English by Paul Bjarnason referred to above, and may be made available to English readers, along with other important works, in the near future.
As for politics, he was a socialist "in his very bones," from a strong feeling for social justice. In the evening, after work was done, he could sit and look around his farm and conjure up visions that would be more easily understood coming to an urban labor leader. The following is a stanza from his famous poem "Evening," written in 1899:
And then I see the black abyss
Where working men arc on their knees,
As the indolent and greedy live on their plight
Like rot at the roots of the yew;
They don't let the common man guide his own fate,
He is ruled and misled by the few.
In Stephan's poetry, the powerful social note arises almost automatically, as if in response to the excellence of nature around him. In his "Toast to Alberta" he records the natural beauty of his beloved environment, and goes on to frame the wish that human life may be correspondingly beautiful:
Thy glorious valleys widen down
Through straths and shining passes,
By shelter belts of forest brown
And hollows warm with grasses,
To a mighty plain of green, that wakes
In a wind that laughs and quivers,
Fringed with a hundred azure lakes,
Embroidered bright with rivers.
Here veils of Northern Light arc drawn
On high as winter closes,
And hoary dews at summer dawn
Adorn the wild red roses.
Sometimes the swelling clouds of rain
Blot out the sun's caresses;
But soon the mountains smile again
And shake their icy tresses.
Young mother, like thy encircling hills,
Watch ever, free and tender.
Over an exiled life that thrills
A foster-love to render;
But let thy mountain guards advance,
Let ice like steel assure thee
Against the rich man's arrogance
And poverty's pale fury.
(Translated by Watson Kirkconnell)
- Stephan claimed two virtues for himself: the ability to advance, and the strength to hold the ground he gained. These were no empty boasts: he certainly came a long way, and was nothing if not outspoken in voicing and defending his independently-formed views, even though they found little resonance outside of the Icelandic community. In 1921. six years before his death, he analyzed the "crisis of human intellect" in these terms:
Men have no faith in the status quo, which is obviously on the point of breaking down. But they are frightened out of their skins at any change that may be suggested to improve things, so that no one has really given serious consideration to the question of basic reforms, except the Russian communists. Christ saw existing conditions, and spoke out, though in fact he discovered little that other good men before him had not run into. But he could not work out any arrangement for putting his message into practice except individual idealism. Ages later another jew, Rail Marx, tried to give practical form to this divine vision, and since then the socialists—the weak and despised, the working folk and the common people—have tried to push in this direction. But the secular world of intellect (we would probably say today the Western World—ll.M.) rejected both Christ and Karl.
There is no doubt that the main factor in fixing this judgment of his on society was his experience of wars and rumors of wars. He reacted violently against the Boer War, and the principle of exploitation he saw behind the facade of empire. The last lines of his poem "Transvaal" are:
English gold will rot before
The fight for freedom can be stilled.
His attitude towards the Great War is shown in this quatrain from 1916:
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!
(Translated by Watson Kirkconnell)
In a large body of poetry, Stephan came to grips with the Great War. He chose as his heroes those men from both of the opposing sides who suffered for sticking to the principle of working-class solidarity, like Jean Jaurès, Karl Liebknecht, and Keir Hardie, who are referred to in the following excerpts from the sustained poem, "Armistice," written in 1915, and translated by Paul Bjarnason:
And what has been the fate of faithful leaders,
The few who would not break their solemn pledges
For peace, and gamely stood by their convictions?
One simply falls a prey to the assassin.
Another is maligned among his fellows
And duly charged with treason, and convicted.
A third, gone mad, avoided and abandoned,
With aimless tread is hobbling to oblivion.
The Roman prince himself who rules, on paper,
Complaining says: 'Behold the man, ye judges!'
In this poem more fully than in any other, Stephan spelled out his opposition to the war. At the time, it became the centre of the controversy that raged about him both here and in Iceland. But he drew persona' satisfaction from the fact that in Iceland, where feelings were mixed, he was attacked just as fiercely by the pro-Germans as by the pro-Allies.
As a literary man, Stephan considered he had a stake in the fortunes of the printed word, and his outrage at the editorial practices of wartime, which we are all too familiar with today, almost matched his hatred of war itself. Here is the last stanza of a hitter poem directed to editors:
I sat there conscience-stricken
And crushed out the last little qualm:
I falsified news and excused my own side
And beat the drums of war!
In another mood, he evidently tried to shame these journalists into honesty of reporting. In the following selection, playful in tone, the original brings in a mock heroic reference to a legendary sword. The name Trygvi refers to an actual figure in (he Winnipeg-Icelandic world of journalism:
The Germans arc attacked in force,
There can be no retreating!
When Trygvi takes the British side
The Germans take a beating.
Of course Stephan became a target for patriotic journalists. But he made a conscientious attempt to answer every charge, with the result that a considerable portion of his collected works is given over to vigorous polemics at all levels, right down to the scathing personal satire which lias enjoyed such popularity among Gaels and Icelanders. He was a man to hew to the line and let the chips fall where they may.
Let us take a look at his poetry: Stephan is seldom a mere rhymer. There is a rich and powerful imaginative structure that can be made out as a unifying factor, operating behind the most varied of his works, as there is in the case of Heine, who is in this respect a kindred spirit. The similarity has to do with the tools poetic genius works with. Stephan had no formal schooling. But, in growing up, lie naturally assimilated a large, rich, mythological tradition — the legendary and semi-historical cycles of the North. From childhood on he was soaked in Biblical lore, often taken in much the same spirit as the Norse mythology. And in more mature years he acquainted himself with Greek mythology. In his poetic work these three complexes served him as a triple reservoir on which he could draw to give immediate, plastic and compelling form to his perceptions. With all this material at his finger-tips, Stephan could create new bits of mythology just as he needed them.
For instance, the most natural thing for him to do in a poem characterizing Thorstein Erlingsson, a poet he admired, was to present contrasting pictures of Thorstein, first ill at ease among the famous at the court of the Muses, and then happy as a lark out on a dreamy hillside, blowing the pipes of Fan. These two tableaux make up the whole poem. In a verse aimed at the operations of marriage bureaus, he has Cupid selling-lottery tickets, and bawling like a barker on the midway.
He drew so widely and frequently on Northern sources, counting on his audience to know the lore off by heart just as he did, that it forms a real barrier to translation. And he did not mind mixing his complexes. In a poem setting out his attitude toward work he wraps up Idunn's golden apple of Norse mythological fame in the same package with the one Eve picked in the Garden of Eden. After a reference to the old-time Norse gods, he settles down to a man-to-man chat with Jehovah:
Jehovah, you just listen to me!
I can read you like a book:
That week you spent creating earth
Was the best you ever took.
He then goes on to explain to the Almighty that he now understands the expulsion from the Garden: Jehovah had figured out that a life of idleness wouldn't "have suited Adam and Eve in the long run because only through work could they get a chance at the pleasures of creativity. This sort of imagination works just as well in prose. Stephan could create little apocryphal bits of scripture, as we have seen him adding to the myth supply. In the following case the exalted style of "The Seventh Day." helps to emphasize the insignificance of the three butts of his joke:
In six days God created heaven and earth. He invented something new and different on each of those days, and on the seventh he rested. Or — it comes to the same thing —on the seventh he created echo, the priest and the editor.
The polemic possibilities of this technique, when applied to the subject of war, become apparent from this title alone: "When Christ Got to be an Army Chaplain." In other instances it is the relation between title and poem that brings out his intent, such as in "Political Reforms Promised in Time of War":
The devil went to confession
Shaking with colic.
He promised to reform
The entire system of health care and hospitalization.
He swore he would get at the roots
Of the trouble,
And, if luck would permit,
He would put God himself to shame.
The devil went to confession
Shaking with colic.
When this re-creation of myth is developed a stage further, the result can be a complete new parable in verse form, a sort of Stephanie myth. The poem "The Brothers' Destiny" is a fine example. It is probably his most profoundly "un-American" poem, because I have a feeling it is aimed at the profit motive itself. It relates how one brother dies prospecting for gold which is under a curse, while the other brother works the land and prepares abundance for future generations. The poem then becomes visionary, and looks to a time when people in general will be free to follow the example of the second brother. These lines from near the end of the poem were chosen to stand on the grave-stone to Stephan which was erected at Markerville:
To think not in years but in centuries,
Not to demand all the cash at the end of each day's work:
This is the way to enrich man's life.
We started out by observing how famous this unknown was, or, conversely, how little known this celebrity. We can now characterize him more accurately, still using paradox as a tool: this isolated farmer whose grasp spanned the world, this peace-lover nurtured on violent myth, this atheist so deeply imbued with Christian values, was probably the most extraordinary "common man" who ever made Canada his home.
NOTE: The cut on page 3 is after a bas-relief done by Rikard Jonsson in 1917, incorporated in a memorial unveiled this summer in Iceland.
- New Frontiers, Fall 1953.